JULY 26, 2019
MOST COUNTRIES’ NATIONAL HOLIDAYS revolve around their independence, a national saint, or a victorious battle. Not so Germany’s, whose official holiday, the Day of German Unity, is seen as just one of several “days off” during the year. A country accused of initiating two World Wars and having committed a massive genocide during the past century reserves the national flag and anthem for official events only — excluding, naturally, the soccer World Cup.
Germans do like to celebrate, however, and they care about what they represent as nationals to the world. One hundred years ago, a school of design opened its doors. This “small but fine” institution of learning — to evoke the slogan of my own Minnesota-based liberal arts college — was home to a total student population of some 1,700 men and women, and it stayed open for a mere 14 years — long enough for Germany to celebrate it with an incredible flurry of events, exhibitions, performances as well as workshops, novels, and miniseries. Each of the three cities where this school set foot — Weimar, Dessau, and Berlin — has inaugurated or is about to inaugurate its respective museum. This peculiar institution is also being celebrated in cities across the world, such as New York, Mexico City, Buenos Aires, Tel Aviv, and Hangzhou.
The institution in question is the Bauhaus, a center for design set up with nothing less than the mission to infuse daily life with functional and aesthetic objects and thereby to restore the spirit of societies overburdened by the rabid materialism of industrial growth and devastated by the disaster of World War I. It was also one of the best publicity stunts ever, its founder Walter Gropius being a genius in coining its name: “b a u h a u s,” a single word of rhythmic sound, later placed in the slick typography designed by Herbert Bayer. It was and still is a synonym of modernity. In prompting the centennial festivities, the German parliament (Bundestag) declared: “The Bauhaus belongs to the world, yet it comes from Germany and it is one of our cultural history’s most successful export articles.” Probably few German exports, with the exception of the Volkswagen and (among older generations) the blitz, are better known.
Perfectly coordinated around the official webpage Bauhaus100.com and amply financed by German federal and state governments, foundations, and industries — the fed and the state spent over 100 million Euros just for the construction of the new Bauhaus museums and archives — this may well be one of the most pervasive national celebrations the country has witnessed in decades. Why such fervor, and why are many other countries receptive to it? The Bauhaus Centennial, whose manifold events and discourses are explored here, makes use of and molds the meanings and connotations Gropius’s term evokes. All the same, it also speaks to people’s genuine faith in the assuring qualities and transformative powers of the objects and buildings that surround us.
How to celebrate 100 years of Bauhaus? Buy it, of course. German interior decorating stores offer Wagenfeld lamps, Brandt teapots, and Breuer armchairs at sumptuous prices. The teapot “MBTK 24,” by Marianne Brandt, goes for 3,500 Euros in stained silver or for 8,900 Euros in silver sterling; the Wilhelm Wagenfeld lamp, a “Bauhaus classic,” for “just” 400 Euros.
This marketing campaign smells of commodity fetishism. Manufacturers stress their products’ “authenticity,” as if Wagenfeld himself stood in their factories mouth-blowing the glass tubes of his creation. Such a search for historical purity also holds for Bauhaus buildings. The emblematic Bauhaus school Gropius built in Dessau in 1926 was severely damaged during US bombing raids (the city also housed the Junkers airplane works) in World War II. After years of complete neglect, the German Democratic Republic restored it in 1976, and reunified Germany, with blessing of the UNESCO, extensively renovated it in 2006. Today’s building features a splendid gift shop as well as a B&B, where visitors can spend the night in authentic fully austere Bauhaus style. “Chatbot” apps and travel guides offer eager Bauhaus pilgrims itineraries of these and other Bauhaus landmarks across the country.
The Bauhaus’s historical achievements merit today’s fascination with Bauhaus objects and buildings. For one, the school produced a functional and aesthetic design, one that resulted from an instruction that brought together craftsmen (and a few craftswomen) with artists, such as Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, and Oskar Schlemmer, who exposed students to the basic vocabulary and grammar of Gestaltung (the German word for design): color, form, and line. By the time the Swiss architect Hannes Meyer replaced Gropius as Bauhaus director in 1928, school instruction turned to mass-producible designs that were accessible to low-income families. The products of that period have not made it into the catalogs of interior design stores. Their equivalents can be found, however, at Target, Kmart, or Ikea. Functional, mass produced, and cheap, these lamps, chairs, and shelves, usually made in China, might best represent the material heritage of the German school for design.
The Bauhaus Centennial highlights the school’s practices over its products; for example, its legacy of elementary abstraction. Today’s Bauhaus University Weimar offers the course “Stretching Klee’s Line: Drawing for our Digital Age,” presenting the Swiss Bauhaus master’s abstract form language as fully applicable to today’s design. Another practice that is being updated concerns transdisciplinarity. Centennial multimedia spectacles bring together artists, designers, architects, civil engineers, performance artists, and musicians, just as the Bauhaus back then united artists, artisans, and, later on, psychologists and philosophers. Bauhaus pedagogy with its emphasis on playful exploration and intuition — such as Johannes Itten’s Vorkurs — is hailed by critics as an ongoing contribution to design today.
Opposed to fetishistic commemorations, the left-wing “People’s Theatre” (Volksbühne) in Berlin is to stage a public “burial” of the Bauhaus accompanied by a multimedia “requiem.” Only its “temporary abolition” can protect its legacy against the centenary’s “general tootling.” Yet while ostensibly radical in its posture, the action insists on what one article in archplus.net refers to as “most pointed updating of the glorious Bauhaus,” like the official centennial itself. The new museums, while clad in a rather monumental architecture, employ the same logic. In Bauhaus interdisciplinary fashion, they draw on the expertise of “pupils, teachers, artists, designers, architects and urban researchers” in order to become “centers of learning.”
The Bauhaus Centennial provides fertile ground for Germany’s national identity. The Bauhaus serves as a metaphorical bridge that connects the Weimar Republic of the 1920s with the Germany of today, allowing German culture to sidestep its dark ages. The Bauhaus, in other words, is a metonym for a series of values deemed desirable today that are only indirectly related to the fields of design and architecture. One of these is democracy: “The Bauhaus is the child of the Weimar Republic, the first democratic State on German soil,” the Bundestag declared. Today’s Weimar — the birthplace of both the Bauhaus and the Republic — features the Bauhaus University’s “Gropius-Office Pavilion.” Placed on a square in front of the National Theater, the first site of the Republic’s parliament, near statues of Goethe and Schiller, this open-air installation invites passersby to reflect on the Bauhaus’s ongoing significance for forging a democratic culture in terms of material well-being — “a life worth living for all” — and as an open and participatory polity. Whether Gropius truly was a molder of “human beings who [form] […] an active part of a democratic society,” as the organizers claim, remains to be seen; most scholars point to his rather authoritarian and self-indulgent character.
Commemorations also associate the Bauhaus with pluralism, tolerance, and cosmopolitanism, values all to be grafted on to today’s Germany. For instance, the centennial sheds a different light on the nation’s antisemitic past by highlighting the presence of Jewish architects in the Bauhaus or in 1920s German modernism more generally. The city of Hamburg proudly points to fully restored “Bauhaus-style” villas built by Jewish merchants and bankers. Conferences and exhibitions highlight the legacy of the Bauhaus for the state of Israel, where Jewish Bauhaus émigrés Arieh Sharon and Munio Gitai Weinraub developed worker housing, planned cities, museums, and sports centers. In calling attention to this history, Bauhaus100.com seeks to counteract recurring incidences of antisemitism and xenophobia, which continue to plague the country as well as most of Europe; Weimar itself has recently witnessed a series of rallies by neo-Nazis. In turn, Bauhaus100.com’s festivities present Germany as a place of “tolerance, cosmopolitanism and diversity.”
The Whole World a Bauhaus is a traveling exhibit that followed the curious trajectory of Buenos Aires, Mexico City, and Elmhurst, Illinois. Its title reflects the ambivalence in Germany’s conception of the Bauhaus in the world. Is the Bauhaus a highly successful German export article, or is the Bauhaus a concept that regions in the rest of the world rendered their own?
A cultural colonialism, if a “politically correct” one, is certainly at work here. While the German Institute for Foreign Relations (IFA) financed the exhibit, the Bundestag unabashedly declared that “the Bauhaus design-concept conquered the whole world during the twentieth century.” Not V-2 rockets or Tiger tanks, but designers — including women as the parliament stresses — accomplished a world conquest of a different sort. Today’s means of German engagement is the “Bauhaus bus,” a “miniature clone” of the Dessau building that currently travels from Berlin to Hong Kong and Kinshasa and elsewhere around the world. While presented as an educational and potentially subversive project, the bus can easily be mistaken as part of government-sponsored tourism. “An international strategy ought to be developed, in order to effectively commercialize the Bauhaus-centennial,” the Bundestag declared. Once expelling modernist teachers and students from its lands, today Germany wishes to attract Bauhaus tourists. Perhaps even more significant in economic terms, the country presents itself as “a site for ideas, innovation and creativity” — that is, as a place of investment by the booming sector of creative industries.
However, this discourse distorts the historical nature of the modern movement. In fact, scholars shy away from the term movement, precisely because there was not one single driving force or institution at play. Rather, it was marked by professionals, artists, and journals circulating back and forth across various geographical regions of the industrializing 20th-century world. In tune with this understanding of global Bauhaus dissemination is bauhaus-imaginista.org. This is a sophisticated virtual platform that brings together high-quality investigations on the impact of the Bauhaus in other countries. It also organizes diverse events abroad, among them a panel discussion in Rabat on the influences of Moroccan textiles on Paul Klee paintings and a workshop in New York City on how Bauhaus émigrés learned from objects and materials indigenous to the Americas. As these themes suggest, Imaginista.org regards Bauhaus modernity as “a cosmopolitan project that emerged on the basis of trans-cultural exchange.” In other words, the Bauhaus meant and means different things in any given local context; unless, of course, one reduces its meaning to teapots.
Financed by the German government and industrialists, the platform wunderbartogether.org is promoting German culture and industry during a year of “festivities.” Among these festivities count the Bauhaus: students in Brownsburg, Indiana, are invited to a workshop on design, in order to “acquire new knowledge on shared German-American cultural heritage.” Yet the United States features no big-splash Bauhaus centennial event — only a series of smaller museum shows. Harvard University, for example, once the professional haven for Gropius, is holding a major exhibit, while Los Angeles’s LACMA and the Getty Center, respectively, are excavating materials from their archives for display. Colorado’s Aspen Historical Society is honoring its famous Bauhaus resident Bayer with a show. New York City’s MOMA proves absent, but it held a major show in 2009 on occasion of the Bauhaus’s 90th birthday. Chicago’s IIT Institute of Design, founded as the “New Bauhaus” by émigré László Moholy-Nagy, is celebrating with an exhibit of reprints from its German predecessor’s photography division.
These lukewarm commemorations contrast with the intensive promotion of the German design school in the United States in the mid-20th century. During World War II, museums, universities, and foundations eagerly adopted Bauhaus’s staff, who were fleeing Nazi Germany, and during the ensuing Cold War, the Bauhaus — credited with the period’s International Style building boom — emerged as a synonym of the Free World and democracy. Given today’s meager role of the United States in North Atlantic diplomacy, the Bauhaus no longer holds such an emblematic function.
Having pointed to some instrumental and even ideological uses of the Bauhaus Centennial is not to ignore the genuine fascination the school still instills in many, especially younger, generations in Germany, the United States, and elsewhere. As architectural critic Nikil Saval recently noted, the Bauhaus put forth “the possibility for art and architecture to not only serve as a balm for a turbulent history but also as an alternative to it.” History was certainly “turbulent” in April 1919 when the Bauhaus opened its doors and presented design as a means by which to reestablish links to material culture and to society, more generally. One hundred years later, the world appears equally unstable, individuals struggling to redefine their (sexual, national, labor) identities and sense of belonging amid rampantly changing technologies, massive migrations, ecological threats, and political insecurity. Perhaps for that reason, interest in the design of material culture has moved to the forefront once again, as the Bauhaus centennial testifies. Today, a “cool object” — the cell phone, naturally — is more than instrumental but offers an “affective” thing to hold on to. The question remains if design can also resume a place in addressing the widening social and economic chasms of the contemporary world, an effort to which at least part of the history of the Bauhaus testifies.