Interview with Incoming Bauhaus Director 'Utopias Are not Enough'

Philipp Oswalt is about to become the new director of the Bauhaus Dessau Foundation. He speaks to SPIEGEL about the legacy of modernism and how the Bauhaus can contribute to today's society.


SPIEGEL: Mr. Oswalt, you will soon head the legendary Bauhaus. You resemble the 1919 founder, Gropius, in your stubbornness. Was that why you got the job?

The Bauhaus in Dessau.
DPA

The Bauhaus in Dessau.

Philipp Oswalt: Controversy is part of the Bauhaus. This institution, with its combative teachers and students, has always been an important point of orientation for me. It was about new content and a good education, not conformity. But it would be presumptuous of me to simply insert myself into the heroic history.

SPIEGEL: How can the spirit of those early days be transferred to the present day?

Oswalt: We must think of Bauhaus today in different ways than the established myth suggests. Even the early Bauhaus was a dynamic affair, more of a project than an institution. The area around the city of Dessau, where the school was located between 1925 and 1932, could be described as an early Silicon Valley. It was a high-tech location, home to the world's most important chemical producers and the aircraft maker Junkers. It was also a region with a reformist spirit and a strong labor movement. Everything was changing, and it was easy to attract the greatest minds of the day. We have the opposite situation today: a de-industrialized region, high unemployment and a high level of emigration.

SPIEGEL: A Wassily Kandinsky would no longer settle here?

Oswalt: Probably not. At the time, it was essentially a true tale of immigration. Many teachers, and eventually students, came from other countries. Today we need an even more open institution for young academics from all over the world, who spend a few weeks or months at our college, participating in our research seminars. We must increase our cooperative ventures with foreign universities. In my view, Dessau will be a center for education.

SPIEGEL: At the old Bauhaus, many professors saw themselves as do-gooders. Are you also one?

Oswalt: No. In the past, there was this utopia about creating a new world, one in which all conflicts and contradictions would be eliminated. Today we have lost this naïve hope and have learned that utopias are not enough.

SPIEGEL: So what do you call for?

Oswalt: A hundred beautiful designs for the shrinking cities in eastern Germany are useless if we don't understand the effects such considerations have on urban development. In other words, we need analysis and reflection first. This is the contribution that the Bauhaus can make today. I call it reflexive modernism. It means that we have the obligation to become involved in a committed way.

SPIEGEL: The Bauhaus Dessau Foundation deals almost exclusively with city planning these days. Isn't this a betrayal of the founders, for whom new design was just as important?

Oswalt: No, not at all. The Bauhausers already achieved everything in terms of design. Even mass-market design, like Ikea's, would be inconceivable today without the Bauhaus, Gropius or Mies van der Rohe.

Interview conducted by Ulkrike Knöfel and Joachim Kronsbein

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