The Legacy of Modernism Celebrating 90 Years of Bauhaus

The legendary Bauhaus movement turns 90 this year and the anniversary is being marked by exhibitions from Tokyo to New York. The school was founded by a young architect, Walter Gropius, who wanted to shape products for the future and create a more just society.

In times of gloom and doom, there is often a need for the charismatic energy of great ideas. Back in 1919 German architect Walter Gropius regarded the miserable period following the end of the World War I as a "catastrophe of world history." His response was a bold and yet surprisingly pragmatic utopian vision -- the Bauhaus. By establishing this new kind of art school he managed to create a cultural wonder that continues to have a profound impact to this day.

This year marks the 90th anniversary of the founding of the school: A series of events and exhibitions are poised to remind us that, without Gropius, the world of architecture and design would look very different today.

Gropius, who was 35 at the time, was determined to turn his back on tradition and yet, in a thoroughly old-fashioned way, he also sought to assume social responsibility. On March 20, 1919, he submitted an application to establish an academy in the city of Weimar. The permit for the "National Bauhaus in Weimar" arrived on April 12. In the meantime, the architect had written a sweeping manifesto. It was to mark the beginning of a virtually worldwide aesthetic upheaval -- in short, a true revolution.

From the beginning the Bauhaus proved to be an exciting art school, an academy that was intent on being close to real life rather than a lofty academic institution. The board of trustees, which consisted of Gropius' circle of friends, soon included Albert Einstein, and amongst its instructors could be counted some of the leading painters of the age like Josef Albers, Lyonel Feininger, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee and Oskar Schlemmer. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who was the third director of the Bauhaus, went on to become a legend in architectural history.

This year's 90th anniversary of the founding of the Bauhaus will be celebrated with exhibitions in Weimar and Berlin, Tokyo and New York, and in the publication of a record number of new books. Even New York's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) has long planned to celebrate its 80th birthday with the Bauhaus's 90th. Alfred Barr, the first director of the MoMA, was so inspired by the Bauhaus that he made European modernist art the focus of his museum.

And with good reason: After all, it was the school that shaped the image of the modern age. For the Bauhaus it was the artist's supreme duty to abandon old habits. "The first act of the Bauhaus was to tear down all established opinions … Suddenly people discovered that life could be viewed from an entirely different perspective," wrote Lisbeth Oestreicher, a Bauhaus graduate.

That modernist legacy is undeniable. To this day, the Bauhaus serves as a kind of benchmark for those who belong to the avant-garde in art, design, architecture and urban planning. Furthermore, it forms the basis for modern-day Germany's reputation and self-image as a place of artistic progress.

Laying Claim to Bauhaus Legacy

Over a 14 year period, Weimar, Dessau and Berlin were the three school's three bases. Then, in 1933 it was finally defeated by the opponents of modernist culture. Today, in an overdue homage to the Bauhaus, the sites in Weimar and Dessau are designated UNESCO World Cultural Heritage sites.

The Bauhaus survived as a legend, kept alive by the work of the teachers and students who fled after 1933. An independent modernist Bauhaus movement developed in Israel. A New Bauhaus was opened in Chicago in the 1930s, and New York would be a different city today without the steel-and-glass aesthetic imported from Germany. Eventually, the purism of Bauhaus became too dogmatic for the playful postmodern movement of the 1980s, when architects sought to rebel against a legend that had become larger than life.

In postwar divided Germany, both the East and the West laid claim to the Bauhaus legacy. Later on there were critics who argued that the ugly apartment blocks and prefabricated buildings were a direct result of the Bauhaus vision of mass-production housing. But these attempts to demystify the Bauhaus never really succeeded.

In 2009, Bauhaus's anniversary, it feels like everyone is glorifying the Bauhaus, celebrating the school as a laboratory of seminal product design. It is being declared a big, fun-loving studio, which almost casually spat out one design innovation after the next, bringing aesthetics to ordinary life. But in reality it was far more complex, contradictory and, most of all, more momentous than its reputation.

The real feat achieved by Gropius and his cohorts was to have recognized and exposed the sociopolitical and moral power of architecture and design. They wanted to exert "effective influence" on "general conditions," fashion a more just world and turn all of this into a "vital concern of the entire people."

The notion of architecture as being political -- because it concretely designs living conditions and as such can cause controversy and opposition -- is a notion that goes right back to the Bauhaus.

Of course, this desire to make the world a better place is now often considered a flaw. But maybe it is time to go back to this original spirit. The successor institutions to the school -- the Bauhaus Foundation Dessau and the Bauhaus University of Weimar -- could be well placed to return to the Bauhaus revolutionary approach and spirit.

In Dessau, at least, the anniversary year is being used for a new beginning. Berlin architect Philipp Oswalt, who will assume the position of director in March, is calling for more commitment and for the school to become involved in society.

The Creation of an Elite

Back in 1919, hardly anyone could have predicted that the Bauhaus would become an object of eternal fascination. At the end of World War I, the German art world was frozen in a state of trauma. Those who had escaped the trenches alive were struggling to survive financially, and the future seemed politically charged and economically uncertain.

Then the Bauhaus arrived as a glimmer of hope. Gropius considered the prewar concept of the artist as a fun-loving bohemian to be naïve. He sought to establish a foundation that could support painters, designers and architects. In his vision, the trades were to be the basis of all artistic endeavors, and in the school he established workshops and called his professors masters and his students apprentices and journeymen.

His goal was to bring together intellect, talent and energy. All of the products that were created at the Bauhaus -- every chair, lamp, door handle or mural -- seems to contain this nucleus of confidence. The charisma that the Bauhaus continues to exert today stemmed both from this confidence and the fact that the school attracted highly ambitious and hopeful young people.

A Reawakened Belief in the Machine

Most of Gropius's students were poor and hungry -- both literally and figuratively. They were hungry for life and knowledge, for aesthetic experiment and physical pleasure. They also lacked everything, from working materials to clothing to lodging. The school's canteen, opened in October 1919, developed into one of the most important places in the building and the academy planted its own vegetable gardens. Despite these modest circumstances, the students and teachers developed a tremendous self-confidence, a sense of being part of an elite group, or at least a group of people who were the exception to the rule.

"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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