»So let us create a new breed of craftsmen without the presumptive division of classes that tried to build an arrogant wall between craftsmen and artists! Together, let us desire, conceive, and create the new architecture of the future, which will be everything in one single shape: architecture and sculpture and painting, produced by millions of hands, which will one day arise and become a crystal-clear symbol for a coming new belief.« (Walter Gropius, Bauhaus Manifesto)

Ninety years ago the Bauhaus was founded in Weimar. To commemorate this anniversary, numerous publications and exhibitions will celebrate the Bauhaus, acknowledging its status as one of the important art, design, and architecture schools ever. To this day, designs such as the »Bauhaus lamp« by Wilhelm Wagenfeld or the steel cantilevered chair by Marcel Breuer are still considered timeless classics. Modern materials such as the cube, the flat roof, concrete, steel and glass—as well as the serially constructed apartment building—have all become trademarks of this internationally famous center of modern industrial design.

Architect Walter Gropius founded the Bauhaus in Weimar on March 20, 1919, as one of the first schools of modern design. From 1925 to 1932, the Bauhaus was headquartered in the rising industrial city of Dessau, before it was forced to move to Berlin as a consequence of political unrest.

After Gropius resigned in 1928, Swiss architect Hannes Meyer succeeded to the post of Director. The last Director was Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who headed the institution after 1930. 1933 saw the end of the history of the Bauhaus in Germany, as the National Socialists forced the dissolution of the school. Gropius and Mies van der Rohe emigrated to the USA, and it was from there that they spread their ideas about »new architecture.«

Right after World War I, the intellectual climate in Germany was marked by a sense of new beginnings and the longing to build a new, free society. In the beginning, there was Gropius´s utopian idea: the »architecture of the future« should combine all of the arts into an ideal unity. The Bauhaus would go beyond the confines of the usual academic traditions, using new didactic methods to educate a new type of artist. He considered craftsmanship to be the perquisite for every kind of art. As a result, artists and craftspeople worked together in teaching and production. There would be no more separation between the fine and applied arts.

A further step was taken in 1923. The theme of »art and technology—a new unity« determined the program. Design was supposed to combine function and aesthetics and, in the process, be realized with industrial means.

In accordance with the anti-academic character of the Bauhaus, students of very different educational backgrounds enrolled in the school. In order to convey to them all the same sort of work methods, and to introduce them to the special fundamentals of design, the Bauhaus developed a special introductory program comprised of six months of instruction in form and practice with material. This course was developed by Johannes Itten and continued by László Moholy-Nagy and Josef Albers. Vasily Kandinsky and Paul Klee, for instance, taught their now-famous color theories here.

After finishing the introductory courses, students could choose one of thirteen workshops, which—in accordance with the basic idea of unifying artistic and practical education—were headed by one artist and one master craftsperson. Students learned about the fundamental characteristics of material and the principles behind product design. Among the leading professors—called Form Masters—were Itten, Klee, Kandinsky, Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, Lyonel Feininger, Oskar Schlemmer, and Georg Muche. They were in charge of fields such as cabinetry, weaving, bookbinding, architecture, glass painting, photography, metal, stage design, mural painting, exhibition design, harmonization theory, and ceramics.

A few workshops produced designs for mass production, such as steel furniture, whose aesthetic became the symbol for a new style of interior decoration. The typography workshop was responsible for the school´s own advertising. Plain type and clearly accentuated page design gave Bauhaus publications an unmistakable appearance.

The third phase of courses consisted of building theory—that is, working on a building. The Handwerkskammer (trade corporation) awarded graduates a master craftsman´s diploma, and in the case of an especially talented student, the Bauhaus also awarded a second diploma.

To this day, the idea of the Bauhaus is polarizing: some are prepared to pay enormous sums for design classics, while others blame the Bauhaus for originating a soulless, mechanical design aesthetic. This is because the intellectual legacy of the Bauhaus, which originally attempted »to unite all types of artistic creativity and reunite all arts and crafts to form a new kind of architectural art,« was often misunderstood. What Hannes Meyer summed up in the humane, socially motivated phrase as »putting the needs of the people before the need for luxury« either turned into an expensive »modern classic« or a shabby, cheap product. The famous phrase »less is more« was also co-opted by real estate developers, who, in their desire to save on anything that makes space into living space, called their buildings »modern.« Recently, one critic remarked that ultimately, the legacy of the Bauhaus is like concrete in advertising: it depends on what you make of it.

09.07.2009 Monika Wolz

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