The Bauhaus: S/M/L

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A few quick thoughts

Johannes Itten, one of the early instructors of the preliminary course at the Bauhaus, who was influenced by diverse spiritual leanings, some esoteric, built his rules of form around these assumptions:

Square: calm, death, black, dark, red;
Triangle: intensity, life, white, bright, yellow;
Circle: infinite symmetry, peaceful, always blue.

It is impossible to know what to make of such a theory. It cannot be grounded in the actual world or fit in any scheme, rational or spiritual, and contradicts the esthetic evidence of art before and after. And yet anyone who knows the theory will see work that follows such rules charged with significance, that it has a presence that, while difficult to pin down, is complete and undeniable. Even if the rules aren’t known, a viewer will still find the work to have a coherence that is more than formal, that it is suffused with—something.

Similarly, Walter Gropius, in the manifesto he wrote when he created the Bauhaus school, concludes:

So let us therefore create a new guild of craftsmen, free of the divisive class pretensions that endeavoured to raise a prideful barrier between craftsmen and artists! Let us strive for, conceive and create the new building of the future that will unite every discipline, architecture and sculpture and painting, and which will one day rise heavenwards from the million hands of craftsmen as a clear symbol of a new belief to come.

The manifesto was published in a pamphlet, and to reinforce the heavenward aspirations Lyonel Feininger’s woodcut Cathedral was placed on the cover, a black and white image, expressionist and cubist, of a seemingly transparent church placed within a dynamic of lines of light and other buildings that rise upward to a point, above the spire. Gropius’ desire was to create work that brought art, industry, and society together in some meaningful form, this at a time the western world, especially Germany, was recovering from the mass destruction of World War I and suffering economic distress and political upheaval.

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While Gropius wanted to revive the communal spirit of the guilds that built cathedrals in the Middle Ages, one is at a loss to find Christian tenets or iconography in the Bauhaus instruction or its work. The influences instead were esthetic and diverse, from Romanticism to Expressionism to Functionalism, as were the interests of the instructors, some of the most creative artists and architects of the time—Gropius himself, Mies van der Rohe, Klee, Kandinsky, Feininger, Schlemmer, Moholy-Nagy, Albers, and Breuer. Yet from this fertile mix came functional designs that speak with consistency and coherence that is still fresh today, work—a Marianne Brandt teapot, the Wagenfeld lamp, the Bauhaus building at Dessau itself—that remain objects of contemplation, abstract yet distinctive and very human, and inexpressibly transcendent, though we have yet to locate a place where transcendence might point.

One measure of a work of art is how much it comes to terms with itself and its means and materials, how much it it tries to include the culture and people of its time, and how much it looks beyond itself and the world, no matter how problematic such a glance might be.

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Yet listen to reactions to the Bauhaus, to what was later called the International Style, and, in general, to all the work that his been lumped together in the catchall category of Modernism. Tom Wolfe, in his breezy little book From Bauhaus to Our House, locates Gropius and his school as the direct source of sterilization of the American scene. Charles Jencks, the Postmodern apologist, makes similar claims and tenuously links modernism to totalitarian thought. In Germany, Weimar Republic critics found the students and their work decadent and un-German and called the school “a center of Bolshevists and Spartacists.” Later, during the Cold War, the Socialist Unity Party of East Germany condemned the Bauhaus style as corrupt and corrupting, “a genuine offspring of American cosmopolitism.”

Another measure for a work of art might be the range and violence of criticism it attracts, along with its contradictions.

In all cases, art is caught in debate agendas, most only political, and the criticism springs from a narrow and rigid set of ideas and esthetic understanding. Yet look at all the architecture that escaped review or met with the critics approval—traditional buildings in fascist regimes with Classical reference that were forced and oppressive, the imposing and bland Soviet block housing and government offices, the characterless boxes that litter industrial and commercial and suburban America. Tom Wolfe makes his own preferences clear:

I kept trying to put in my two cents’ worth about the general question of portraying American power, wealth, and exuberance in architectural form.

Much Modernist architecture suffered from academic inbreeding and a limited conversation largely only between the architects and institutions and corporations who hired them. Postmodernists themselves have fallen into the same trap. As Spiro Kostof notes:

This is what Postmodernism suppressed as it steered architecture to a pure art and put it at the service of eccentric moneybags and image-hungry institutions.

The National Socialists present a special case. They objected most to the politics of the Bauhaus school, which they closed, but not to the Bauhaus design, which continued to be produced and marketed worldwide. Bauhaus and other Modernist principles influenced the design of construction during the Third Reich, where they were used to serve state ideology, abundantly clear in the buildings’ expression. Columns, like abstract planes, can serve to oppress.

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There is much room for criticism of the modernist intent to set aside regional and historical sources. Yet we have moved away from those influences on our own. The dominant influence in Western architecture of the language of Classical forms and embellishment and the culture that created it can only be referred to now sentimentally or ironically. Structurally, with the advances in construction technology, we have no need for the support of a spread of columns. What was once a functional anchor is now a decoration. At least this much has been transcended, the necessity of post and lintel, whose use goes back to our earliest construction.

We are distant as well from other influences, and it is difficult to tap them without a sense of intrusion or appropriation. Nor do they fit easily with the way we now see ourselves in a world that spreads further away from us and is still trying to define itself. But also our world has simplified itself by its own process. The cost of labor to build and procure materials—one effect of a loose move towards democratization—has led to reductions, while mass production and mass marketing determine the appearance of what we most see in our day-to-day lives, designs made without larger influence or esthetic guidance, or where the lowest common denominator of taste prevails.

But also the Modernist urge, the desire to see the objects of our experience simply, directly, and abstractly, has, in fact, for better and for worse, been a significant cultural and historical influence in our lives.

The Bauhaus building at Dessau

The Bauhaus is a fascinating building, and while it is structurally reasoned it is not easily captured in a quick look but rather invites repeated investigation. It is not a box that contains functions and promotes itself in unified form with some architectural signature but rather opens the box to reveal itself and its functions. Its signature is this revelation. And it provides access to see and explore it from all angles, inside and out, and up and down, with its many windows, intersections, open hallways, balconies, and doors to the roofs. The best way to understand the building, as Gropius said, is to use it and be involved in its activities, and this takes time and engagement. There are many places for contact and interaction in the hallways and stairs and group meeting areas, and given the various inspirations of the instructors, the school’s ambitions, and the spirit of the students, it must have been a tremendously lively and creative place.

There is no ornamentation on the exterior, yet with the building’s many rectangular shapes, the various windows, flush, inset, or protruding, and their different black casings and trim, it is complex and engaging. In spite of strict colors, black white, gray, and clear glass, I want to say it is intimate and warm. I must confess I made the doors red, as found in the current restoration.

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Classrooms for a technical school are on the left, a requirement by the city of Dessau who funded the building. On the right, the workshops. The bridge between them is not open but housed a hallway and the architecture department and administrative offices. I did not reproduce floors and interior walls, which could not be captured convincingly at this scale.

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At the rear, studio apartments for the students with communal facilities in the basement. Between the main workshops and the studios, an auditorium with a stage and a canteen. A screen separated the two, which could be folded to open up the entire space for larger activities—theatre, talks, musical performances, and parties.

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The rear studios have doors that opened up to small balconies with railing, not captured well in the model. On the roof there is an open structure and flooring that allow informal gatherings.

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About the models

The joy in constructing this model is that it gave me a chance to experience close hand the building’s structure and forms. My frustration is that I could not capture these fully. I am limited by the standard sizes of Lego bricks, and in many cases I had to simplify, delete, exaggerate, or improvise. The roof molding only shows slightly on the facades in the original, for example. Gropius cared about the the appearance of the roof and how the building might be seen from the air. Using white Lego plates to edge the roof would have detracted from its distinctive shape.

The building also has doors leading down to the half basements, which I omitted. Doing so would have required a large number of bricks to build up the ground.

The above pictures are of the large model, which has a base of about 22 1/2 x 15 inches (57 x 38 cm). Its dimensions are quite close to the original, with a few exceptions. The medium-sized model is about 12 x 9 inches (30 x 23 cm). The floor plan is quite close as well, though height is exaggerated and there is much more simplification.

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Proportions and dimensions are off in the small model, about 8 x 6 inches (20 x 15 cm). I only tried to capture the dominant glass surfaces and an overall sense of the forms.

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Notes and sources

The model has been featured at Tom Alphin’s site The Brick Architect. His book The Lego Architect (No Starch Press) will appear September 2015.

I exaggerate myself, of course, and have opened up the need for serious counterargument. There are sentences in my brief notes that would require whole essays to qualify and expand.

Itten’s theory of forms appeared in his diary, was later published in his book Werke und Schriften, and is quoted in Norbert M. Schmitz’s essay “The Preliminary Course under Johannes Itten—Human Education.”

Weimar reactions are reviewed in Justus H. Ulbricht’s essay “The Bauhaus and the Weimar Republic—Struggles for Political and Cultural Hegemony.”

Reactions in East Germany come from Paul Betts, “The Bauhaus in the German Democratic Republic—between Formalism and Pragmatism.”

My comments on National Socialism are taken from Paul Betts again, “The Bauhaus and National Socialism—a Dark Chapter of Modernism.”

All of these essays appear in the book Bauhaus, edited by Jeannine Fiedler and Peter Feierabend. This is a wonderful collection, well illustrated, of essays about the history, life, theory, work, and personages of the school.

Tom Wolfe’s two cents come from his From Bauhaus to Our House.

Charles Jencks’s claims appear in The Story of Post-Modernism.

Kostof’s criticism comes from A History of Architecture.

Dennis Sharp’s monograph Bauhaus, Dessau, from the Architecture in Detail series, not only provided many photographs but also Sharp’s floor plans and elevations, which I used to construct the model.

Also consulted was The Dessau Bauhaus Building 1926-1999, another collection published under the direction of the Bauhaus Dessau Foundation and edited by Margaret Kentgens-Craig.

I especially want to single out the video “Le Bauhaus de Dessau,” from the Richard Copans and San Neumann series Architectures.

I also spent much time at these official websites, which provide full background:

Bauhaus Online, where I linked Cathedral and the manifesto: http://bauhaus-online.de

Bauhaus Dessau Foundation: http://www.bauhaus-dessau.de/english/home.html

Bauhaus Museum: http://bauhausmuseum-dessau.de/en/home.html

Bauhaus Archive: http://www.bauhaus.de/en/

Blueprints, some of the Dennis Sharp drawings, and photographs can be found at ArchDaily: ArchDaily:http://www.designboom.com

And there are hundreds of photographs of the building on the web.

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