It was the sheerest of coincidences that put me in Wittenberg/Lutherstadt the day the 500th anniversary of his nailing his 95 theses on the Castle Church door kicked off with several elaborate ceremonies. I had heretofore absolutely no intellectual interest in Lutheranism even though my marriage (at 74 to a 34 year old Ossi Frau in Weimar) has resulted in our first child (Daniel Patrick Moynihan Hazard, born on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, December 8, 2006 as an in vitro child! You can’t get more immaculate than that.) being baptized in her Evangelical Lutheran Church. I was raised because of parental abandonment by German Dominican nuns at Holy Rosary Academy in Bay City, Michigan(1930-1940). They regarded Martin as a devil in abandoned Augustinian monk’s garb. Our idea of wit at twelve was to sneer at Luther’s symbolic act as nailing his feces to the Church floor. To add to the calendrical oddity 19 September was our Seven Year Itch deadline, our having been married secularly on the San Francisco City Hall steps in 2001 by my best friend, Jake McGoldrick, a City Supervisor there.
What brought me there was my just having finished a book criticizing the current Bauhaus establishment’s corruption of Gropius’s moral meliorism (as Nicholas Pevsner, the Jew who fled Nazi Germany, to write the first substantial book on Gropius, put it: he wanted to fuse art and technology to make good design accessible to “the working classes”. As a homeless blue collar boy in Depression Detroit that was all the theology I needed—even though Holy Rosary was followed by a minor seminary (Sacred Heart) and a philosophy major at a Jesuit University (both in Detroit) after U.S.Naval service, as an aviation radar technician at the end of World War II. That’s why I settled in Weimar when it became the Cultural Capital of Europe in 1999—to research and tell that story that inspired me to become a Professor of American Lit and Media, becoming an avid follower of my Canadian mentor, Marshall McLuhan.
There are four people keeping alive the true moral vision of Gropius: Alice Rawsthorn, former head of the London Design Museum whom founder Terence Conrad found too intellectually feminist for his patriarchal hegemonic. Alice writes the most insightful design essays extant these grim days in her Monday columns for the International Herald Tribune. Most germane is her classic essay assessing the terrible paradox that 90% of our design profi’s work for 10% of the globe’s population. Another wise man is Cameron Sinclair the Londoner who co-founded Architects for Humanity, a sort of Medecins Sans Frontier of global dwellings. He has also written the most important book yet on our subject “Design Like You Gave a Damn”.
And Millard Fuller, out of the otherwise unimportant place, Americus, Georgia, who had the wit to organize Habitat for Humanity, now having already helped over a million poor people to build their own homes—in almost a hundred countries! Finally, the man whose own version of Gropius’s Moralist Meliorism is evident in the meaning of the one-day conference in Berlin whose rhetorical question was: What have our Starchitects for the homeless. The answer is truly painful: NOTHING! I’m reminded of the Greed Incarnate of Frank Gehry’s whose cheap wrinkled cardboard chairs went out of production only to ultimately sell at the Vitra design Museum for over 600 Euros. Unless he’s building a Stiftung for the poor and homeless with that disgracefully gouge-priced status symbol (that isn’t even reasonably comfortable for God’s sake!),he deserved a lower circle in Hell that hasn’t yet been excavated: in a Just Society, he’d be condemned to do that digging!
And there’s my perennial nominee for the Peace Nobel, Dr. Omar Akbar, creator and director of the Kolleg of the Dessau Bauhaus whose Conference on Urbanity and City Infrastructure explored the tangled contradictions of how to increase amenities in the shrinking cities of East Germany and other Third World encampments that seem intractable. They aren’t. just demanding as much moral enthusiasm as technical skill. The day at Phillip Melancthon Gymnasium was enough to take a few hundred architects, planners, and policy deciders and restore the wide-eyed enthusiasm that originally motivated them before their periodic burnouts. Michael Sandau, gymnasium headmaster, made his empty house endearing (the 1888 Grunderzeit structure is about to undergone a complete refitting of its own infrastructure! Water, heat, and electricity are under way! Is his opening welcome he delivered the brilliant apercu that education is the central infrastructure of the modern city, and he pointed out that Luther begged the nobles to improve mass education! I had always thought that was the shtick of his Catholic competitor, Thomas Munzer, who died at Mass from a Lutheran sword.
As a retired professor who missed the elan of youth, I stayed overnight in the Youth Hostel which is an upgrade of one of the outbuildings of the original Castle Church. For 32 euros for a private room! Their breakfast followed the filet mignon of the Melancthon Gymnasium of the day before. I read in the Mitteldeutsche Zeitung at breakfast that several hundred of the local eaters helped make a new paperback cookbook of local recipes. What a civilized contribution to the Slow Food movement which is fast motivating many to give up Fasting! The Ceremonies kicking off the Luther Decade of memorializing which will culminate on All Souls Day, 31 October 2017, the 500th anniversary of his nailing his new ideas to the door of his church. Reformation was in the air. A 500 tree Luthergarten which will seed other trees throughout the world was officially begun, with a tyke releasing five doves for Peace when the initiation was finished.
All of this watched over by a medieval police force with weapons that brought smiles of glee rather than frowns of fear. A Jewish rabbi lit a candle and laid a wreath. Chicago Bishop Mark S. Hanson, head of the Lutheran World Federation set the tone for the Decade. Repentance precedes Reformation. When he was asked to follow two prostitutes with AIDs at a recent global conference in Mexico City, he put his knees where his repenting heart was: he washed their feet. And then a hearty crowd took a twenty minute hike to the banks of the mighty Elbe River, where a large ten-oar rowing barge with ML arriving from the Augustinian Monastery in Erfurtstood offshore whilst the welcoming crowds finished their hikes. It was corny, but satisfying seeing history repeating itself with a late medieval collocation of instruments and performers too loose to be called “a band”. And then we trekked back across the railyards to the Market Square where the Old Rathaus is now the Christus Stiftung of Christian Art, a collection of a local doctor and his wife. It’s a stunning display of 150 years of Modernism: all the Great Names are there, making it a plausible motivation for a visit.
But there is more, almost too much. You have to have Olympic stamina to see it all. And Cranach the Elder lived here 50 years! And there’s an artists quarter next to his house on Market Square, dominated by a humungous orange flying dragon (I learned in the huge Cranach Café where I recovered my metabolism nibbling at a plum tart for depleted energy. There’s a veritable Tiergarten of animals, wild and tame, of plastic, of paper, of whatever, where I could easily gone bankrupt buying beasts for Danny. Across from the Youth Hostel is an excellent Info Center where there are many options to reside from El Cheapos to elegant Hotels. The JYH who booked me by phone from Weimar told me to walk from the Main Train Station, half an hour he minimized. I did it the slow way and did see everything. But loaded with gifts and books I took a cab to the train. Seven Euros in Seven Minutes where God finally blessed me with a regional train to Leipzig where I snatched the ICE fastie to Frankfurt Airport, first stop Weimar. Which meant I had to hustle to enjoy my calf liver soup, followed by an ordinary Spanish red: total cost 15 Euros. And dessert was a tasty conversation with a German lady with fluent English. Timing perfect. Number 1 bus whisked me to Wielandplatz, three minutes from our second floor Villa (1784, updated 1999). An exhausting two days in inexhaustible Wittenberg.