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A Century Ago, Birth Of The Bauhaus

The Bauhaus movement came to life in Germany after the end of World War I. And it lives on today in many ways.

The Bauhaus-Archiv museum in Berlin, designed by Walter Gropius
The Bauhaus-Archiv museum in Berlin, designed by Walter Gropius
Thomas Schmid

BERLIN — The Bauhaus, founded a century ago in 1919 in the turbulent period of the Weimar Republic, was quickly crushed by the Nazis, which described it as a prime example of "cultural Bolshevism."

The Bauhaus was by no means alone in its early efforts to find new forms and a kind of function-less architecture without ornamentation. There was also the German Werkbund, and other attempts to combine artistic individuality and the spirit of industrial modernity. But why has only the Bauhaus survived?

As paradoxical as it sounds, the Nazi attacks on the Bauhaus were ultimately a boost to its international reputation. Its success is mainly due to the industrial designer and architect Walter Gropius (1883-1969), founder of the Bauhaus, without whose inexhaustible energy the movement would not have made it through the first year. The years after the end of World War I were rife with departure and exile.

Gropius was a guru in his own way. A guru, of course, who was also a citizen and master. He was able to inspire young people with his fascination with unconditionality. Alfred Arndt, one of his followers, enthusiastically described Christmas 1919 at the Weimar Bauhaus. Surrounded by a chalkboard, candles, a large wreath of roses, Gropius read the traditional Christmas story to his pupils, then served them all meals.

Other gurus in those years were also marked by the impression that the old order was broken, and were all looking for a new community. Gropius wrote: "The more we succeed in making the communion of our work ever more intimate, the more it will be possible to establish the connection between industry, craft, science and the space-shaping forces of our time from the common spiritual center." In the Bauhaus Manifesto, it is even said that the new form of building will "rise to heaven as a crystalline symbol of a newcoming faith."

Walter Gropius (on the right, with a bowtie) at the opening of the 2nd São Paulo Art Biennial in 1953 — Photo: Jean-Pierre Dalbéra

The Bauhaus wanted to counteract the industrial standardization and leveling of the craft with pursuit of the unique. But unlike almost all other reform movements of the time, the Bauhaus was aware that there was no alternative to industrial modernity.

It avoided both the glorification of industrial gigantomania, as cultivated in the Soviet Union, as well as any "back to nature" ideology. Modern man suffered from the alienation that the technological world necessarily brought with it, but at the same time he lived off the achievements of this technological world.

With its festivals, exaltations and community, it took part in the movement of retreat. But with his strict form, his tireless efforts to reconcile individuality and norm, it was also part of modernity. It tried to do what many others did not: to contribute to the success of the republic.

The weight of this can be measured by comparing the Bauhaus with other intellectual currents of the time. Many left-wing intellectuals were relying on the Soviet Union, communism and the supposedly inherent potential of liberation. Many right-wing intellectuals, instead, rejected the idea that industrial modernity suited the republic, which knows only masters and servants.

From Dada to Surrealism, many artists worked on the destruction of form and meaning. Judging from this, the Bauhaus's persistent efforts to provide understandable, appropriate and beautiful new forms are not high enough. In a time of cult of negativity, a conspiratorial group was working on a positive project at the Bauhaus: reconciling the conventional and the unknown. Construction instead of destruction.

The project of architectural modernism was not founded in a metropolis but in the provinces.

The Bauhaus was not founded by chance in Weimar in 1919. Weimar was the place where the republic named after the city was baptized. It was not a large city. The project of architectural modernism was not founded in a metropolis, as was to be expected, but in the provinces.

Walter Gropius fought in World War I, the first industrial mass war. And he learned its lessons. The war, which was carried out with the use of enormous technical destructive capacity, had proved that industry and machinery could be extremely destructive. Gropius and his Bauhaus team noted this with great concern.

They tried to, in a playful, witty, ironic, but also serious and meaningful manner, give life to the idea that even in times of industrial standardization it must be possible to allow the good form to emerge.

The Bauhaus became a workshop of the future: everything had to stay in flux, nothing was final. According to architectural historian Wolfgang Pehnt, "the geometric devices, the slender, elongated room figures, the white building cubes with wide-open ribbon windows, the ventilated row buildings of "open construction" were a time-warping program."

Bauhaus school building in Dessau, Germany, designed by Walter Gropius — Photo: Hjochheim

There was a certain dogmatism in the movement: the more radical, the better; the goal was reduction to the purest form at any price. Chairs, kitchen tables, and houses where always austere. If a man was not modern enough to feel comfortable in this ambiance, it was a bad sign for humanity. The Bauhaus sometimes had a penchant for avant-garde pride. And the avant-garde could also carry terrible things. Fritz Ertl, Bauhaus student from 1928 to 1931, later designed the barracks of Auschwitz.

And the Bauhaus succumbed to a predilection for dogmatism. Without it, an interdisciplinary experiment that consistently brought together painters, craftsmen, technicians, textile workers, typographers and architects could have been inspired, in the age of mass production to lift the craft out of the niche and make it industrially usable.

This art school lived within the Weimar Republic. Its presence is still felt today.

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