April 01: the Bauhaus before the Bauhaus

2012/04/01 § 1 Comment

On this day in 1919 the Staatliches Bauhaus was founded.

The school was the result of merging two existing schools (the Grand Ducal School of Arts and Crafts and the Weimar Academy of Fine Art) as a new institution in Weimar.  Under its first director, Walter Gropius (1883-1969), it adopted the nineteenth-century idea of the “total work of art:” more or less, William Morris‘ ideal of environments designed from a single creative point of view.  To that end, the school offered an introductory class in design principles that was supposedly applicable to all disciplines; from this basis, students would develop their skills in metalworking, typography, ceramics and so on.  All of these were firmly rooted in the idea of craft, again, taking a cue from the Arts and Crafts emphasis on medieval traditions of handiwork.

Even the manifesto penned by Gropius (as seen above) emphasized this idea with the image of the cathedral: fractured and “modern” in its delineation to be sure, but clearly in evidence are the tripartite facade design, tall tower, and flying buttresses.  Also clear is the Expressionist character of the illustration, which also illustrated the general tenor of this early iteration of the Bauhaus: it was an Expressionist school of handicraft.  Students followed their teachers’ method of working with their hands to create individual artistic expressions based on the emotions of the designer and the qualities of the material.


And then Gropius had a change of heart.  Was it the result of a powerful argument from the fracturing Deutscher Werkbund?  A bad batch of sauerkraut?  Whatever the case, as of 1923 Gropius threw the entire artsy-craftsy Expressionistic curriculum overboard in favor of the one the Bauhaus is known for: a program streamlined toward the “efficient” and “rational” solutions of design problems geared toward industrial production.  By the time the famous school building opened in Dessau, this single point of view framed all Bauhaus production, which also only at this allowed industry to gobble up craft and repositioned architecture as the supreme culmination and apogee of all disciplinary activity.  (Then again, they didn’t even really want “architecture” [Architektur], which still smacked of style, tradition, and other bad things; they wanted rational, scientific, don’t-talk-back-to-me-or-waste-my-time-with-your-preferences “building” [Bau].)  It was this later Bauhaus that bred the idea of a single point of view, responsive to the Zeitgeist, as a generator of “truthful” or “honest” design, and elevated those designers deemed in sync with that Zeitgeist by virtue of their intrinsic understanding of what individual (inert) materials were destined to achieve in aesthetic expression–although the idea of “aesthetics” itself were also subject to scrutiny as unscientific, and thus untrustworthy.  Expressionism was thrown on the trash heap, dismissed as willful whimsy; personal inspiration was taboo.

Bauhaus 1 was a short-lived, interesting effort to reinvigorate medieval traditions for the contemporary era; Bauhaus 2 abandoned the creative efforts that, whatever their individual merits, privileged the idea of the artist as an individual; its aftereffects linger on.  Its history is impossibly tied up in the very difficult politics of its place and time, and one wonders how it, and the course of twentieth-century design and architecture history might have been different, had the first choice for director of the school, Henry van de Velde (1863-1957), not been barred from the job due to his nationality, paving the way for Gropius, who, probably more than any one single person in twentieth-century architecture, drove a bulldozer through tradition, delight, and history itself; no so-called “architect” (he’d prefer the term “builder”) ever did more to distance himself from the Muse.

image: The Bauhaus Manifesto (Gropius, 1919)


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