Bauhaus Tour


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There was nothing nice about Bauhaus. The Bauhaus artists were in love with death and destruction. Sure, they wanted to build. But they wanted to build from a fresh pallet, a tabula rasa. They were militants when it came to art. Art, for them, wasn’t simply about beauty, or function, or form. Art was about everything. They would make art life and life art. And all of it would have clean lines and sharp angles. The whole world would be glass and steel. They would smash the universe into a better version of itself.

If nothing else, the audacity is to be admired. Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus school, once wrote in a manifesto:

Let us therefore create a new guild of craftsmen without the class-distinctions that raise an arrogant barrier between craftsmen and artists! Let us desire, conceive, and create the new building of the future together. It will combine architecture, sculpture, and painting in a single form, and will one day rise towards the heavens from the hands of a million workers as the crystalline symbol of a new and coming faith.

He was not joking. This was Weimar, Germany in the early 1920s after all. WWI had already gotten things well under way in terms of blowing the old world to bits. Nineteenth-century Europe, with its elaborate designs and essential decadence, was flopping around in its death throes. Everybody wanted to be cleansed. Bauhaus steps onto the scene like a giant washcloth. The art is totalizing. It is for everyone, everywhere. Class distinctions are to be wiped away. “Usefulness” is the new God. The Bauhaus artists want to return to essence, the essence of objects, the essence of man. Anything inessential therefore becomes the declared enemy. Josef Albers, a Bauhaus painter, says, “I consider ethics and aesthetics as one.” To create better design, better aesthetics, is to create a better world.

That was 90 years ago. Everything has changed since then. In fact, it didn’t take long for the Bauhaus dream to hit its snags. The first, and probably biggest snag went by the name National Socialism. By the early ’30s Bauhaus — under the directorship of architect Mies van der Rohe — was up against a political movement every bit as willing to smash the world and rebuild it in its own image. It turned out the Nazis were a lot more capable of fulfilling that promise. In 1933, the Bauhaus school was shut down. An era had ended.

But Bauhaus hung around. The beauty, the visceral impact, of many Bauhaus works continued to influence designers and builders of all kinds. The emigration of many Bauhaus artists to the U.S. kept the ideas alive. Bauhaus became emblematic of Modernism itself. To defend or attack Modernism meant dealing with Bauhaus.

And so it continues today. In Berlin, right now, is assembled the largest Bauhaus exhibit ever put together. It is being shown at the Martin-Gropius-Bau exhibition hall. The hall happens to abut the former headquarters of the Gestapo. The Berlin Wall used to run through the area. History is being exhumed here. Ghosts are being stirred up.

It is not surprising, then, that the current vision of Bauhaus is a kinder, gentler one. The hard, utopian edge of Bauhaus has been softened. In 1929, Adolf Loos, a Bauhaus architect and theorist, could write the following:

Do not weep. Do you not see the greatness of our age resides in our very inability to create new ornament? We have gone beyond ornament, we have achieved plain, undecorated simplicity. Behold, the time is at hand, fulfillment awaits us. Soon the streets of the cities will shine like white walls! Like Zion, the Holy City, Heaven’s capital. Then fulfillment will be ours.

This is from a text called “Ornament and Crime.” In today’s Bauhaus exhibit in Berlin, by contrast, you’ll find objects like “African Chair” by Marcel Breuer/Gunta Stölzl (1921). Hardly an example of form following function, the chair is colorful, ornamental, and fully pre-modern in its overall appearance. “African Chair” is a side of Bauhaus that a painter like Paul Klee (himself associated with Bauhaus for a number of years) would have been more comfortable with. Klee talked about art like this: “In the final analysis, a drawing simply is no longer a drawing, no matter how self-sufficient its execution may be. It is a symbol, and the more profoundly the imaginary lines of projection meet higher dimensions, the better.”

“African Chair,” Marcel Breuer/Gunta Stölzl (1921).

The only problem with this new, eclectic vision of Bauhaus is that it makes accommodation out of an essential conflict. Bauhaus did toy around with Expressionism as well as craft-based art movements bearing little resemblance to the stark minimalism of Mies van der Rohe’s Bauhaus. When Johannes Itten was teaching at the school in the early ’20s there was serious interest in movements like Der Blaue Reiter and artists like Kandinsky. But in 1922 Itten was replaced by László Moholy-Nagy and Bauhaus rededicated itself to the harder side of the movement, a side better represented by theoretical tough guys like Adolf Loos.

Looking at some of the works in the period of early Bauhaus, you might think that the movement valued diversity above all else. But that was really more about Bauhaus trying to figure itself out than about an essential openness. When Bauhaus did figure out its identity issues the result was harsh, unforgiving. Bauhaus wasn’t shy about making claims. Bauhaus said, “We have a better version of the world.” And there could be no compromise. Bauhaus, in its mature period, was not about some things being Bauhaus, one style among many. Bauhaus was imperialistic at its core. Bauhaus was all or nothing.

Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building is not a friendly building. It is a building that tells you what to do and how to behave. We can brush those claims aside but they are real. Bauhaus tableware dominates its surroundings. It doesn’t go well with anything else. It doesn’t get along with other styles. You can’t put Bauhaus furniture in a room with other kinds of furniture. It looks wrong and it feels insane. A Bauhaus room wants to be all Bauhaus.

This brings up another undeniable fact. There is something deeply satisfying about an all- Bauhaus room in an all-Bauhaus building. The scary fact about Bauhaus is that its practitioners made the claim to totality and then damn near pulled it off. A Bauhaus city might really be a better city, maybe the best city. But you’d have to destroy everything else to find out. No one ever had the balls to try. No community has ever been able to live up to the demands of Bauhaus. The closest we’ve ever gotten is in the widespread infiltration of Ikea. A hybridized stepchild of Bauhaus, Ikea designs manage to blend the basic utilitarianism of Bauhaus with an accommodation to color and ornament that allows an Ikea room to contain non-Ikea items.

But the original Bauhaus was not interested in that kind of compromise. Whenever I look at original Bauhaus creations I thus feel an essential fear. I am being challenged, attacked, called out. That is a side of Bauhaus that doesn’t go away, no matter how ecumenical a tale of the movement we try to tell. Bauhaus is a 20th-century beast. It will tear you apart and reconstruct you if given half the chance. Appreciate its brilliance, but don’t forget to be afraid, very afraid. • 12 August 2009