Why has the Bauhaus closed


Philipp Oswalt

To person

is an architect and professor for architectural theory and design at the University of Kassel. From 2009 to 2014 he was director and board member of the Bauhaus Dessau Foundation. He is curator of the exhibition "Bauhaus | documenta. Vision and Brand" (Neue Galerie Kassel, May 24th - September 8th, 2019). His new book "Brand Bauhaus" will be published in summer 2019. [email protected]

Anyone visiting the Bauhaus in Weimar or Dessau not only expects the museum, i.e. the presentation of the heritage, but also of course the lively school - a Bauhaus that is still being taught today. Why actually? The Bauhaus was closed over 80 years ago. Viewed soberly, it is absurd to expect the survival of an institution that, as we know, has not existed for so long. Where does this strange incompleteness of the Bauhaus legacy come from, the expectation that "the Bauhaus" - at least as an idea - will still make significant contributions to shaping the present? An expectation that incidentally does not only exist at the historical Bauhaus sites, but is also formulated elsewhere. For example at the Bauhaus Museum in the Chinese city of Hángzhou, which was opened by the Chinese Academy of Arts in 2012 to revive today's design theory and practice.

If we want to understand this, it is not about the forms and products of the Bauhaus - be it in their trivialized forms, such as prefabricated houses in the Bauhaus style, or in their fetishized and museumized forms, such as in Bauhaus tourism, the licensed replicas the original Bauhaus design or the reconstruction of Bauhaus buildings. All of this is very real, but it is nothing more than the recovery of a bygone era, a practice that is no longer alive. The reasons for the persistent virulence of the Bauhaus ideas lie deeper and require a closer look at the essence of modernity.

The modern age: fragmented and centrifugal

The Bauhaus is part of modernity, whose epoch took shape around 1800 with industrialization, capitalism, modern science and the nation states and continues to this day. The understanding of modern architecture usually follows a heroic historiography: heroic architects create iconic buildings that make history. The reality of architectural practice is largely different. Modernity as a process takes place in the accumulation of a multitude of smallest changes in the most varied of areas. It is an evolution in a process with countless actors in countless micro-steps.

A good example of this is construction technology, which played an important role for the classic avant-garde with its enthusiasm for new materials and constructions: on the basis of countless inventions for the most varied of elements and methods, it continuously developed and shaped modern architecture in a relevant way. In this respect, modern buildings are not holistic entities, but rather aggregates made up of a multitude of components. Each micro-element itself develops in a technical evolution that unfolds globally through a collective of inventors, engineers and manufacturers who work together on the metatext of technical development.

The knowledge of construction technology has thus shifted from traditional craftsmanship to technical products. Craft cultures are based on the implicit knowledge of craft traditions, of living local practices. With the modern age, the building technology knowledge was made explicit in patents, disclosed and shifted into the products and their instructions for use. Therefore, modern building techniques can be used worldwide regardless of local building cultures. Modernization develops centrifugal forces that dissolve connections and fragment the present.

The unleashing of these technical-scientific forces has a remarkable dynamic. But this development, this progress, is almost value-free, almost undirected and initially aimless. Science, technology and business can produce both pleasant and terrible things, and these things are usually very close to one another: a technology that was new at the time, such as the Junkers 52 aircraft, could be used to transport people on vacation as well as to bomb cities; a new substance like Zyklon B could be both a useful pesticide and a means of industrial killing of people. This ambivalence belongs to the essence of modernity.

Modern repair shop?

When the Bauhaus was founded in 1919, the First World War in Europe was just over. The crisis-ridden development of the modern industrial countries had resulted in the first industrialized war, a break in tradition and civilization of unimaginable severity had taken place. In response to the undirected and destructive development of modernity, the Bauhaus tried to overcome the fragmentation of the present through a new totality and synthesis and at the same time to give the project of modernity a meaning, an orientation, a goal.

This applies not only to the Bauhaus, but also to other avant-garde groups of classical modernism. But unlike in the heroic self-description of the avant-gardes of the 20th century, they were not the primary initiators and authors of the modernization process, the engines of renewal. The existing traditions had long since broken. Seen in this way, the avant-gardes were not a vanguard in the development of modernity, but their cultural repair shop. [1] When, for example, the founding director of the Bauhaus, Walter Gropius, spoke of "art and technology - a new unit" in 1923, this was less an expression of an unbroken euphoria for the future and more a reference to a disturbed, crisis-ridden relationship between art and technology, which through cultural renewal in a new balance and a new context should be brought about.

Symptomatic of this is the architecture of the Dessau Bauhaus building itself. As innovative as it is in terms of design, it is also obviously a retrospective: reinforced concrete, skeleton construction, glass facade, central heating, elevator and much more are achievements of the 19th century. From a technical point of view, it would have been possible to erect the building in almost the same shape 50 years earlier. The technical, but also creative quotes are more reminiscent of the past industrial age than they promise a departure into the new and unknown. This is exactly what the American inventor and architect Buckminster Fuller criticized: "The 'International Style', which was brought to America by the innovators from the Bauhaus, was a fad without knowledge of the scientific basis for structural mechanics and chemistry (…) The international Bauhaus school used standard installations and was just about able to persuade the manufacturers to modify the surface of the faucets and the color, size and arrangement of the tiles. (…) In short, they only dealt with that Problem of modernizing the surface of end products, these end products necessarily being sub-functions of a technically obsolete world. "[2]

It would be misguided to reduce the value of the work of Walter Gropius and the Bauhaus as a whole with this absolutely correct criticism. But it gives us cause to rethink our understanding of the artistic avant-garde. In our understanding, we follow far too much the self-portrayals and self-heroism of the avant-garde as spearheads of society who break up traditions and advance into the unknown. But de facto they found themselves in a precarious situation in which the former cultural contexts had long been destroyed. The modern process was technically and scientifically advanced and had led to a cultural and social crisis. The search for new cultural forms was less proactive than reactive. At the same time, it would be one-sided and shortened to reduce the avant-garde to the role of repair troops, because they not only reacted to the modernization process, but also acted proactively with a view to formulating cultural processes. So they were driven and driven at the same time.