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Saturday, February 6, 2010
MOMA Bauhaus (from ICON Magazine)
A short film made in the 1960s shows Susan Sontag in sunglasses driving a convertible through mid-town Manhattan. Sontag is on her way to meet architect Philip Johnson for a brief tour of the just completed Seagram’s Building. “I moozied over to Philip Johnson’s modest stash on Park,” Sontag says, clutching a large purse as she enters the building’s foyer. “The Seagram’s building gleamed like a switchblade in the autumn sun…the elevator swished up like a gigolo’s hand on a silk stocking.”
At the top of the Seagram’s a youthful Philip Johnson explains that unlike Le Corbusier’s ideal of a skyscraper standing alone on a vast plain, this New York skyscraper will soon have all of its marvelous views blocked. “In New York this can’t be helped, New York is a chaos and we enjoy it,” he says.
The Seagram’s building, like the PSFS building in Philadelphia, was among the first examples of the so called International Style, the American derivative of the Bauhaus school that began in Germany with architect Walter Gropius’ 4-page 1919 Bauhaus manifesto. In that manifesto, Gropius called for a “new guild of craftsmen,” which would end “the arrogant class division between artisans and artists.” Gropius’ idea was to eliminate the traditional hierarchies of the arts by placing the fine arts, architecture and design on an equal playing field, sort of like those New York’s skyscrapers that do not stand alone.
Gropius believed that a “collective” of artists and artisans was necessary because the arts had become “isolated” in modern times. To forge this new unity among the arts, he founded (and designed) the Bauhaus School in Dessau, Germany, in 1925.
Much like Andy Warhol’s New York Factory, the Dessau Bauhaus School was a hydra-headed endeavor. Students and teachers worked together on the design of buildings, furniture, teapots, wall hangings, table lamps, photography, toys, advertising posters, lettering, even stage design and choreography (ballet). In a short time, Gropius’ vision of a synthesis of the arts became a startling new reality.
The current exhibit at MOMA documents the 14-year old reign of the Bauhaus school before its closure by the National Socialists in 1932. The exhibition is MOMA’s second look at the Bauhaus phenomenon. In 1938, the museum invited Gropius to help organize the first Bauhaus exhibit. This first exhibition was limited in that it did not include developments in the world of Bauhaus after Gropius’ departure from the school. MOMA’s founding director, Alfred H. Barr, Jr., who visited Dessaur in 1927 (the design of MOMA reflected Gropius’ design of the Dessau building) would later recollect, “I regard the three days which I spent at the Bauhaus in 1927 as one of the important incidents in my own education.”
Gropius’ “art synthesis” meant the “revamping” of the lost traditions of handicraft, or manual craft. The current MOMA exhibit demonstrates that nothing escaped the Bauhaus eye. Items such as Marianne Brandt’s 1924 Coffee & Tea Set remind us of kitchenware in “IKEA.” The small Bauhaus table lamps (Wilheim Wagenfeld and Carl Jakob Jucker’s 1923 Table Lamp) have an unusual economy of form that cast no shadows. In fact, the tightly controlled sectioning of light in these table lamps has been compared to a “socialism of vision,” or a conjuring (in handicraft) of something “collective,” hinting at, as Frederic J. Schwartz notes in the museum catalog, a white light that is “objective, diffuse, everywhere the same…..The Bauhaus lamp serves as a symbol for a moment when politics retreated into visual form.” The 1917 Marxist revolution had a significant influence on Bauhaus design. This influence is seen in other common household artifacts. In radicalized or reduced shapes these items promulgate the same synthesis: a call for something like “collective consciousness.” Although the word ‘socialism’ would soon take on a different sort of meaning with the rise of National Socialists (or Nazis) in the 1920s, the buildings and the common household items on display exude a feeling that something big and numbing is on the horizon, for one can see in Bauhaus the seeds of what later has been termed the fascistic architecture of The Third Reich.
In this remake of everything according to the laws of function and efficiency, there is a surgical pairing down with a de-emphasis on the cosmetic.
Bauhaus toys, for instance, have a rustic, unfinished look. They were not supposed to resemble the highly polished goods sold in retail stores. The Paul Klee designed puppets (the artist designed them for his son Felix) point to ideas of play, creativity, and experimentation. A handsome African chair, reminiscent of a Coptic bishop’s throne, inspires us with its regal lines even if its Bauhaus designers took certain liberties: chairs in Africa were never designed with backs. And even a game like chess, which was all the rage in the first half of the 20th century and which Duchamp felt had “all the beauty of art—and much more”-- is represented here by geometric and scaled down stereometric figures that fit neatly into a Bauhaus-style box, a neat and comfy, “game on the run.”
Even newborns get into the act, what with Peter Keler’s oversized cradle (1922), a work that calls to mind really Big Babies or offspring of the Bride of Frankenstein. Marcel Breuer Club Chairs, with surfaces of chromed steel, are so minimalist that they “disappear in the liberation of sitting.” On the other hand, the Gerrit Rietveld Armchair (1919) recalls a wooden rendition of the electric chair or a Pennsylvania Dutch torture device.
Even the alphabet becomes a ready catechumen in the Church of Bauhaus.
Bauhaus lettering in books, promotional materials and advertising posters meant the obliteration of capital letters. As Herbert Bayer, the designer of the Bauhaus universal alphabet, stated, “Capital letters had no phonetic purpose and thus violated the functional premise of the Latin alphabet: to translate sound into graphic marks. Speech reveals no difference between uppercase and lowercase—so why does written text?” The Bauhaus print style was to write everything in lower or upper case, although writing small or in lower case was the preferred method since, as Bayer, remarked, “We wrote everything small in order to save time.”
The works of Paul Klee are amply represented. “Separation in the evening,” (1922), a watercolor and pencil on paper and cardboard, transforms sunset into Bauhausian patterns. Another delight to the eye: Josef Albers’ glass fragments in grid pictures with glass, wire, metal and paint combining to form a new kind of stained glass. One must examine the intricate workings of these marvelous gems up close.
The mainstay of Bauhaus, architecture is represented in full. “Architecture is the will of an epoch translated into space,” der Rohe once said. “A building should be a clean and true statement of its times.”
The exhibition includes a plague commemorating the three pioneers of modernism: van der Rohe, Le Corbusier and Gropius. Van der Rohe of course famous for his Chicago skyscraper designs (he co-designed Seagram’s); Gropius for his housing projects in Berlin, Karlsruhe and Dessau; Le Corbusier for his “scorch and burn” approach to architecture.
Le Corbusier once described New York as hideous. In “The Architect as Totalitarian,” writer Theodore Dalrymple, states that Le Corbusier willingly served both Stalin and Vichy. “He wanted to start from Year Zero: ‘Before me, nothing; after me, everything.’ By their very presence, the raw-concrete-clad rectangular towers that obsessed him cancelled out centuries of architecture. Hardly any town or city in Britain (to take just one nation) has not had its composition wrecked by architects and planners inspired by his ideas.”
Harsh words indeed, but how could it be otherwise for an egomaniac who dreamt of “cleaning and purging cities,” and who wanted to level Paris, Oslo, Moscow, Berlin, Algiers, and Buenos Aires?
Pioneer der Rohe believed that “buildings should show themselves rather than be concealed by ornamentation,” while Gropius wanted architecture to be stripped of its historical frippery so that its materials could “breathe in new ways.” Gropius wanted the skeleton outside the epidermis. He longed for transparency, the building as X-ray. But if the old is cast aside because it’s thought to bear no relevance to the present, what’s left?
The Bauhaus prescription calls for little or no organic connection to the past.
Tom Wolfe in “From Bauhaus to Our House,” posits that modernism (or Bauhaus) was developed after World War I because of the need to recreate the world from scratch. Bauhaus, Wolfe writes, is a form of ascetic extremism that has worked devastation on American cities. In Wolfe’s view, even Louis Kahn is a “box maker,” although he finally managed to “break free” when he designed the Bangladeshi parliament.
(These days it seems that everybody has an opinion on Bauhaus. In 1984, Prince Charles, in a speech during the 150th anniversary of the Royal Institute of British Architects, described the proposed Sainsbury Wing expansion to the Gallery in London by architect Peter Ahrends, as “a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much loved and elegant friend. “ The project was eventually scraped in favor of a postmodern design by the Philadelphia firm of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown. )
Wolfe harps on Bauhaus as a political force. The “collectivity” that Gropius advocated—“Let us collectively desire, conceive and create the new building of the future,” Gropius stated—sprang from a desire to incorporate art into design in a socially useful way. While function and efficiency has its place, there’s no reason why contemporary architecture cannot also have intrinsic, aeasthetic value. One has only to consider the romantic historicism of Edward Durell Stone or the graceful expressionism of Eero Saarinsen as examples of a more classical yet still modern sensibility.
Bauhaus evolved under the direction of Hames Meyer, who directed the school at Dessau. Over time, Gropius' ideas were expanded and amplified. The MOMA exhibit follows this progression. We see individual houses, including Gropius’ own boxy Master House, and even the Dessau Bauhaus building itself, with its surprisingly curiously handsome Northeast view. There are hints of a charming aesthetic but in almost every case that is over ruled by function, reminding us that in 1930 Dessau was reorganized to conform to the thinktank organization of the communist cell. This all but mandated a sociological basis for all artistic activity. As Meyer stated, “Building and design are for us one and the same, and they are a social process. As a ‘university of design’ the Dessau Bauhaus is not an artistic but a social phenomenon.” This thought led to the creation of row houses, and whole districts of buildings where there was a social need, a Utopian model city concept that in the end produced ultiliarian structures one can almost describe as Stalinesque or pre-fascistic. Again: Bauhaus as the pre-cursor the architectural style of the National Socialists or the Nazis, despite the fact that the Nazis termed Bauhaus architecture as “degenerate and un-German.”
While this exhibition is a fantastic tribute to all things Gropius, it would be wise to remember that Bauhaus was a way-station, rather than the final stop, on the road to architectural heaven.