The Legacy of Modernism Celebrating 90 Years of Bauhaus

Part 2: A Reawakened Belief in the Machine


"We all lived together like siblings," reported Bauhaus student Ré Soupault. Anyone who came to study at the school had already renounced their bourgeois background. Soupault, for example, accepted the need to part ways with her family as a necessary evil.

This didn't necessarily meet with favor among the local population. To the dismay of the citizens of Weimar, "Bauhaus people of both sexes" sunbathed outside in the nude, and their "licentious intercourse" had even produced children.

The Bauhaus became a community that provided completely new conventions for young people. The first few years were even quite esoteric, with the Swiss painter Johannes Itten acting as a kind of guru. A follower of Far Eastern teachings who kept his head shaved and wore monk-like clothing, Itten required his students to shed "all conventions."

At first Gropius had attempted to reinsert a soul into the industrialized era, with his belief in the importance of the trades and his preference for wood as a material which harked back to the builders' huts of the Middle Ages. However, the director quickly shed these initial notions and his idealization of the past. He still condemned pure art as an end unto itself, and he continued to refuse to produce "luxury items for connoisseurs." But he also began to vehemently propagate architecture and product design tailored to the possibilities of industry.

In 1923, he proclaimed the motto: "Art and Technology -- a New Unit." The master of the Bauhaus demanded speed, wanting to overcome "earthly sluggishness." He complained that some Bauhaus members preferred a "return to nature, preferring to shoot with a toy bow instead of a shotgun."

The old belief in the power of the machine from the prewar days had been reawakened. And it triggered a heated debate over what direction the Bauhaus should be going in. One of the skeptics was Bauhaus master Georg Muche, who refused to enter into a "compromising relationship" with the "world of form, devoid of meaning" in the outside world. Kandinsky, the Russian genius who had helped found abstract art, was also troubled by the fact that "the machine" had been elevated "to idolatry."

Form and function, production and marketing: everything was reinvented from the ground up. "New" was the buzzword of the hour: new building, new vision, the New Man.

The concept of "style" was also controversial within the institution, and yet it existed, of course, -- the unmistakable Bauhaus style. Freed of all flourishes, this minimalist vocabulary of form was an intelligent, democratic understatement. Since then, the mythology of modernism has included the flat roof, the functional logic of a chair and the matter-of-factness of a metal teapot.

Tension in Nationalist Weimar

Weimar's conservatives smelled subversion and communism. In an official declaration, they condemned the "experimenting within that one-sided, most modern of tastes" and the "political aftertaste of the most radical of movements." The Army of the German Reich was deployed to search Gropius' house, and the situation became increasingly tense. By March 1925 things came to a head and all Bauhaus masters were let go. It was clear that the city of Weimar, where the political environment had become more and more nationalist, conservative and reactionary, wanted nothing more to do with this Bauhaus clique.

The Bauhaus, however, was not going to be closed down so easily. The academy was reborn in the city of Dessau and this time it had its own modern school building with a student dormitory and villas for the masters, all designed by Gropius. Now the Bauhaus was a true university.

Finally the school -- and, most of all, Gropius -- could express itself architecturally in a significant way: The city commissioned the school to build an entire housing estate. The industrial city of Dessau appeared to be the perfect vessel for the high-speed energy of the Bauhaus.

But the group was still not completely unified. Ise Gropius, the director's wife, disapproved of the school's painters, whom she considered too other-worldly, and wrote in her diary: "People like Klee and Kandinsky are completely oblivious to the difficult situation; they do not read newspapers and they bury themselves in their studios."

The teachers certainly lived in style in the white master houses Gropius had designed, and yet it bothered Kandinsky that everyone could see into his house through its large windows. Oskar Schlemmer, the painter, had different concerns. He feared that the homeless would show up one day "while the artists are sunning themselves on the roofs of their villas."

When Gropius left the school in 1928 to pursue his architectural projects, there began a period of extensive politicization. The new director, Hannes Meyer, sympathized with the German Communist Party but was not a member. Many later observers came to regard him as having been too radical. In their view Meyer, an advocate of the "needs of the people," did not fit into the intellectual climate at the Bauhaus.

Persecution and Emigration

For Meyer, the "collective scarcity" that took hold shortly after the beginning of the world economic crisis was a personal challenge. At the same time, he had to recognize that the Bauhaus threatened to become pure fashion. "A Vienna fashion magazine recommends that lingerie no longer be designed with little flowers, but with geometric designs in the contemporary Bauhaus style," the editor of the school's magazine wrote derisively.

And yet it was under Meyer's aegis that probably the most trivial -- and most successful -- product was developed for the school's manufacturing company: the Bauhaus carpet, with subtle patterns of strips, grids and surfaces, all in different color variations.

There was little left of the original goals of creating a new aesthetic for a new, fairer world. Many of the objects designed at the Bauhaus were far too expensive for all but the upper middle class. It would have taken the desired mass production to make the designs affordable for everyone.

When Meyer was replaced by fellow architect Mies van der Rohe in 1930, the Bauhaus phenomenon was already on its way out. The new director was an aesthete, a master of elegance and perfection, but he was neither a political nor a social reformer. The school's days were numbered.

The Nazi Party had already gained strength in the state of Saxony-Anhalt, where Dessau was located, and in August 1932 the city council decided to close down the school. Although it relocated to Berlin, a year later the Bauhaus was finished.

The identity of the Bauhaus was based on its nonconformity. However, at the very end, a few former teachers and students, sought to conform to the new Nazi regime, which was open to technical modernism. Many others, however, emigrated and thus saved the reputation of this unique institution.

Gropius, who became a professor in the United States, helped shape international architecture. In 1937, he wrote: "An entire group from the Bauhaus has now come together in this country. It gives you the feeling of having established roots, something that those of us who have been uprooted all need."

Of all the competing avant-gardes of the 1920s, in the end it was his Bauhaus that emerged victorious.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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