The Bauhaus Function

Re – Quote #1 — A NEW UNITY
Until the mid-18th century design and execution had for the most part, been unified in one person or role, commonly known as the craftsman. Only changes to the methods of production brought about by the Industrial Revolution made it necessary to divide labour duties, and create the roles of specialists. Until the Bauhaus, these specialists came from disparate schools which gave the world architects, engineers and artists. Design schools, which of course we nowadays take completely for granted, didn’t even exist.1 The creation of such an institution on its own, is a remarkable achievement which demonstrates the incredible foresight of the Bauhaus founders' vision.

But the Bauhaus was much more than just a famous design school. It brought just the right people together in such a way that in their bumping of heads, they provided an incubation platform to foster many of the main players of the latter modern movement itself. It was the nursery slopes or kindergarten if you will, within which these personalities first began to play with new theories and principles of design. And from which the forces of modernism and the development of modern culture in the 20th century emerged. (A second significant school on this path was to rise from the peace treaties of WWII in the small German town of Ulm).

So why is the Bauhaus still so relevant to what comes next? Kate Bush, former curator of exhibitions at the Barbican, thinks the Bauhaus ‘was inspiring not just because of the extraordinary group of brilliant, visionary people who worked and made art there, but because it was fuelled by an idealism and a commitment to creativity and experiment that remains, in our market-driven times, ever more relevant'.2

‘The Bauhaus was to be a school of invention rather than imitation.’

Barbican Art Gallery
From expressionist influenced roots, its founding tenets owed much to the 19th century Arts and Crafts movement started by the Englishman William Morris. In central Germany avant-garde artists and designers gathered to form an art school intended to meet the needs of society. The belief was that art could change and improve the quality of people’s lives everywhere, not just for the privileged few.3

The signing of an armistice in a railway carriage in the Compiègne Forest on 11th November 1918, marked a time in Germany where the creative community was turning its back on fanciful experimentation, towards rational, functional building. A new Weimar Republic was to replace the old imperial government. And the new school, founded by Gropius in the same city where the Republic’s first constitutional assembly took place, was to start afresh working with the values of idealism, internationalism, creativity and collaboration.

The Bauhaus’ central message was to return to craft and learn a trade. The school believed that is was detrimental to the needs of society for art to exist in isolation, and that the best art was in fact the accidental bi-product of exceptional craft; a nice bonus, if you will. The teachers wanted to bring art back to craft so that it could work to less indulgent and less economical based ends. Instead, thinking and designing was to be for the collective good of all humankind.

Walter Gropius wrote in his 1919 manifesto: “Art rises above all methods; in itself it cannot be taught, but the crafts certainly can be.” In essence the Bauhaus believed that all quality art was underpinned by quality craft. And that the best art, only surfaced as a direct result of exceptional craft. If this was to be the case, then only by focussing on truly great craft, could art be in turn elevated even higher.

The school was a reaction to intensely decorative Victorian times whose artistic produce was homogeneously gaudy and overdone. But also to the loss of quality in the making of everyday utilitarian products, which were literally flying off production lines, manned largely by unskilled workers.

All the indulgences of the era known as the European Belle Epoque were giving way to a new ‘International Style’ which put utility first. The widely repeated Bauhaus maxim of ‘Form follows function’ was one of the mottos upon which a new generation of designers and architects would be trained. They rejected ornament in favour of the principle that the design of a building or object should be primarily based upon its intended function or purpose – an overriding ethos which still supports much of our design thinking today.

Play was considered an important underlying principle as a means of reconnecting the artist with their inner-child. Spiritual thinking, meditation, and deep thinking practices were also part of life at the Bauhaus school. Four times a year, the Bauhauslers celebrated the seasons. Whilst every day Johannes Itten, a Swiss expressionist painter and teacher of the innovative “preliminary course” began each of his classes with breathing and concentration exercises. These lessons in meditation served to focus one’s inner self and make it easier to concentrate on new task,4 like learning the basics of materials, composition, and colour. Whilst a recurring emphasis on making simple but meaningful connections lay at the heart of all theories taught, working their way through to even the simplest of tasks. As Itten would sometimes playfully encourage his students: “Before you draw a tiger, you have to roar like a tiger”.

Gropius made it central to the overall objective of the school to promote the talents of everyone who studied there. Collective work was to be celebrated over individual personalities, and the desire to share extended out to an embrace of the wider community. This was reflected by the school’s first exhibition in Weimar in 1923, which the school’s founders declared ‘must, first of all, demonstrate the work and goals of the Bauhaus for the broader public, and appeal to these circles to demonstrate that we are intent not to withdraw in a resigned or arbitrary manner but to participate creatively and helpfully in the life of the community’.6

The exhibition was a professional success, with sound professional reviews and hundred’s of daily visitors. Yet the work on show was very brave for a time when the local conservative-nationalist press remained openly hostile. Some derided the exhibition as Anti-German, or even the work of outsiders. Anyone working today within the sustainable or renewable energy sectors, might be able to swap similar accounts of unhelpful feedback from their own experiences more recently. Perhaps somewhat reassuringly, whenever regressive forces attack progressive work like this, the phenomenon serves as useful confirmation you might well be doing something good for the world, or the benefit of others.

The author Michael Siebenbrodt reveals the soul of the Bauhaus to be ‘a concept of lifelong learning based in the practice of pride in one’s craft embracing a high degree of teamwork and a view to social responsibility’. They aimed ‘to develop architecture and products that ensure, with a minimum of material, energy and work hours, a maximum of beauty and purpose and which are to be affordable by the broad masses’.7 Most of these values, with some modification, can be wholeheartedly reappropriated to the Sustainable Movement today.

From the very beginning it was certainly a school which encouraged designers to “Think Different”.8 Long before Albert Einstein’s face made an appearance in a 1990’s Apple campaign, he was a member of the school’s circle of friends soon after winning the Nobel Prize for physics in 1921. Relationships like this help demonstrate the Bauhaus was much more than just a school. It was part of an intellectual movement which dreamt, and sought to reach much further than traditional institutional boundaries. To quote Siebenbrodt again, it ‘stood for a new type of modern university in a democratically organised industrial society and globalised world’.9

All this bright new thinking came out of the school’s workshops in many guises. From experimental and playful theatre, to a highly structured and standardised system for paper sizes, which became the basis for where our commonly embraced A0, A1 sizes come from. Redesigns for a modern kitchen featured innovations such as a stacking modular tea set, which wouldn’t look out of place today on a Muji shop floor’s shelves. To the functional new school building and teacher’s homes which were designed by Gropius himself, when the school moved site to its new home in Dessau. The internal rooms were flooded with natural light, framed by simple geometric shapes, and topped with flat roofs, bringing to life all the core beliefs established less than a decade earlier.

The school has been criticised for an inflexibility of approach which saw it struggle to fully harmonise with the efficiency offered by the modern production line. Yet conversely in just 15 years, the school and its teachers were flexible enough to move between three different locations. Not just reacting to where they could find funding, but in the latter years, also to the political climate. In the short-term, the funding problem could be solved. But the hostile attitudes were to consistently resurface until in the 1930’s, with the extra grievances following the 1929 Wall St crash, eventually leading to the school’s permanent closure.

After the National Socialist Party seized power in Germany in 1933, a number of important Bauhauslers departed to take refuge in the UK, including Gropius himself. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the last Director of the school, moved to Chicago. The married couple, Josef and Anni Albers, two of its first students, moved to a new roles at an art school in North Carolina. Over the following decades, the Bauhaus’ former students were set free to have a major impact on art and architecture trends throughout Western Europe, the United States, Canada and Israel.

And so the Bauhaus schools’ role in the 20th century was fulfilled. If art was the elevated bi-product of exceptional craft, then modernism was the elevated bi-product of a school with exceptional vision and timing. Many seeds successfully germinated were being inadvertently redistributed around the globe so that the school’s message, and ideas could continue to work as catalysts for further change – a small school had become a global movement.

The motto for the Bauhaus’ first exhibition in Weimar had been worded by Gropius himself. ‘Art and Technology: A New Unity’. A slogan offering a harmony still to this day yet to be fully realised. Back in 1923, Gropius successfully tricked the two yet to be reconciled factions into the illusion of working together. Meanwhile today, the challenge of uniting these two forces in a way which consistently yields more fruitful results for everyone, is still very much omnipresent. Poignantly, anyone writing a motto for this present century, would be wise to include the needs of nature as well.

In history, there is perhaps no better validation for an idea or design than the demonstration of its ability to withstand the test of time. The writer Jonathan Morrison highlights the significant value which the Bauhaus school added to the world when he says it turned ‘the accepted concepts of what constituted good design upside down and instigated trends which remain with us today’.10

The ‘form follows function’ motif will continue as a guiding principle for how we design and build this century, but only if we first follow a thorough evaluation of the full ecological footprint. Not just of the singular 'thing', but everything which it connects with too. How this additional requirement in turn affects the form and function of the objects which we make, is guaranteed to take us in exciting and unchartered directions.

This autumn, the school will celebrate it’s 100th year with admirers and tourists flocking from all over the globe to visit a new Museum in Dessau. To this day, the Bauhaus legacy lives on and is set to begin an entirely new era of revival. For humanity’s most urgent challenges today are equally born entirely from functional requirements. This century designing ways of living which can stand the test of time becomes the test itself. So let’s continue in the next chapter, with some more useful concepts connected to the passage of time.

Next ︎
Chapter 4 —
De Stijl meets Time

Credits & Notes:
Hatje Catz – Ulmer Modelle
Ulmer Museum | HfG-Archiv

2 – 3
Kate Bush
Bauhaus – Art as Life
Koenig Books

4 – 5 / 7 / 9
Michael Siebenbrodt
Bauhaus – Art as Life
Koenig Books

Signed by Muche / Schlemmer / Hartwig / Scherdtfeger / Breuer/ Gropius – Oct 1922
“Think Different”
Apple Inc
TBWAChiatDay – 1997

10 – 11
Jonathan Morrison How the Bauhaus found its way into your house
The Times – Sat 06 Apr 2019

The Sustainers — 21st Century Pioneers
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