The Bauhaus at 100

A flurry of works on the centenary of the Bauhaus have explored its legacy - but too many of them echo the conservative ideas the school was founded to fight against.

It is one hundred years since the Bauhaus school of art and design opened in the German city of Weimar. The founding manifesto of its first director, the architect Walter Gropius, called for a return to the crafts and an end to the privileging of art with a capital A. The school’s goal was, at this stage, a communitarian one, influenced by Expressionist ideals in the aftermath of the war, but this developed under the influence of Constructivism and economic crisis to an orientation towards industrial production summed up by Gropius’s slogan ‘art and technology – a new unity’. 

The unconventionality of the staff and students and suspicions regarding their left-wing tendencies led to the ejection of the school from Weimar in 1925, whereupon it reopened in the town of Dessau. Gropius himself departed three years later, and was replaced by Hannes Meyer, a Marxist. The radicalisation of the school under his leadership inflamed its enemies, and in 1930 Meyer was removed in turn, being replaced by the architect Mies van der Rohe. Even the latter’s apolitical stance couldn’t save the school in an increasingly hostile political situation and, after being forced to leave Dessau for Berlin in 1930, the Bauhaus was closed by the Nazis in 1933. The centenary of the school has been marked by a number of exhibitions and publications, some of them less than celebratory. In some quarters there remains an antipathy to the Bauhaus, often fueled by the belief that it was responsible for a perceived banalisation and dehumanisation of architecture in the postwar period. But this is not the only grudge borne by its critics.

Wounded national pride is a strange port from which to embark on an architectural history, especially one ostensibly devoted to one of the world’s most radical experiments in design education on its hundredth anniversary. Nevertheless, the introduction of Alan Powers’ recent book Bauhaus Goes West makes clear that this is his point of departure. It is ‘unjust’, Powers complains, that the prominent figures associated with the institution who passed through Britain in the mid 1930s – among them Walter Gropius – are generally thought to have moved on because they were not adequately welcomed here. As for the idea that this stemmed from some national inadequacy regarding design, or some ground-in antipathy towards Modernism, quite the contrary: ‘British aspirations and achievements at this time were not so shameful.’

As well as defending a scorned Britannia, Powers sees it as his task to slay what he calls the ‘zombie Bauhaus’, a myth that has supposedly haunted the globe since the school’s demise at the hands of the Nazis. His principal target here is the notion that the Bauhaus was at the forefront of an evolutionary and historically necessary development, a kind of thinking that Powers somewhat histrionically compares to eugenics, and of which it would be hard to find serious expressions today. Many of his revisions in this regard are unobjectionable, if not especially novel. Among these are his assertions that other interesting art schools existed at the same time as the Bauhaus and before, and that there were other forms of modernist design besides the rectilinear and severely unadorned kind associated with it – although Powers admits that the school was by no means as homogeneous as this caricature suggests, and in any case, the dominance of the so-called International Style has been ceaselessly contested since the 1960s. 

Particularly fraught is the extent to which the Bauhaus’s pedagogical approach, especially the famous preliminary course, with its emphasis on interdisciplinary experimentation, influenced British art schools. The Vorkurs is often supposed to lie behind the foundation course that art students must complete before matriculating in this country. Powers emphasises instead the British currents that paralleled or preceded the Bauhaus’s methods, but in cases where its inspiration is unavoidable, he concludes that ‘the sense of human scale and touch’ was lost as a result. This statement has grown no more intelligible through tireless reiteration; similarly hackneyed is the assertion that the postwar ‘prefabricated housing that appeared at last to be realising Gropius’s lifelong dream’ ended by producing ‘dehumanising effects’. Even the products of Bauhaus teachers generally deemed to be of the highest quality, such as Mies van der Rohe’s buildings for the Illinois Institute of Technology, were ‘dull and dysfunctional pavilions in a sea of grass’ (Powers attributes the sentiment to nameless ‘sceptics’, but in the absence of a citation we can only see it as his own). These comments evince an antipathy to the school and its associated works that is not dissimilar to the conservative English cliches he downplays. 

In place of a triumphalist straw man, Powers presents a collection of diverse fragments and unsung lives. Some of these are interesting, as for example in the case of Ethel Mairet, an influential weaver and pioneer of natural dyes who, despite being of an older generation (she emerged from the milieu of the Arts and Crafts), welcomed the pedagogical ideas of the Bauhaus. The problem with this approach, however, is that it tends to incoherence, giving the impression of a story taken over by its footnotes. More fatal to the intent of the book is that, though interesting, these fragments fail to amount to a convincing argument. If anyone could have succeeded here it would have been Powers, who has an unparalleled command of twentieth century design in Britain and whose 2007 survey of the subject remains indispensable. Yet we are left with two incontrovertible facts. First, that British architecture and design was on the whole relatively conservative in this period, and second, that the most prominent Bauhäusler (as the students and teachers at the school were known) who emigrated here soon left Britain because they were offered better opportunities in America. 

In places, Powers sides with the zombie. London ‘was largely off the map of modern art in the 1920s’ and Germany displayed ‘a powerful philosophical rigour in design that was absent from England’. Likewise, in his survey book he wrote that ‘the quality of “average” building in many other European countries tends to be higher in both material and visual terms’. He also cites many British designers and critics at the time who advocated the Bauhaus and continental design more widely speaking. They felt that, by contrast, there was something deficient about British efforts, a suspicion that Gropius evidently shared. He wrote to his erstwhile colleague Marcel Breuer on his arrival in New York: ‘don’t tell the English, but we are both ecstatic that we have escaped the land of fog and psychological nightmares!’ Perhaps we should heed the opinions of these eyewitnesses.

Discarding essentialist arguments, what can account for this reticence regarding the modern, this qualitative deficiency and these feelings of inadequacy? In the case of Gropius’s failure to win a commission at Cambridge, Powers argues that ‘even with the best will, it was hard to convey to the client body why it could be worth taking a risk on the aesthetic and technical unknowns of Modernism.’ Here we have the crux of the matter: in comparison to Germany, which had just had a revolution and whose regional governments were willing to fund Modernist enterprises, the feudal composition of British institutions was and remains today an enduring structural problem. The fact that numerous modernist buildings have been constructed in Oxford and Cambridge since the war can be attributed in part to the advocacy of Gropius and his fellow Bauhaus teachers.

Gropius’s power of persuasion, belated though its fruits may have been, seems to lie at the root of Powers’ animus. In his telling Gropius is something of a fraud, who won lasting fame where others didn’t because of his talent for publicity. Powers even asserts that the snappy name Gropius coined for the school ‘assisted the durability of the Bauhaus’s reputation as much as what it actually achieved.’ This is to downplay the superb building Gropius constructed for the institution – in 1926, when Britain had nothing remotely comparable – and his assembly of the cream of European artists and designers for his teaching staff, among them László Moholy-Nagy, Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee. The emergence from the student body of figures like Herbert Bayer, Josef and Anni Albers, Marcel Breuer and Max Bill is further testimony to the school’s success. Nevertheless, there is a kernel of truth here. The Bauhaus books, for instance, effectively spread the school’s fame, although that was hardly the limit of their significance. One of them, Moholy-Nagy’s Painting Photography Film of 1925, is a fascinating experiment in what its author would later call the ‘new vision’, a reconfigured interaction between the human senses and the technological and artistic media that attempts to retool art and design as perceptual technologies for modern conditions. These publications diffused the work of the school’s students and masters, and, just as importantly, Moholy-Nagy’s graphic design. They thereby conveyed the school’s ideas vis-a-vis the relation between art and industry, demonstrating that modern design could revolutionise a mass-produced object suitable for every home – in this case, the book. With this and similar efforts, Gropius and the other Bauhäusler succeeded above all else in the creation and manipulation of a public sphere around design.

At heart, the story of the zombie Bauhaus, if such a creature can be said to exist, is the triumph of an idea. And it is to this idealism that Powers is, I think, fundamentally opposed. In places, he contests it with an approach that is not just empirical but materialist, and here one may agree. British manufacturers were reluctant to try out new lines in the early 1930s, he says, because of the Depression. Quite so. But where it suits him, he is inclined to forget material factors: the Törten housing estate that Gropius designed for Dessau council is criticised as mean and cold, without acknowledging the social aims that lay behind its conception and the economic difficulties under which it was nevertheless built. On another occasion, he takes aim at the Bauhaus from the left, criticising its apparent indifference to the inequities of industrial production under capitalism. Modern design was subject to similar accusations at the time, but while Ernst Bloch and Bertolt Brecht found the ‘objectivity’ of such products unresponsive to the needs and desires of the working classes, and a mere facade for capitalist irrationality, Walter Benjamin understood such experiments as being in themselves revolutionary. 

The truth, as ever with this moving target, is complicated, and lies somewhere between these poles. The Bauhaus was at first filled with Expressionist pathos and later morphed into something supposedly more fitted for industrial reproduction, but it was always a political project, albeit not in a straightforwardly partisan way. Although the prototypes designed at the school remained expensive luxuries, the stated goal was always the production of objects and eventually homes for the masses. While the latter did not materialise for some years, the aim of reconfiguring perception, as evinced by Moholy-Nagy’s projects, was more immediately successful, if harder to assess. There were also moments in which the school was unambiguously of the left. When Gropius departed in 1927, he was replaced as director by Hannes Meyer, an unabashed Marxist. (Incidentally, Meyer succeeded in setting the school’s finances on an even keel by marketing its wallpaper designs, thereby putting Bauhaus products into ordinary homes.) Gropius himself had been deeply involved in the revolutionary postwar mood, although he later stayed silent on the subject, probably in order to avoid trouble in the increasingly fraught atmosphere of Germany and later in his fervently anti-Communist new home. But this had not just been a momentary engagement: he also designed a memorial to the socialists and communists killed during the Kapp Putsch, which was erected in Weimar in 1922, three years after the school’s foundation there. 

Gropius had had a terrible war, and the foundation of the Bauhaus was a reaction to this experience. His assembly of a diverse gang of artists and designers was, for all its flaws, a utopian community. The aspiration to wipe the slate clean was born from a desire to escape the clutches of a past that had made such a mess of things. While the imperative ‘make it new’ is not sufficient in itself (the phrase belongs to Ezra Pound, a fascist), orienting oneself to tradition very definitely was and remains today a signal that one finds something amenable in a past that appears, as Benjamin put it, a catastrophic pile of rubble. In a moment in which the new Bauhaus museum in Weimar has been designed to resemble a local example of Nazi architecture, and the Royal Institute of British Architects obscures its own Bauhaus centenary show in spitefully classicising display cases, this forward momentum needs recapturing.

Powers’ book is only one of many contributions to the Bauhaus’s anniversary, although it is certainly the most contrarian, a tendency confirmed by the author’s decision to promote it with an article in Spiked. Others make revisions that are generally less provocative. Fiona McCarthy’s voluminous biography of Gropius, the first for decades, does much to counter his enduring misrepresentation as an inflexibly partisan cold fish, although the architectural analysis it contains is superficial. The Berlin exhibition Bauhaus Imaginista, with an accompanying book and website, traces the mutations of the idea that Powers attempts to decapitate, setting the school in a context that goes far beyond the transatlantic exchanges traced in Bauhaus Goes West. One of the very first Bauhaus exhibitions was held in Calcutta in 1922, and its international engagements – which as the project emphasises always ran both ways – have since extended to Nigeria, China and Japan. These stories are fascinating and important, and are generally well researched, but the exhibition was marred by poor design and the project included some questionable contributions. (The most egregious of these claims that Meyer, who left Germany for the USSR after his politically motivated ejection from the school, became the Stalinist equivalent of Albert Speer, Hitler’s favoured architect.) The Bauhaus Archive in Berlin has itself been closed for refurbishment for the duration of the celebrations, a bizarre decision; however, many of its holdings have been put on display in a current exhibition at the Berlinische Galerie titled Original Bauhaus. This tells the story of the school in a relatively conventional way, while adding some interesting novelties, among them a display devoted to the publicity efforts of Gropius and Meyer, complete with selections from the vast slide collection that Gropius used to promote his ideas. The curators have also harnessed new technology to allow visitors to attempt exercises from the preliminary course, which are projected live onto the walls – an unusually appropriate use of interactive display. 

Most intriguing of this recent of crop of Bauhausiana is Elizabeth Otto’s book Haunted Bauhaus, which collects episodes and figures connected with the school that have generally been ignored by previous accounts. The book is divided into sections examining the institution’s occult, queer, gendered and political aspects, and while the overall result is not dissimilar to Alan Powers’ book in terms of fragmentariness, these fragments are inherently more interesting. The early cultishness of the school under the influence of Johannes Itten, the founder of the preliminary course, is well known, but Otto makes a convincing case for the continuation of such tendencies beneath the surface (Moholy-Nagy, for instance, had several astrological charts drawn up). Other passages highlight the work of figures such as Florence Henri, an extremely talented photographer and lesbian who studied at the school, and the erstwhile Bauhäusler Richard Grune, who was arrested by the Nazis for his homosexuality and spent the war in concentration camps. He miraculously survived, and in the aftermath made a series of prints on the subject, disturbing not least for the way in which they reveal the erotic dimension of the experience – something that, though generally unthought, is of course ever-present, as in all aspects of human life. Perhaps the fragments marshalled by Otto, disjointed though they are, point in directions that a rekindled future orientation may wish to travel. Better a revisionism inspired by concern for the historically dispossessed than one caused by injured national pride.