THE BAUHAUS – ASPIRATION AND REALITY
One hundred years ago, the architect Walter Gropius, working together with other architects and artists, founded the Bauhaus in Weimar as a State Art Academy. World-famous today, back in the 1920s its members sought a radical break with the past, a fundamental reform of the ways we build our houses and live in them - and even the ways we cohabit together in society.
It was a revolutionary enterprise that embraced the principle of “form follows function” as a clarion call of liberation from the ideals of beauty of a bourgeois society rooted in the 19th century, one that sought to create better living conditions for all people.
Is there a Nonplusultra?
Within a decade, a new, modern, clear style was born. Yet at the same time the Bauhaus declared its own design principles to be the absolute gold standard and the nonplusultra for everything touching on design, art, handicrafts and architecture, and many of its followers still hold this view today.
My own view is a little more nuanced. Yes, the Bauhaus was a huge step forward at the time because it pioneered new ways of thinking about and designing space. And yes, the Bauhaus was important, perhaps even essential, in helping us to gain a new understanding about major aspects and matters of life.
Yet when I look at what has happened to urban planning and housing development over the past 60 years in the name of “form follows function” and in adherence to the principles of the Bauhaus, what I see is the huge discrepancy between this erstwhile absolute aspiration and what actually has become of it in the hard light of day.
What followed was normalization and standardization driven by the imperatives of economy – quadratic, practical, good. Soulless homogeneous residential landscapes hostile to the very notion of communal living. Gigantic silos on the outskirts of cities where people live in stacked up shoe boxes.
Admittedly – compared to the dark, damp, first or second back courtyard apartments where people used to live without central heating and with no sanitary facilities, this was indeed progress. Yet even so, it was still lightyears away from the aesthetic aspiration to a beauty of form that follows function.
The beauty of the Bauhaus aesthetic in architecture which I certainly find in the original buildings that can still be seen, is nowadays limited to a handful of mostly luxurious exceptional instances. The original promise that Bauhaus held up high has failed to materialize in its mass applications. What we need today are fresh and totally different concepts of the kind now being realized – without any aspiration to universal value – in local and regional projects.
What about women in the Bauhaus?
Furthermore, it’s not only how the application of Bauhaus principles changed the face of our towns and cities after the Second World War that gives grounds for critical appraisal.
There’s another quite different aspect which puts me some distance from the absolutist aspiration of the Bauhaus and its founders. Despite the fact that there were always a great many female members – in some periods even more women than men active in the movement – up to present these women remain largely unknown.
In other words, up to its dissolution by the Nazis, the Bauhaus remained a prime example of a thoroughly male-dominated organisation.
It’s mainly its 100th anniversary celebrations that we have to thank for shedding the very first light on the role played by women in the Bauhaus. For instance, arte TV recently aired a fascinating programme on “Women in the Bauhaus”. This exhaustively researched documentary shows that even the most gifted and ambitious women were deliberately excluded from management positions and kept well away from such areas of high-interest activity as attracted widespread public attention. Their usual fate was to be sent straight away to the handicrafts sections and in particular to the weaving workshop. This makes it all the more ironic to learn that these Bauhaus women in their preordained niche not only produced acclaimed design with their carpets, furniture and kids’ toys, but were also pretty successful economically too!
When it comes to the acceptance of qualified women Bauhauslers as partners of equal value, endowed with equal rights and on an equal footing, the male founders and protagonists of Bauhaus displayed a mindset that had more in common with conservative 19th century attitudes to women than with any revolutionary forward-looking leap into the future.
A new concept for the 21st century?
Today in Germany rented accommodation and living space has mainly become a question of size, price and rate of return. It’s an issue that has long been neglected, if not entirely ignored, by government. The result is, not unsurprisingly, an acute and massive lack of affordable housing. In the midst of public protest, wild demands calling for the expropriation of property companies are now emerging, yet there has never been a public debate on issues of design such as the Bauhaus movement was once vocal in articulating. I think this is a very serious shortcoming. And this is why – in spite of all the contradictions inherent in the idea of the Bauhaus – I would still dearly like to see such a radically thinking and progressive social force in action as the Bauhaus and its impulses proved to be for society one hundred years ago.