The Bauhaus story is broader, more controversial, and both funny and tragic.
Until 4 October 2009,
In 1968, Stuttgart, then in West Germany, curated an exhibition called 50 Years of Bauhaus. This year, 10 years short of its centenary, Bauhaus is again the object of national celebration, but this time in Berlin, as capital of a reunited Germany. Four decades on, this show has an advantage over its predecessor in being able to draw on post-reunification cooperation between the Foundation of Weimar Classics, the Bauhaus Dessau Foundation and the Bauhaus Archives Berlin. To view their pooled resources, with loans from abroad, visitors need a day to trawl through 18 halls and two specially commissioned art installations: DIY Bauhaus by New York artist Christine Hill, (sponsored by Ikea and the latter-day DIY German store, also called Bauhaus and Endless Bauhaus by Ilka & Andreas Ruby, featuring an assemblage of video interviews with today's design stars.
Visitors also get a heartening glimpse of Bauhaus bacchanalia. Walter Gropius, the school's founder, instigated themed parties to encourage esprit de corps, complete with costumes and elaborate decorations. At Dessau there was a 'white' party, a 'metal' party (with a steel slide the length of a corridor), and a 'beard, nose and heart' party.
What is now mass-produced for Ikea in the third world was first handmade by Bauhaus masters and students as prototypes, in the hope of making 'necessities for all, not luxuries for the few'. In a film of the construction of Hannes Meyer's Dessau-Torten estate, precast concrete beams are seen being handmade by construction workers born in the 19th century. Bauhaus was at the turning point between a class-riven society and revolutionary movements. Dessau was the Silicon Valley of its day, and Gropius wanted to forge links there with Junkers & Co, the aeroplane manufacturer, to mass produce steel houses, among other things.
Bauhaus is not a style, as Omar Akbar, former Dessau Foundation director, has constantly reiterated. And through emigration, Bauhaus became even less definable. A common misconception is that white cube buildings, tubular steel furniture and impractical teapots are Bauhaus, but the school energetically propagated handicrafts, esoteric beliefs, expressionism, constructivism, De Stijl and industrialisation. It was also a pedagogical experiment, an intellectual conference centre, and a hotbed of Communist resistance to fascism, The Bauhaus story is broader, more controversial, and both funny and tragic.
In their US exile, Mies van der Robe, the last Bauhaus director in Berlin, and his staff were dubbed White Gods by author Tom Wolfe. Gropius, the first and most influential director, earned the title Silver Prince, while Hannes Meyer's role, as Marxist and second Bauhaus director, was played down. Ultimately, as architecture came to be seen as social engineering, his influence indirectly touched a wider public, in the post-war new towns.
The irony of history is that Germany ensured Bauhaus' global success, through persecution and even murder, and now reclaims it as a tourist attraction and an industrial seal of quality. In the wider world, would Conran have been able to pioneer his Habitat empire, or Ikea found a furniture dynasty, if Bauhaus hadn't shown the way?
+ A. long-awaited and expansive display
- Not enough Bauhaus? Get a further dose at MoMA, New York, in Workshops for Modernity, 8 November 2009-25 January 2010