100 years of the Bauhaus
|The Bauhaus, Dessau, designed by Walter Gropius and built in 19267 (Photo: Aufbacksalami, Wikimedia).|
The Staatliche Bauhaus in Weimar, founded in 1919, was probably the world’s best-known art school. It operated for only 14 years, yet it spawned numerous articles, books and documentaries in its centennial year, which is evidence of its significance today.
In his 1919 Bauhaus manifesto, Walter Gropius (1883–1969) wrote: ‘Let us strive for, conceive and create the new building of the future, which will be everything in one single shape: architecture, plastic and painting.’ In alluding to masonic lodges of medieval craftsmen, he described the school as a place where the arts would come together to create the new built of the future.
Among the precursors of these goals was John Ruskin (1819–1900), who advocated in ‘The Stones of Venice’ the return to a medieval approach to craftsmanship to improve working conditions. This social criticism led William Morris (1834–1896) to the concept that the combination of architecture, decorative arts and the ‘joy of the worker’ would lead to a ‘total work of art’. Another precursor was the Deutsche Werkbund (German Association of Craftsmen, DWB), which from 1907 brought representatives of craft firms and artists together to produce high-quality German products for the international market.
Gropius’ manifesto offered an alternative to traditional ways of producing art and architecture, and provided unity and synthesis within the context of the fragmented social and political system of the Weimar Republic. Due to mounting right-wing political pressures, the Bauhaus lost its financial and political support in Weimar and in 1925 moved to Dessau, where Gropius built the Bauhaus building. The focus of the curriculum was now directed towards mass-production, liaison with industrial partners and reform of the building industry, which inspired the design of, for example, Marcel Breuer’s Wassily Chair.
The second director, the Swiss architect Hannes Meyer (1889–1954), focused on the social responsibility of the architect and on basing design decisions on scientific findings. One of the main goals of his curriculum was to rethink previously rigid boundaries, categories and methods of creation. Meyer also initiated the first architecture programme at the Bauhaus that contributed to the discourse on social housing. The design and building of housing for the urban working-class tenant was the most-discussed topic in German architecture of the mid-to-late 1920s. The discourse began after the initiation of the Dawes plan in 1923 and the stabilisation of the economy. The government was now able to subsidise a large-scale public building programme to alleviate the shortage of around 800,000 homes.
In 1930 Meyer’s political engagement and the formation of a communist group of students led to his dismissal. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886–1969) revised the curriculum, but the school was closed. It continued for some time as a private institution in Berlin but was closed permanently by the Nazis in 1933.
The emigration and flight into exile of members of the Bauhaus after Hitler seized power in 1933 contributed to the worldwide dissemination of Bauhaus ideas. By the mid-20th century, modernist architecture dominated corporate and municipal building projects in many Western countries and modern design products had become desirable household items. As a result, modernist architecture served as counterimage to the art and architecture supported by the Nazi regime. The politicised understanding of modernist aesthetics during the cold war fostered the association of the Bauhaus with democracy and freedom of expression, and the significance of the Bauhaus began to broaden and take on a range of connotations.
Today, the word ‘Bauhaus’ indicates not only a school and innovative idea, but also serves as a proxy for a broad range of avant-garde movements, and a range of aesthetic expressions that have in common a restricted range of colours and shapes. Practitioners who were neither teachers nor students at the Bauhaus are described as designing in the Bauhaus style. The Bauhaus idea has become independent of its origin. It is used in multi-faceted ways that range from stimulating new ways of thinking about design and technologies, music, theatre and fashion, and to merchandise that is hardly recognisable as having been inspired by Bauhaus precedents. Perhaps it is because of these derivatives of meaning and signification that the Bauhaus has been able to maintain its timelessness and lasting popularity.
This article originally appeared in IHBC's Context 162 (Page 47), published by The Institute of Historic Building Conservation in November 2019. It was written by Tanja Poppelreuter, a lecturer in the history and theory of architecture at the University of Salford, Manchester.
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