The Bauhaus Effect
If the great modernists hadn't fled to the U.S. in the 1930's, you'd be reading a very different magazine right now
Ned Cramer -- Interior Design, 3/1/2004 12:00:00 AM
Time was, an executive with ITT or United Fruit could check into a Hilton in Dallas or West Berlin or Istanbul without suffering the slightest sense of dislocation. Where Rome had her triumphal arch and Spain her baroque church, the attributes of the U.S. cold-war empire were wall-to-wall carpet and air-conditioning. E Pluribus Unum.
This particular brand of imperial modernism might never have developed had it not been for the great Bauhaus migration of the 1930's. At that time, American architecture was in a state of confusion. Interior Design, then a fledgling publication called the Decorator's Digest, featured editorials praising modernism—alongside advertisements for "Authentic Wall Colors of the Colonial Period" and "Antique 18th Century Pickled Pine Mantels." A flip through souvenir books produced for the 1933 and 1939 world's fairs in Chicago and New York, respectively, provides ample images of the eclectic state of affairs, with art deco, art moderne, and Bauhaus imitations all competing for the true title of "modern" and various exhibitors persisting with versions of the Parthenon or Abraham Lincoln's log cabin.
Blame Adolf Hitler for shutting down the Bauhaus and making Germany so hot for progressive architects that most of them packed up and moved—less than 15 years after tyro architect Walter Gropius took the helm of a state-funded arts-and-crafts school and began to develop a utopian, interdisciplinary curriculum there. "Visual training under objective principles," is how Gropius described the school, located in Weimar. Renamed the Bauhaus, it attracted a left-wing faculty: Lyonel Feininger, Johannes Itten, Vasily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, László Moholy-Nagy.
They and other so-called Masters of Form were responsible for teaching core principles of color and composition as well as form itself. A second type of instructor, the Workshop Master, taught carpentry, metalwork, and weaving. Under the leadership of these luminaries, the coeducational Bauhaus graduated a remarkable generation of creatives, including Josef Albers and Marcel Breuer.
As Germany recovered from the First World War and Treaty of Versailles, the Bauhaus began designing clean-lined tableware, wallpaper, and other products for commercial manufacturers. The school's reputation earned few supporters locally, however. Weimar's bourgeoisie detested the rowdy students, and the government halved Gropius's 1925 budget in an unsubtle effort to put the Bauhaus out of business.
Gropius simply relocated to Dessau, where liberal mayor Fritz Hesse underwrote the building of workshops, dormitories, and faculty housing in concrete and glass. The administrative structure changed as well, with the elimination of the craft-oriented Workshop Masters, and Breuer secured one of the vacated positions. Three years later, Gropius caused tensions by appointing an uncompromising Marxist, Hannes Meyer, to head a new department of architecture. In 1928, Gropius suddenly resigned, leaving Meyer in charge.
According to Lyonel Feininger's son and Bauhaus alum T. Lux Feininger, architecture became the principal field of study at the Bauhaus under Meyer. Authority, structure reentered the scene. And the school continued to prosper fiscally. In Meyer's first year, the metal shop designed all the lighting for a Dresden museum, and the advertising department won a nationwide newspaper contract for I-G Farben. But his politics proved a liability as the Nazis gained influence.
A safely apolitical Ludwig Mies van der Rohe replaced Meyer as director in 1930. Unfortunately, Mies's autocratic bearing went over poorly with the students, who protested his appointment. Mies, unflustered, simply expelled the en- tire student body, then conducted private readmission interviews with each and every one. Not even his cautious stewardship, though, could alter public perception of the Bauhaus as a hotbed of liberalism. The Nazis shuttered the Dessau campus in 1932. After a brief reopening in Berlin, Mies announced the school's dissolution on August 10, 1933.
What followed was one of the greatest brain drains in Western history. Albers, Breuer, Gropius, Mies, Moholy-Nagy, and a host of other faculty and alumni booked passage to the U.S., where influential admirers such as the architect Philip Johnson and historian Henry-Russell Hitchcock were instrumental in preparing the ground. By publishing The International Style in 1932, they disassociated the Bauhaus from its Marxist sociopolitical ideologies by focusing instead on a shared interest in industrial forms and production. The book's title alone anticipated the postwar globalization of modern architecture by the U.S. government and corporations, which together recognized that the aesthetics of the proletariat could stand equally well for profit.
Johnson et al. having greased the wheels, the ex-Bauhausers moved into tidy academic appointments, which they used to educate a nation in the principles of modernism. Gropius settled at Harvard University, Albers at Black Mountain College, then at Yale University. Mies took over the architecture school at what soon became the Illinois Institute of Technology and began designing a radical campus on Chicago's South Side. In the former Marshall Field mansion not far away, Moholy-Nagy established the New Bauhaus—where, artist Richard Koppe maintained, politics and political discussion were virtually taboo.
Not much got built in those early years. It wasn't until after the Depression and the Second World War that Skidmore, Owings & Merrill completed Lever House in New York (1952) and the Inland Steel Building in Chicago (1957). After that, the floodgates opened, and the style that aspired to end all revivalist styles seemed to have done just that.
How ironic, then, that modernism itself has now been revived as one aesthetic among many, a marketable brand no less image-conscious and nostalgia-laden than postmodernism and new urbanism. What, ultimately, is a Santiago Calatrava building, if not Eero Saarinen with gears?
Perhaps, fittingly for a school, the greatest Bauhaus legacy is educational—ask any first-year design student, bleary-eyed from a color-study problem first developed by Johannes Itten in Weimar. Says Eva Maddox, principal of Perkins & Will/Eva Maddox Branded Environments Chicago, "The Bauhaus is still the basic rationale for how you talk about design."