Bauhaus: universal vs. international philosophy

From hipster coffeeshops to gothic rockbands to an entire neighbourhood in the city of Tel Aviv, it seems that a certain Bauhaus aesthetic has cemented itself in the collective consciousness. At least as far as the (upper) middle class is concerned, objects of dwelling should be spartan in design (“less is more” as the man used to say) and stay true to their accorded purpose (“form follows functions” as that other man used to say). Bulky chairs, folksy designs and figurative and religious art, on the other hand, are merely the outdated remnants of previous centuries.

mies-barcelona-pavilion-1929
Reconstruction of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s German Pavilion for the Barcelona World Exposition 1929. Photo by Hans Peter Schaefer, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

This ‘aesthetic’ (if, indeed, it can be called such) is wrong, and not in the least because bulky chairs, folksy designs and religious art are all paradigmatic works produced in the Staatliche Bauhaus school. A hundred years after this school was founded, we have end up associating Bauhaus with mostly geometrical forms purged of any colour and stripped of any figuration. In doing so, we have reduced the Bauhaus to a ‘style’ (while really, it was a melting pot of radically different viewpoints, artistically as well as politically). This style, we have come to associate with the universal, echoing Bauhaus typograph Herbert Bayer’s most famous work.

abayer-svg
Specimen of the typeface “Architype Bayer,” a typeface based on Herbert Bayer’s “Proposal for a Univeral Type.” Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

What is ironic about this ‘universal’ style is that it corresponds mostly to the tastes of the upper classes (see Regina Bittner’s study on the appropriation of the Bauhaus style). In appropriating for itself this supposedly universal style, the bourgeoisie has not only reduced the Bauhaus aesthetic to a bite-sized philosophy of material honesty and ‘less is more’, it has also crucially dismissed the forms of cultural consumption that are incongruent with this ‘universal style’. It is useful to linger on this point a little longer in order to get a grasp of the Bauhaus philosophy: how did we end up thinking of such minimalism as a universal style?

As a starting point, consider the Rietveld Schröder House, not technically a Bauhaus production, but (as an expression of De Stijl principles) closely related to the Bauhaus movement nonetheless. Noteworthy about this house is that its upper (living) quarters make up an entirely flexible space, with bedroom walls that can be moved so as to recreate an open space that can then be used as a living room with only the coloured floorboards left to betray the existence of a different space.

Rietveld Schröder House
Rietveld Schröder House interior, photo by Kim Zwarts

This is not only an effective use of space, it is also part of a vision of empowerment: even though, technically, space within the house is limited, an experience of openness is still facilitated. This openness, in turn, serves as a consecration of the house’s inhabitants, but not in the traditional way: the Rietveld Schroder House does not provide a home for its inhabitants by way of, say, family pictures that are hung on its walls. One could see the shortcomings of this strategy, as this would be a home only to those whose pictures are, in fact, hung upon the walls. Instead, the house is a universal home, because it goes out of its way (1literally) to shelter its inhabitants, whoever they might be, wherever they might be from and whenever they might be born.

totenhaus
“Draft for a woman’s house of death,” (1920) by Lothar Schreyer. Image taken from bauhaus100.de

But what about that bulky chair? What about the almost mystical coffin that Bauhaus Theatre instructor Lothar Schreyer designed? Surely they are not only actual Bauhaus artefacts, but true expressions of a Bauhaus ideal as well? A lot depends on this ideality, especially considering the early days of the Bauhaus: since it is in its infant days that the Bauhaus school shows most clearly the wounds from which Europe was suffering after the First World War. A certain paradigm of art had become untenable, we should keep in mind: a paradigm in which one could neatly separate arts from crafts, free from applied beauty and those who do from those who do not get to appreciate art. Such a paradigm, it was clear, brought nothing but hierarchies, dominion and ultimately the trenches. So how was the ‘Bauhaus Idea’ supposed to challenge this paradigm?

Well, certainly not by advancing any universal aspirations! A neat little programme consisting of a few readymade principles to tackle the building of the future, wouldn’t that be easy! But even if such artistic principles could be spelled out (aesthetically impossible), even if they would really be universal (historically/sociologically untrue), it is worth noting that the actual Bauhaus movement decisively refused to give such principles. The Manifesto itself could not be clearer on this: strictly speaking you cannot learn art, you can only create it. The building of the future, therefore, is a dream that is still to be dreamt. And it is merely the task of the Bauhäusler, not in the first instance to show us the way, but rather first to dream this dream: “Let us want, contemplate, and together create the new building of the future.” (Gropius 1919)

gropius-bayer-isometric-rendering
“Isometric Rendering of the Director’s Office,” (1923) by Herbert Bayer, plan by Walter Gropius. Reprinted from Bauhaus: A Conceptual Model (ed. by Wolfgang Thöner, 2009)

So what is this communal philosophy, instead of a universal -ism? An example may help to clarify what I am talking about. The plans Gropius had undertaken to refurbish the director’s office at Weimar were to serve as a collective project: all the newly established workshops gathered around a common goal, namely that of spatial construction as a Gesamtkunstwerk, exactly as Gropius had proclaimed in his manifesto. Herbert Bayer, the typograph alluded to earlier, did his part by drawing up a rendering that was meant, like the office itself, to figure as a statement of what the school stood for. What the school stood for, however, was an ideal of living that was far from realizable given the material conditions with which the Bauhaus had to operate at the time. To quote from an essay by Peter Müller (from Bauhaus: A Conceptual Model, 154):

Due to insufficient capacities of the workshops, the 1923 outfitting of the office remained rudimentary, and it was consequently Herbert Bayer’s drawings that were responsible for elevating the room to an icon of modern design.

"Director's office," (1923-1924) by Walter Gropius, reprinted from
“Director’s office,” (1923-1924) by Walter Gropius, reprinted from Bauhaus: A Conceptual Model (Thöner 2009)

In fact, Bayer’s plan constitutes merely an idealized mental space, a space that could never be perfectly realized in the physical world. From a photograph of the actual office, we can deduce these ‘imperfections’: the carpeting, for example, not quite matching the original design and not really covering the entirety of the ‘inner cube’ that was supposed to function as a space for intellectual exchange. Further, as Müller notes (but is sadly impossible to see from the photograph) only the desk, the bookshelf and the armchair were completed.

Now, what is the use of this mental space created by Bayer, one is tempted to ask? As any trained architect or designer might ask: is it not a thoroughly useless exercise to create a blueprint or rendering beforing actually considering your material possibilities? Well.. yes! But might not this be exactly the point? Let us look closer to Bayer’s isometric rendering. The first thing to notice about this rendering is that it is, in fact, isometric. Isometry as a means for displaying architectural plans was highly en vogue at the time, having been popularized by several modernist architects (among them Theo van Doesburg). A chief reason for this popularity may have been that isometric renderings are a way of representing space free from optical distortion and are thus more ‘objective’. Certainly, this would appeal to a new objectivist, but the question does arise what the added value of such objectivity is, when it comes at the cost of not cohering with any humanly possible perspective. Isometry, as a way of researching the phenomenology of a spatial construction, is perfectly useless. Useless it is as well, if the end of the drawing should be to rigorously calculate the best organization of life functions (surely this purpose is fulfilled better by a set of natural scientific formulae). The added value must then rather lie in the sensible projection of an impossible perspective: the subjective feel of pure objectivity itself.

What are the characteristics of this pure objectivity? I wish to point out two, here: firstly, due to the isometric perspective objects do not become smaller as they are located farther away (M.C. Escher is famous for exploiting this fact of isometry), i.e. there is no more hierarchy between fore- and background. Secondly, the drawing is made up in what would later become known as the ‘ligne claire’ style. Characteristic of this style is that it gives equal weight to every line on the page and does not deform colours on the basis of their distance to the point of view. What we see asserted on both counts is a radical democracy of forms and colours: a democracy of objects that is an ideal yet to be realized for us mere subjects.

But that is precisely the point! Strictly speaking, this is not a radical, but an imaginary democracy. Moreover, it does not proclaim any principles, it is a philosophy without any substance, literally an architecture that is impossible to ground in any physical locality. But in contradistinction to universality, and in keeping with the artistic context, we may call this an international philosophy. Such a philosophy knows no physical home, even if this home were to encompass the universe. Rather, it is always somewhere `inbetween nations’, not really anywhere and therefore thoroughly uprooted, ‘degenerate‘ as some have actually claimed at the time. This philosophy could not care less for material honesty, lest such honesty would betray an all too conservative disregard for a deeper commitment towards utopianism. And to speak frankly of the merits of such utopianism: who could ever boast of an authentic relationship towards the objects of our dwellings anyway, when those objects are a silent witness to structural failures occuring elsewhere in the world, be they simple garments of clothing or advanced digital machines? If such objects would ever really attain to any real truth of the matter, they must become as impossible and useless, in a word: as utopian as an isometric rendering.

Some of this material was adapted from my MA thesis, if you’re interested: my Academia.edu page.

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