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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Second Construction: Writing Center

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To chart a place on earth—that is the supreme effort of the built environment in antiquity. Shelter, of course, always takes precedence. But its issue transcends self-preservation and comfort. Shelter engages human alliances and rank, and so it becomes the task of residential architecture to advance the pattern of collective existence. From family to empire, the stages of social and political gradation affect the scope and intricacy of this extendable pattern. But in the end organization only tidies up; it cannot satisfy darker anxieties of being afloat in a mysterious design which is not of our own making. To mediate between cosmos and polity, to give shape to fear and exorcize it, to effect a reconciliation of knowledge and the unknowable—that was the charge of ancient architecture.

It is a charge that is no longer pressing, that no longer has meaning. Geomancy had no place in the laying out of New York or Teheran; Buckingham Palace was not planned to be the pivot of the cosmic universe. At some point we chose to keep our own counsel, to search for self close at home.

from Spiro Kostof, A History of Architecture

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First Construction: A Multiple Use College Center

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Ritual is the transcendence of function to the level of a meaningful act.

Public architecture at its best aspires to be just this: a setting for ritual that makes of each user, for a brief moment, a larger person than he or she is in daily life, filling each one with the pride of belonging.

Spiro Kostof, A History of Architecture

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Preliminary

I have taught college English for over thirty years at eight different schools. Add my own education and most of my life has been spent in an educational institution of some sort. With the schools’ programs comes their architecture, their buildings, their classrooms, the designs and functions of those. Little has left a lasting impression and most has diminished what should be a memorable experience.

Most schools where I’ve taught have been places of division and isolation, both physically and psychologically. There are few places for informal gathering, while departmental and administrative conflicts make interchange difficult. Disciplines and governance are kept separate without meaningful integration, even without casual personal contact. Their architecture itself often exerts mass control, based on hierarchies that lack vital priorities, on a process divorced from real purpose. Their design is simplistic and standardized, if not sterile. Everything looks the same, making a walk across campus monotonous.

So I thought I’d try to design my own school. This is a conceptual study, really a diversion, and a great many details have not been worked out. One consideration that needs to be made in any effort to start afresh is why good ideas often go wrong, and mine may well prove to be no exception. Any plan must not only be grounded in a substantial set of ideas but also tested by extensive use and practice.

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