A century after its founding, Bauhaus remains one of the most transcendent — and frustrating — movements of the Modernist age.
THE HISTORY OF the Bauhaus is therefore also a history of its controversies, false starts and failures: Directors failed to maintain order, politics overran the school, women were consistently subordinated. It is also a history in which design as a social concern gave way to design as the styling of consumer goods. But it is also a history of other schools, with which it was contemporary and to which it gave birth. The poet Rabindranath Tagore’s Visva-Bharati University, founded in Santiniketan in rural West Bengal, India, in 1921, bears comparison with the Bauhaus. (Tagore, who visited the school on a trip to Europe that year, also helped organize a 1922 exhibition in Calcutta featuring artists from the Bauhaus and the Indian avant-garde.) So, too, does Black Mountain College in Asheville, N.C., founded in 1933, the year the Bauhaus closed, where Josef and Anni Albers taught. Max Bill, a former Bauhaus student, co-founded the Ulm School of Design in 1953 in West Germany, which collaborated early on with the German manufacturing company Braun, whose Dieter Rams-designed products directly influenced Jony Ive, the chief designer of Apple. Which brings us back via a commodius vicus to design as the styling of consumer goods.
Why did things end up there? After all, the Bauhaus began as a protest against the thoughtless direction of industrialization, the harm it did to mind and spirit. “Only work which is the product of an inner compulsion can have spiritual meaning,” Gropius wrote in 1923. “Mechanized work is lifeless, proper only to the lifeless machine ... The solution depends on a change in the individual’s attitude toward his work.” But Gropius was also intent on partnering with German industry to market Bauhaus products; under Meyer’s directorship, the Bauhaus actually became profitable through its commercial partnerships. Nonetheless, he encouraged the internal agitation of the increasing number of Communist students — even the Bauhaus journal took on a communist bent — and his activities (not to mention the prospect of a financially independent Bauhaus) began to be viewed with alarm by the Dessau authorities. In July 1930, the mayor dismissed him, and Mies was anointed as his successor. In an alternately lugubrious, self-pitying and sarcastic open letter, Meyer accused the city of “attempting to rid the Bauhaus, so heavily infected by me, of the spirit of Marxism”:
Morality, propriety, manners, and order are now to return once more hand in hand with the Muses. As my successor you have had Mies van der Rohe prescribed for you by Gropius and not — according to the statutes — on the advice of the Masters. My colleague poor fellow, is no doubt expected to take his pickax and demolish my work in blissful commemoration of the Moholyan past of the Bauhaus. It looks as if this wicked materialism is to be fought with the sharpest weapons and hence the very life beaten out of the innocent white Bauhaus box. ... I see through it all. I understand nothing.
TO SEE THE SITES of the Bauhaus firsthand today is in many ways to glimpse the failure of its collective wisdom: Buildings that weren’t destroyed or commandeered by the Nazis were left to slowly decay after the war, and the ones that still function mostly do so as tourist landmarks. And yet, especially with the works that still operate as they were originally intended, it is possible to glimpse the image of the future that the Bauhaus evoked for its students, teachers and contemporaries.
Unlike Weimar, with its overwhelming German classical and Romantic heritage — the erstwhile home of Goethe and Liszt — the eerie, moribund town of Dessau is overwhelmed by the legacy of the Bauhaus.