One Hundred Years of Ambivalence: The Many Legacies of the Bauhaus

Zvi Efrat, "Scenes from the most beautiful campus in Africa" (still), 2019. © Keren Kuenberg.

It’s been a hundred years of bent chrome furniture, and Germany is taking stock. On the centennial of the Bauhaus art school, new permanent exhibitions are set to open in each of its three home cities: Weimar, Dessau, and Berlin. Running parallel to the re-launch of the three museums, Bauhaus Imaginista presents a comprehensive enquiry into the global reception and influence of the school. Its grand finale includes a conference, an appropriately dense catalogue, and enormous exhibition at Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW) in Berlin.

However earlier this spring, when the new Weimar museum was the first to welcome the public, it garnered a reception that might generously be described as lukewarm. A critic from Süddeutsche – one of Germany’s most important daily papers – referred to the new museum and its permanent exhibition as a mausoleum and a sarcophagus, and charged that it fails to make the achievements of Walther Gropius and his successors relevant to the new millennium. Instead, she claimed, the presentation inadvertently testifies to why the avant-garde of design and architecture no longer has a home in Germany. Bauhaus exhibitions are often unfulfilling in precisely this way, engaging in object-fetishism and uncritical myth-making that confines the school to what it wanted to be in the 1920s. In fact, Bauhaus was – and is – many things at once: ubiquitous to the point of invisibility, a radical pedagogical experiment, and a frightening fusion of design, technology, and the war machines of nation states.

Bauhaus Imaginista, thankfully, is unlike the well-worn formats of these collections. Nowhere to be found is that tubular steel lamp. Absent are the kooky costumes of some Dada-esque theater performance. By staying close to the school and those who studied and taught there, Imaginista meets the complexities of its history with a rare scholarly ethic and scope.

The display, as we might expect, depends heavily on its didactics. To simply wander through the exhibition would be like listening to a foreign language only to appreciate its sounds (though, even at this level, there’s plenty to appreciate: the beautiful drawings of the Hua Tung University in Shanghai; photographs of a stunning hotel at Taliouine; Lina Bo Bardi’s abstract notes for a lecture). But the booklet handed out at the ticket desk is, to an immense degree, the necessary legend for unlocking the meaning and value of most of what’s on display: letters, sketches, books, a weaving test, a clay pot. To accept this premise is crucial. As is taking advantage of the ability to print from the vast archive of original documents and essays that Bauhaus Imaginista has made available. To understand the Bauhaus beyond that sparse collection of all-too-familiar home accessories, some reading is required.

Hannes Meyer, “Sketch in a Dummy for a Bauhaus Book,” n.d., between 1949 and 1954. © Heirs of Hannes Meyer

Much of the show probes the relationship of Bauhaus ideas to colonial, de-colonial, and post-colonial contexts. A film by Zvi Efrat, Scenes from the most beautiful campus in Africa (2019), visits the University of Ife in Nigeria, which was constructed over two decades beginning in the late 1960s. The campus was designed by Arieh and Eldar Sharon, the former of whom studied at Dessau’s Bauhaus. The film compares the Ife institution, the country’s first post-independence university, to the University of Ibadan, constructed under British rule in the style of Tropical Modernism by Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew. At Ife, the Sharons rejected the sun-shading devices typical of Tropical Modernism as sheer ornament, thereby directing a subtle critique of Fry and Drew’s Ibadan complex, and drawing attention to Modernism’s colonial entanglements. These intricate concrete patterns were made with the explicit aim of helping the “acclimatization” of those unaccustomed to the local conditions: in other words, they were built for – who else? – the British.

The two equally breezy and elegant universities attest to Modernism’s political non-allegiance. The scholar Iris Dressler argued at the conference that opened the exhibition, that though the school was ultimately chased out of Germany, the relationship between the Bauhaus and the Nazis, too, was thoroughly ambivalent, a fact that has been actively edited out of many subsequent surveys. The first three in a series of catalogues that accompanied ethno-nationalist exhibitions in the 1930s, for instance, were designed by Bauhausler Herbert Beyer. In the following decade, the same Beyer designed catalogues for similarly propagandistic (though now anti-fascist) shows, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The earlier catalogues by Beyer were celebrated internationally in design circles, but, Dressler asked, didn’t anybody read their content?

This political flexibility is perhaps what allowed the Bauhaus to travel so exceptionally well, a trait that was amplified by another of its fundamental tenets: appropriation. Gropius named the Bauhaus with reference to medieval guilds (Bauhütte), paradoxically anchoring Modernism, with all its claims to newness, in the past. When Charles and Ray Eames wrote their “India Report” in 1958 – on display here in letters, text, and film – to facilitate the “introduction of modern design in India,” they promoted the example of the lota, a humble pot designed collectively across generations. The fact that Modernism originated as a formalized repackaging of tradition is often glossed over. But Imaginista allows us to see the thoroughly blurred boundaries between the seemingly puritan design ethos of the Bauhaus, the eclectic neologisms of the late 19th century that preceded it, and what we know as its successor, postmodernism. The lineage of borrowed styles remains unbroken throughout the modern period.

Paulo Tavares, “DES-HABITAT,” 2018.

In Brazil, Paolo Tavares explained at HKW’s conference, Modernist design practice also appropriated from Indigenous artifacts, in a defiant departure from the new European aesthetic. Still, the exhibition shows, Lina and Pietro Bo Bardi imported the Bauhaus model wholesale when they established Sao Paolo’s Institute of Contemporary Art as the first design school in Brazil in 1951. Their inaugural exhibition was of German Bauhausler Max Bill, a figure of some animosity in Brazil for his patronizing critique of the local architecture. In his lecture, Tavares also noted how the modernization of Brazil, epitomized by the construction of its capital Brasília in the late 1950s, involved considerable land-grabbing and generally hostile politics towards the same Indigenous peoples whose handicrafts had found their way into bourgeois glass homes. Not only is the work and ethos of the Bo Bardis as impressive as their European colleagues, their claim to radical progressivism or decoloniality is similarly tenuous.

By the 1960s, the softer aspects of Bauhaus thinking, like its investment in craft and experimental pedagogy, had started to wither in favor of high and hard functionalism. In the United States, with the New Bauhaus in Chicago and Bauhausler Geörgy Kepes at MIT in Boston, the entanglement of design and technology intensified, eventually culminating in its infamous employment by the US army in the Vietnam War. In architecture, the International Style had become dominant, and was increasingly criticized as authoritative and inhuman. To encounter this critique – in the writings of Sibyl Moholy-Nagy, included in the exhibition, for instance – is an unexpectedly great relief. Attacks on Modernism have often come from a regressive or sentimental place, but directed from within, and at its peak, have a sobering and relatable ring of truth. I finally get to raise my hand in agreement; yes, the towers of van der Rohe and Breuer are neurotic and alienating. Thank you, Sybil!

Meanwhile, at Black Mountain College, the more experimental of the school’s fractions in the US, Buckminster Fuller asked students to build a geodesic dome destined to collapse: an architectural lesson in the failure to construct. Bauhaus ideology, it seemed, had splintered: at once disappearing into the high-rises and war-fantasies of hegemony, while simultaneously finding new outlets in ephemeral performances and experimental music and art.

As if foreshadowing the newspaper critic’s slamming of the “mausoleum” in Weimar, this last section of the exhibition is titled “Still Undead.” Here, traced through another of the post-war fractions, the Leeds School of Art in the UK, Brian Eno’s“Discreet Music” (1975) plays from a set of headphones. I end my visit to the exhibition in Eno’s elusive quiet, a faint but decisive echo from the last century, which, as Imaginista so beautifully shows, steadily ripples on.

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