Thursday, 3 April 2014

Retrieving Bauhaus Idealism

I first set foot on Weimar in 1998, on my way back from reporting on Stockholm, then the Cultural Capital of Europe. Scandinavian egalitarianism strongly appealed to my blue collar Detroit values, and I wasn't disappointed: architect Gunnar Asplund and designer Sigurd Persson exemplified their commitment to create the very best environment for everyman.

I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Mies van der Rohe's Weissenhof Siedlung,(Stuttgart,1927) moved them to celebrate Modernism at their own Stockholm Fair (1930): the Finnish giant Alvar Aalto declared: "The exhibition speaks out for joyful and spontaneous everyday life." Strangely, a snooty Berlin critic trashed Weimar in Stockholm as a rundown DDR town then scheduled to be the 99 Cultural Capital! I decided to visit Weimar during its glorious year in 1999.

Andreas Schneider, a journalist helping Bernd Kaufmann organize the Weimar event, dropped what he was doing and took me on a daylong tour of the town. (see my blog,www.MyGlobal for the details of my fascinating pitstop.) As a homeless kid in Depression Detroit, I had read in graduate school in the first book about modern architecture by Nicholas Pevsner (a Leipzig Jew who fled Hitler) about the Bauhaus. He said Walter Gropius's Bauhaus aimed to fuse art and technology to bring good design to "the working classes." I decided on the spot to return to Weimar to research a book on his ideals in 1999.

Alas, the more I read, the less I believed him. First, he was a lousey architect, complaining bitterly in letters to his mother that he couldn't draw! Why try? I speculate he wanted to emulate his great uncle Martin Gropius, the last important pre-modern architect in Berlin. And he had a private partner to do the heavy lifting. I couldn't believe that the Bauhaus had no course in architecture until 1928--after he fled with Marianne Brandt to Berlin! He made the Swiss Communist architect Hannes Meyer the director! The Dessau city managers who had financed the school's move from right leaning Weimar to at first leftie Dessau. Dessau soon fired Meyer who went with his coterie to Moscow. The city brass closed the school, Mies rented an abandoned telephone factory and banned politics!

My hunch is it was Gropius' flabby character that caused him to flee. For example when his Denkmal for the Kapp Putsch victims was dedicated in the Weimar cemetery, he was afraid to attend the ceremony! His first wife Alma Mahler chided him for his fear that the Weimar legislature would tab him as a Commie.

And he had great ideas (every teacher had to photograph their work), but no followthrough. In the 1950's firemen found those photos in a Bauhaus Uni attic! And when a new editor of the Dessau paper accused him of "double dipping" (director's salary plus advisor's money for designing the Junker suburb, Törten.

And when he asked his star artists to reduce their salaries, they mostly just ignored him! And there's scuttlebutt that Herbert Bayer was moving on his second wife, Ilse, so he scrammed.

Mies had a Denkmal problem too. His first important work (1926), a Berlin cemetery tribute to the founders of the German Communist party, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxembourg! My Chicago mentor, Bertrand Goldberg, who was in Mies' last class 1933, told me in 1985 that Mies went crazy trying to convince the Nazi ideologue Alfred Rosenberg that he was no longer a commie! And that he sucked up to Albert Speer until Gropius got his a millionaire's commission in Jackson Hole Wyoming in 1938! Which is to say, he was a Nice Nazi.

You'd never get this picture from German "scholars". They,alas, are hagiographers, faking saints out of sinners! Imagine my consternation when I discovered this phoniness, all topuff up the German spirit after tragedy of Naziism. On the contrary, in my hometown of Detroit, George Booth, publisher of the Detroit News founded Cranbrook and brought Eliel Saarinen from Finland to implement his plans. Not talk, talk, but act,act.

Even more embarrassing was the stories of two penniless German immigrants, Albert Kahn (Detroit) and Timothy Pflueger (San Francisco) neither of whom could afford to finish high school. But what these autodidacts achieved makes the Bauhaus look foolish. And when I arrived in Weimar the Bauhaus promoters had not even heard of these superb creators. (See "Forgotten Bauhaus Women,"

Another Bauhaus Museum? (the fourth!) It would be easier for the Germans to win World War Two. The only more foolish move was Hellmut Seemann trying to buy two sheets of Schiller for 24,000! We revere the poet for his writing not his penmanship! For 10 cents I could xerox "The Ode To Joy"! I asked Frank Motz was his 2011 budget was: 250,000. I asked Edgar Hartung what his budget was for Mon Ami Kino: 15,000. Which was a lousy investment?

I lent Helmutt Seemann my copy of Louis Kahn's protege Richard Saul Wurman's "Man Made Philadelphia", designed to teach high school students how to be thoughtful clients of architecture. He returned it without comment. Wurman is the idealist who founded TED. That book is also now in the Anna Amalia Library.

I would insist that all the headline grabbing BauHustlers read Cameron Sinclair's "Design Like it Means a Damn", the bible of Architecture for Humanity,Inc., a global group of world architects who give a damn about two billion unhoused humans. It also is in the Anna Amalia. But it's easier to throw money around than to think. That is the tragedy of Weimar's Gropius betrayers.

By the way, Bertrand Goldberg is the best architect to come out of the Bauhaus. He's never had a German exhibition. And at our last meeting in Chicago, he told me proudly that he kept loyal to Gropius's ideals to the end. Unlike Weimar's fast talkers!

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