Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Ignoring Bauhaus Idealism/A Betrayal of Walter Gropius

Martin Filler’s paean to lost Bauhaus glory deserves a rebuttal. As a homeless boy in Depression Detroit, I felt at first hand the pain of not having a house, until FDR’S FHA permitted my abandoned teacher mother to finally afford a new one, shared with another teacher. So when in graduate school Nicholas Pevsner’s innovative book on modern architecture alerted me to Gropius’ ideal of “good design for the working classes”, I chose art and architecture as a doctoral prelim. And made my Am Lit students do term papers on “a great American building”.

Our first house was a splendid National Homes prefab Cape Cod designed by Charles Goodman, $400 down and $40 a month, affordable for an ABD. A Ford Foundation grant the next year to devise media strategies in New York for TV in English teaching. And a Carnegie Postdoctoral grant at Penn in 1957 to create a new course on the Mass Society (first semester: industrial design, architecture and urban planning; second semester, print, graphics and broadcasting) landed us in a marvelous Levittown house on Thornyapple Lane. (I know Upper Westside eggheads despised what they never had the wit to try—nor to read my then colleague Herb Gans’ “The Levittowners”).

A lucky break led us to Greenbelt Knoll, Morris Milgram’s first experiment in interracial housing in Philadelphia where we recently had the joy of celebrating our fiftieth year in our Louie Kahn house! So I kept in mind the Gropius ideal as something important to study in my retirement. In 1999, Weimar was European Cultural Capital so I have settled into an 1874 villa with a new German wife and infant to take a good look at Gropius’ luck with his ideal of “good design for the working classes.”

The short answer from ten years of research is that his meliorism has been betrayed for mindless Tourism. The filiopietistic orgy that has just ended for the curious “90th” anniversary proved only that too many German cultural leaders suffer from a delayed Teutonic guilt syndrome. As long as I whistled along with their filiopietistic script, I was welcomed as an American mouthpiece for their thoughtlessness. As soon as I made up my mind “wrong”, I was non grata.

My loss really began at a Tagung in Dessau celebrating the 75th anniversary of the closing of the Bauhaus. Dr. Peter Hahn, former head of the Berlin Archive, was giving a talk on Mies that was like a precanonization testimony.

Now one of the major serendipities of my migrant life was meeting the last American Bauhausler, Bertrand Goldberg, at the 1970 Chicago Film Festival. He became my mentor, and every future pit stop in Chicago became a tutorial on the Bauhaus ideal, which he followed religiously to his dying day. We’d walk his dogs together as he expatiated! At our last meeting, in his club high above his masterpiece Marina, we talked again about Mies. Timothy McVeigh had bombed the Oklahoma Federal Building the day before and we were in a solemn mood.

He reminded me with rue how Mies played footsie with Alfred Rosenberg until he lost. And Mies romanced Albert Speer (unsuccessfully) until he fled in 1937 to Wood's Hole, Wyoming to do a rich man's summer home--at the instigation of Gropius. When I brought this up at the 75th anniversary Tagung, Hahn accused me of sacrilege. And more recently when I repeated this story to the former dean at the Ulm School of Design, he objected. “But he was a Catholic!”

As if that explained anything! He was often a nasty man, telling his onetime acolyte Phillip C. Johnson, that his famous glass house in Connecticut looked like a hot dog stand at night! And then there’s the house in Plano he made for his lover that proved unlivable. (It now serves as a Visitor Center to celebrate his architectural "genius”.) For a German feminist’s crit of his Weissenhof apartments, see my piece in the website of the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.

Phillip Johnson in my opinion is the problem. He phoned Alfred Barr, Jr. the future head of MOMA/NY from Dessau in 1926, touting that new building as the greatest modernist structure he had yet seen. He should have asked the professors and students first, who alternately sweltered and froze in that many windowed factory! (I have overnighted often enough in their “hotel”, the former ateliers, to know they haven’t yet solved the temperature problems.)

But Johnson wasn’t after the truth. He wanted to brand Modernism; and become its prophet. And this parvenu from Cleveland tried to impose his hyperaestheticism on his master Gropius at Harvard! He mocked his boss viciously in private correspondence for being so working class. It was PJ who corrupted the Bauhaus visionaries into being façade fakirs for the Fortune 500. Any new ART style would do—if it attracted commissions.

But Gropius complicated his own ideal of worker housing. He wasted scarce cash by giving General Panel, his prefab venture, a HQ on Park Avenue! And his partner, Konrad Wachsmann, rented an abandoned aircraft factory in make their prefabs! His major competitor, National Homes, based centrally in Lafayette, IN was ideally sited for interstate distribution! If the Bauhaus reputation custodians knew what they were doing, they’d field exhibitions for Charles Goodman and Bertrand Goldberg, the practical visionaries who got things done not just dreamt about.

And Gropius was lousy on follow through. He ordered everyone to photograph their work, but it wasn’t until 1955 that firemen found those photos abandoned in the attic of the main Weimar building. And it wasn’t until the 21st century that the uneven leavings appeared in album form. Gropius' speedy exit is still another example of his shaky leadership.

As the Dessau City Council drifted more and more rightwards, it was irresponsible to abandon the school to the Marxist Hannes Meyer. That he was being harangued by a crusading journalist (for double dipping salary as adviser to Torten, the ugliest suburb in history!) and hassled by a colleague over his wife are two very weak reasons for abandoning his ideal.

This last Bauhaus "intellectual" orgy has been the most fatuous PR in German cultural history. It has soiled Germany's well-earned rep for sound scholarship with fatuous hagiography.

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