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Growing up in the Bauhaus

Postato il 09.04.2019 da write@toscani.com Commenti Commenti disabilitati su Growing up in the Bauhaus

Four people who were touched directly by the influence of the German school recall their experiences

What endures? An art, design and architecture school — one that was active for just 14 years — is an unlikely contender. But the Bauhaus was exceptional: it never really went away.

This month marks 100 years since the foundation of the forward-thinking, liberal institution that produced architects, artists, graphic designers, interior and industrial designers and typographers. Its principles set the aesthetic standards for much of the 20th century, and so its centenary is marked with exhibitions and events in Germany and around the world.

Those 14 years were restless. The Bauhaus approach to teaching and creativity was despised by the Nazis and the school was forced to move first from Weimar to Dessau, then to Berlin in 1932 before it was closed by the Gestapo the following year. Many of its masters and students emigrated, particularly to the US, continuing to work as designers and teachers. László Moholy-Nagy, the Hungarian painter, photographer and professor, became director of the New Bauhaus school in Chicago in 1937.

Fiona MacCarthy, biographer of Walter Gropius, the original Bauhaus founder, describes the school as a “place of light and freedom, concentration and experiment”. Many students went on to become leading creative figures: Wassily Kandinsky, Anni Albers, Paul Klee, Naum Slutsky. But the Bauhaus was made up of human beings, and its legacy is problematic. Masters were predominantly male, and the school was tainted by anti-Semitism.

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Nevertheless, the Bauhaus endures because its principles can be boiled down to universal ideas: functionality, simplicity and innovation. It is not just a historical movement, it is also an enduring perspective. Its legacy is evident all around us and in our homes, in everything from street signage to wall planners to fitted kitchens.

Residual memories of the Bauhaus live on too, in the former students of old masters and in people with familial connections — those whose lineage goes directly back to the Bauhaus. Some were there just after it closed, and others carried on its legacy. How have Bauhaus principles permeated their working lives? And what, if anything, will endure into the 21st century?

Dirk Lohan (81), architect and designer

Lohan is circumspect about the Bauhaus. “I don’t think the Bauhaus has much to play or say any more,” he tells me. “Other than as a historically important development that occurred.”

This is unusual, as Lohan’s grandfather, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the German-American architect, was the third and last director of the Bauhaus school in Berlin. But, says Lohan, Mies van der Rohe thought Gropius’s coming up with the name — literally translated as “building house” — was “his greatest achievement”. It is, to be fair, a great name. It works not only in German, but in most languages. Functional, universal, it’s Bauhausian in itself.


(Left) Dirk Lohan; (right) Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969) in his Chicago home, 1956 © Lyndon French for the FT; Frank Scherschel/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

But it is faint praise. Lohan, who lives in Chicago, is quick to dismiss nostalgia Mies van der Rohe may have felt for the Bauhaus. (“I never noticed that kind of feeling in him. No, no.”) The Bauhaus was part of Mies van der Rohe’s career, but he emigrated to the US and established himself there. Soon he had “as many American students who were devoted to him as he had [had] Bauhaus students”.

Lohan worked with Mies van der Rohe from the late 1950s until his death in 1969, and in his subsequent career as an architect and designer he has been influenced by his grandfather. Lohan designed furniture for Farnsworth House, a one-room weekend retreat planned by Mies van der Rohe, now a national historical landmark. His designs include a bed with thin, slide-out side tables and a desk with divides for pens and paper. But he does not agree that his influences extend to the Bauhaus. (“Maybe indirect,” he concedes.)

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His conviction, he says, is that the Bauhaus was part of something greater — a new sensibility in Europe after the first world war. “Let’s throw out the 19th century and let’s create the new world.” It was widespread. It was “larger than the Bauhaus alone”.

Now, he says, designers have moved on. He is firm: they no longer follow the principles of Bauhaus. What are designers responding to in 2019? “They are under pressure.” They are facing “sustainability, environmental responsibility and lower use of energy and the carbon footprint”. Designers have to wait for codes and ordinances to change, he says, for government programmes to come on board. Today, their priority is sustainability.

Henry Isaacs (68), artist

Isaacs’ father, Reginald, an American architect and writer, wrote the first biography of Walter Gropius, and leading Bauhaus figures were integral to his childhood. “I don’t even remember how many nights I would be put to bed in the maid’s room at the Gropius house growing up, or slept down the hill at the Breuer house [home of architect and furniture maker Marcel Breuer]. It was just my life.”

Isaacs was born in Chicago, before moving to Cambridge, Massachusetts, when he was two. Gropius and his wife Ise had left Germany for Massachusetts and were frequent visitors. His first encounter with the couple precedes his earliest memories.


(Left) Henry Isaacs in his studio in Portland, Maine; (right) Walter and Ise Gropius at home, 1949 © Greta Rybus for the FT; Robert M Damora/Condé Nast via Getty Images

Now living in Portland, Maine, he is full of anecdotes and reflections about the Bauhaus. Names punctuate the conversation, and one thought overlaps the next. His gentle voice is charged with enthusiasm, but he is careful to assume nothing (“Just because it has been my life, doesn’t mean I should expect it to be yours”). The Bauhaus has also consumed his work. He is a painter, mainly of landscapes textured and splintered with colour, and the German school is “absolutely present” in his paintings.

“You’ll see a gradation that is absolutely out of Josef Albers, and you’ll find another [painting] that can only be found in an assortment of forms that you would have seen on an [Oskar] Schlemmer stage set,” he says. He freely admits that he owes his style to them.

Isaacs is about to leave Portland for a painting assignment in Nepal (he never works from photographs — another principle inherited from the Bauhaus). He will take with him what he learnt from studying the work of Lyonel Feininger, a Bauhaus master and Expressionist painter, and from private critiques with T Lux, Feininger’s son, whom he met while he was at high school. “The way a shadow falls, the way a shadow has colour [ . . .] the way that two shadows don’t necessarily, even if they’re in proximity, have the same colour [ . . .] I will be bringing that with me.”

Memory skews, blurs, but what lingers is telling. Isaacs stops himself from correcting friends who recite stories from tour guides at Gropius’s house in New England. He holds his memories back: “These voices that I hear of Grope and Ise and Marcel Breuer and all those men — and they were mostly men.”

Its legacy is evident all around us, in everything from street signage to fitted kitchens

His fascination runs deep, but he is conflicted. “After all these years, one would have thought that I could have dealt with this, but it turns out that it’s more difficult than I could have understood,” he says. “But to say that these men [at the Bauhaus] were sexist only begins to tell the story. There’s a reason why we see all of the masters cleanly escaping Nazi Germany. They may not have been Nazis, but they were no angels in terms of racism, in terms of their sympathies.”

His earliest memory of anti-Semitism was at the Gropius house. He was doing his homework while his mother sat with Ise. He recalls Ise talking about her Jewish servants, and her words, more than 55 years later, as if verbatim: “We never allowed them to come upstairs of course, because you know Jews, they always stink.”

“That was my very early memory [ . . .] My mother’s face just fell. [Her] family had largely been killed in the Holocaust.”

He says he noticed the same racism in Walter and other Bauhaus figures. Some he describes as “rotten”. One master he says was “frightening . . . frightening in the largest sense of that word. Frightening to me as a Jew”.

Isaacs speaks with consideration and grace. He remembers his heroes too: Anni Albers, Paul Klee. But his gratitude is tinged with despondency. He wonders if he is the last voice alive who remembers Bauhaus anti-Semitism first-hand.

Nicholas Fox Weber (71), writer and journalist

In the time it takes Fox Weber to boil the kettle, something reminds him of the Bauhaus. It is the induction hob (“It would appeal to them because it’s glass, it’s modern, it’s somewhat ingenious”).

“The more it’s about those general things, the more the importance of the school will really live on,” he says. At its best, the Bauhaus was a way of seeing.


(Left) Nicholas Fox Weber and Anni Albers, 1981 © Faith Haacke; Gabby Laurent for the FT

Fox Weber met Josef and Anni Albers, the married Bauhaus artists, when he was 22 after a mutual friend introduced them. Josef was a painter, Anni a textile artist. The rapport was instant, and he visited them for more than 30 years.

Their house in Connecticut was Bauhausian, he recalls, in its simplicity. “It was so pure. It was so white . . . there was a hush when you walked in.”

Today, Fox Weber runs the Albers Foundation and has written several books including The Bauhaus Group, published in 2009. His next, iBauhaus, about the iPhone as a realisation of the Bauhaus dream, is to be published this year. The book started with an everyday question: would the Albers have approved of the Apple device? He picks up his iPhone with its simplicity, its functionality, the curved edges: “As an object, they would’ve loved it.”

Once Fox Weber started researching the book, he made more connections. He came across a line from Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, where an ex-partner claims the Apple founder was so Bauhaus-obsessed that she could not be with him.

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The way Fox Weber discusses the Bauhaus as a 21st-century phenomenon is fascinating. He agrees, though, that the legacy needs revisiting: “I know that Anni felt [the presence of] anti-Semitism, because she talked about it . . . I am not in favour of pushing that under the rug.”

Nick recalls the Albers, particularly Anni, with affection. She was so alive, he says, with the best sense of humour. “She had a sense of subtlety and playfulness in everything she did.” He describes her weaving — “deliberately restricting her ingredients” — using just black and white thread, making “rhythm and magic occur”.

When Anni was 90, Fox Weber took her to the British Museum in London — the first time she had visited. He remembers her staring at Mycenaean pieces with fascination. “There was such a passionate exchange between the artwork and her. For me, that’s how I see the legacy of the Bauhaus.”

Peter Ahrends (85), architect

Ahrends’ father, Steffen, studied in Weimar at the first incarnation of the Bauhaus. He was an architect and his wife, Margarete, a weaver. Ahrends describes his mother as an artist hampered by her time, and she struggled to pursue a career. “It is the way, is it not?” he tells me sadly, “Women, not having that same story to their lives.”

With the Bauhaus shut down and the Nazi threat growing, his parents fled to Johannesburg in 1937 with Peter, then four years old. Their time at the school was a closed chapter: “They hardly talked to me about their lives, about the business of Nazism, about them leaving with me.” He says the silence made sense: people who go through upheaval do not always pass it on.


(Left) Ruth Consemuller at the loom, c1931; (right) Peter Ahrends at home © Bauhausmädels. A Tribute to Pioneering Women Artists, Patrick Rössler/Stephan Consemüller/Stiftung Bauhaus Dessau; Gabby Laurent for the FT

But Ahrends’ father’s passion for architecture continued, and he designed hundreds of buildings in South Africa, including the social sciences building at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Ahrends followed in his father’s footsteps. In his late twenties he started his own architectural practice, ABK, with Paul Koralek and Richard Burton.

The three had a shared sense of how to place buildings in the heart of a city; how to make something modern that was simultaneously at ease with its neighbours. ABK’s designs include the extension of Keble College, Oxford (1977); the British Embassy in Moscow (2000); and a proposed extension to the National Gallery in London (1982) that Prince Charles condemned as a “monstrous carbuncle”.

All three, says Ahrends, had an “admiring relationship” with the Bauhaus; they saw it as a “hugely significant and powerful period of architectural history”. Even when Ahrends worked on a building site as a young man, he saw it through the lens of the Bauhaus.

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“Somehow, making something with other people [ . . .] seemed not dissimilar to the Bauhaus, which is really a coming together of the arts to make things for them all, not just for one or the other.”

He sits on a white chair at a white table in his north London house. The walls are white, but colour intercepts: in paintings, and in Ahrends’ blue eyes. He explains that a neurological condition affects his speech, but his words are succinct and insightful. “Architecture is so profoundly to do with . . . working with others and drawing upon ideas that might emerge at any time. Things emerge, things come out. Ways of seeing, to use John Berger’s words.”

Ahrends retired more than 10 years ago. He is pretty much housebound, his muscles weak, and he cannot rely on the strokes of the pen to be exact any more. But he has not stopped drawing; he has just found another way. He uses a ruler and pen, drawing lines that “co-ordinate and become something else”. He makes textures with multiple thin lines, others thick. He would like to show them one day, and I hope he does. They sound sleek, innovative, and — dare I say — Bauhausian. A way of drawing, when his hands cannot on their own.

Five Bauhaus legacies

The iPhone

Jony Ive admits his debt to designer Dieter Rams (notably Rams’s electronic products for Braun). Rams had worked with the Hochschule für Gestaltung in Ulm, established in 1953 as the successor school to the Bauhaus. The iPhone is the ultimate modernist design: slim, black, smooth, functional. It is engineering perfection reduced to the most minimal expression. But is it also the end of the design? Where do you go from a featureless slab?

It would be ironic if a product that is so successful, that has brought modernist design into the mainstream and which characterises the debt to the Bauhaus, also marks the end point of minimal, modernist design (Apple sold more than 200m iPhones worldwide in 2018 alone, according to Statista).

The fitted kitchen

© Tommaso Sartori

Kitchens were once collections of ad hoc furniture and fittings in a small room and sweated over by staff. The egalitarian idealism of the Bauhaus forced a reappraisal of a new non-bourgeois kitchen in which staff were replaced by wives. Well, halfway to liberation.

The reconceiving of the kitchen as a room to be used by residents rather than a service space in the Haus am Horn (1923) shows the beginnings of a kitchen more familiar to us, with work surfaces and wall-mounted (rather than freestanding) cupboards, sinks and cookers. Designed by Bauhaus students, it influenced Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky’s minimal Frankfurt Kitchen of 1926 which merged functional design with Taylorist principles to save women time. The modular kitchen had arrived.

Tubular chairs

© Design Market

Although Hungarian-born Marcel Breuer usually gets credit for the tubular chair, it was actually Dutch architect Mart Stam who made the first design.

It figures — this was a technology adapted from the bicycle (and we know how the Dutch love bicycles). But it was a brilliant idea — a way to create lightweight, elegant, industrial-looking furniture.

Breuer and Mies van der Rohe refined the tubular chair, making some of the most enduring and perfect designs which are still near ubiquitous in dining rooms, corporate lounges, boardrooms and hotels across the world.

Plain white walls

Before the Bauhaus there was wallpaper. There were patterns, flocks, Anagylpta relief, skirting boards, dado rails, picture rails and cornices. The Bauhaus got rid of all that. There was only one colour for walls — white. Stripped back and modern, there were no surfaces to collect dust. Almost everyone living with plain white walls owes them to the Bauhaus.

The corporate glass block

Not every legacy of the Bauhaus was a success. Walter Gropius’s curtain wall for the Bauhaus building in Dessau (1926) was not the first of its type, but it popularised the technique: a wall of non-structural glass that allowed light to penetrate deep into a building.

At the Bauhaus it was beautiful, taking an industrial aesthetic and making it exquisite. The 90 or so years since have been less successful. It would not be an exaggeration to say that every boring, blank, glazed façade from Dallas to Dubai is a direct descendant of that Bauhaus wall.

Edwin Heathcote

Celebrate style: the best of the Bauhaus centenery exhibitions

The Whole World a Bauhaus
This global touring exhibition will move to the Elmhurst Art Museum in Chicago — its only US stop. Displays include art and design by students and teachers, as well as photographs and other items. Until April 20.

Netherlands Bauhaus: Pioneers of a New World
A celebration of the influence of the school on more than 60 Dutch designers and architects. At Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, until May 26.

Modernism in Frankfurt
The exhibition at Frankfurt’s Museum Angewandte Kunst explores design in the city between 1919 and 1933, from architect Ernst May’s designs onwards. Until April 14.

Come to Bauhaus!
This touring exhibition in Japan will focus on teachers such as Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky. The exhibition starts on August 3 at Niigata City Art Museum and will travel to Nishinomiya, Takamatsu, Shizuoka and Tokyo, closing in September 2020.

Fundació Mies van der Rohe
The reconstructed Barcelona building based on the pavilion designed by Mies van der Rohe and Lilly Reich, is celebrating the Bauhaus centenary and the 90th anniversary of the pavilion. Events include a performance of the Triadisches Ballett — a “Bauhaus ballet” — by Oskar Schlemmer, on May 8.

Alex Howlett

fonte: financial times