Happy Birthday, Dear Bauhaus
The world's most famous design school had a short life but long legacy.
Here at RECORD, we wondered how we should celebrate the 100th birthday of something that actually died at the tender age of 14. That would be the Bauhaus, of course—a misunderstood institution, born in 1919, that shifted its focus over the course of its short life each time the leadership changed, from Walter Gropius to Hannes Meyer to Mies van der Rohe, who was in charge when the Nazis shut it down for good in 1933.
The major misperception about the Bauhaus is that it is a style. You may love the look (more than the comfort) of the Wassily chair, named by Marcel Breuer for his Bauhaus colleague Wassily Kandinsky, but the Bauhaus was a school, and it varied more than is recognized from one particular expression.
Which is not to say that it was not stylish. Just look at the graphics that came out of the Bauhaus—the posters and books designed by László Moholy-Nagy and others; the work of Herbert Bayer, who created the Bauhaus’s sans serif universal font—it all still looks so modern and has had a lasting impact on advertising and graphic design.
Another misperception: that the Bauhaus started with a full-fledged architecture program. In fact, it began as an arts-and-crafts school. Its founder, Gropius, though an architect, wanted to shatter the hierarchy of the arts and bring everything together under one umbrella—there were workshops in cabinetmaking, textiles, metalwork—all dedicated to a utopian future with the motto Art into Industry. Only in 1928, after Gropius left and the school had moved from Weimar to Dessau, was architecture emphasized, under Meyer, and even more so in Mies’s era. Mies himself was far less interested in other disciplines.
In every way, the Bauhaus was a progressive institution. For one thing, it was open to women as well as men—its first class had 84 females to 79 males, though Gropius tended to steer women to the more domestic weaving class. Yet some of them broke the mold—Marianne Brandt was an artist and industrial designer who studied at the Bauhaus in Weimar, and then ran the metal workshop in Dessau. The school opened up opportunities for women in design that had barely existed before.
Yet the question remains: why does the Bauhaus still exert such a hold on our collective imagination? In this issue, we explore some of the reasons, and examine the power of the Bauhaus diaspora, particularly the faculty who tried to transport the school's principles to America as they fled prewar Germany. Mies, who arrived here in 1938, was the most influential architecturally—he created the contemporary campus he led at the Illinois Institute of Technology and designed his greatest buildings in Chicago and in New York.
Gropius had come to Harvard the year before Mies. While his attempts to create a Bauhaus-like environment at the Graduate School of Design did not take hold, his overall Modernist agenda prevailed. Josef Albers, who emigrated with his wife Anni (she had been a student, then a teacher at the Bauhaus), and brought his theories about visual perception and color first to Black Mountain College and then to Yale, had more success translating his ideas to this side of the Atlantic.
In the pages ahead, a trio of experts—professors Barry Bergdoll, Rosemarie Haag Bletter, and Mary McLeod—debate the impact of the Bauhaus on architecture and design education. And we asked architects to weigh in on what the Bauhaus has meant to them. John Ronan has written a thoughtful essay about the elusiveness of recreating the Bauhaus mission, while others offer shorter takes. For almost all the architects we spoke with, the Bauhaus has had some deep meaning—only Robert A.M. Stern proclaims he’s spent his career fighting its influence.
We’ll leave it to a Bauhaus master to have the last word. Asked in 1953 why the school had had an enduring impact, Mies replied: “That the Bauhaus was an idea is the cause of the enormous influence it had . . . around the world. You cannot do that with organization, you cannot do that with propaganda. Only an idea spreads so far.”