Walter Gropius came back from his stint as a cavalry officer in the First World War totally disillusioned by the wasteful horrors of that conflict. I believe he sublimated his pain by imagining a new kind of Art School where students could devise ways of fusing Art and Technology to make good design accessible to the working classes. Most Bauhauslers, alas, have forgotten, or never believed in, that last prepositional phrase.
I intend in this essay, written for the April 30th conference at the Bauhaus Berlin Archive to plan an appropriate celebration for the 90th anniversary of its founding in 2009, to show how Pius’s ideal can be retrieved from those I would denigrate as Bauhustlers. With two exceptions, Dr. Annemarie Yaeggi and Dr. Omar Akbar, the bulk of those planning the celebration are betting on two broken down old horses—the vision of a bigger, better Bauhaus Museum (filled, alas, with more and more trivia, giving a new meaning to Mies’s aphorism “Less is More,” which should now read “Lesser is Moronic”).
The second tactic, which demeans Pius is Bigger and Better Bauhaus Tourism. Both strategies denigrate the founder’s idealism. He wanted ordinary working people to e able to lead fuller lives, and in the midst of Heinrich Zille’s 150th birthday jubilee, we can see again how tacky life could be for the workers and their families in early 20th Century Berlin. Dr. Schraber and his vegetable gardens did more for the poor back then than any cultural eminence.
Hellmut Seemann and Michael Siebenbrodt, the twin Mephistophelic figures in my reinterpretation of “Faust,” think that bigger museums and more tourists will better achieve Pius’s vision. They couldn’t be more wrong. It must be thrilling for a minor league intellectual like Seemann to achieve the marvelous “brand” of a co-MOMA exhibition. And Siebenbrodt busies himself with the relatives of lesser and lesser figures from the 1,200+ Bauhaus student alumni, collecting more and more “junk” to fill his imagined $30,000,000 museum. (Think of how many Schraber Gardens could be built with that money!) And the Thuringian legislature is not about to give S & S the megabucks it would take to buy a Klee or a Kandinsky today.)
The good news is the two other members of the Quadrumvirate running this show today really know how to honor Pius. Yaeggi’s first two books tell us about the tortured professional life of our hero. And Akbar’s canny “Kollege” for mid-career professionals is a melioristic strategy of great subtlety. Last month in Berlin he held a Tagung addressing the rhetorical question: What are our Starchitects doing for the homeless! The short answer, of course, is NOTHING!! Pius would have found such defection immoral and contemptible. As I read him, he had no use for the Prussian or Junker mentality.
In short, his aim was to de-bourgeoisify Germany’s cultural life. S & S want to rebourgeosify it, a la Thomas Krems at his many Guggenheims, now multiplying like a metastasized cancer tumor! I fear the imminent Dubai-ification of Western cultures, wherein those who made millions making our big cities of the so-called “developed” world unlivable, can fly off in a Boeing Dreamliner to play golf in the Emirates, with a mini-Louvre at hand to make them seem cultivated to themselves.
There are more humane alternatives to his S & S-ifying passivity! Alice Rawsthorn, that funky feminist who chides her class every Monday in the International Herald Tribune, recently pointed out the moral and esthetic scandal of 90% of the world’s design professionals serving only 10% of the world’s population. And Cameron Sinclair’s Architecture for Humanity is assembling the professionals (“Design as If You Gave a Damn!” is the most important book of our generation) while Millard Fuller in little ole Americus, Georgia is massing amateurs to build houses for the poor who are willing to help in its building, in his Habitat for Humanity gig.
And bless Jimmy Carter’s generous soul. He returns to the Mississippi Coast ravaged by Hurricane Katrina May 11-16 for the 25th annual “Build with Habitat.” During that week some 1,700 volunteers will build 10 homes in Biloxi and 20 in nearby Pascagoula. 30 other homes will be rehabbed or repaired in Gulfport. (I was there in the Navy in 1945, and fell proud that some fellow Americans are doing there much more than the shameful George W. Bush didn’t do three years ago when it was most needed.) See their website, firstname.lastname@example.org
Now it’s decanonization time. It may please you Germans to learn that is was an American who undermined Pius’s vision. The devil in this Faustian encounter is Philip C. Johnson (1906-2005), a Cleveland parvenu who lived much too long, spouting his nonsense about the Capital A for Art in Architecture, all the while genially admitting he was the biggest “whore” around (his word—I’d prefer “cynical conniver”). And there were alas too many other American architects and urban policymakers also cooking up this vile Brothel.
A little bio so that we can convene the Sacred Office to take away his undeserved Sainthood: His father was a nouveau riche lawyer for the steel industry. And since I took my Ph.D. in Cleveland (Western Reserve, 1957) I know very well the imperviousness of their parvenu-hood! And little Philip had a Germany nanny—so he spoke fluent German. After graduating from Harvard in philosophy (No architecture until he studied under Gropius beginning in 1938!—and this lack shows!).
He was also gay, and his happy forays in Europe were half devoted to the sexual freedoms of Berlin that he couldn’t find in morally straitlaced Cleveland and half with Henry-Russell Hitchcock looking for a Modernist brand they could set up for MOMA, founded in 1929. Meanwhile, the prospective first director of MOMA, Alfred Barr, Jr., was simultaneously prowling Europe looking for all the Modernisms in general he could patent, “branding” them for his new MOMA.
In 1926, Barr got an agitated call from PCJ, saying he had just found the greatest Modernist building ever; in Dessau, an hour’s train journey from Berlin. (He obviously hadn’t yet seen, if ever, Max Berg’s Centennial Hall in Breslau.) PCJ was a great overgeneralizer, facile and glib, but never fully informed. He was rather a good soothing sayer.
He had of course discovered the Dessau Bauhaus, “designed” by Pius, construction supervised by a much greater architect than either WG, Adolf Meyer, or PCJ, namely, Ernst Neufert, whose multi-volume series on the industrialization of architecture (1938) remains in print globally in thirteen languages. Peter Mittmann, an inspiring, unelected public servant and an innovative Modernist, to judge from his homage to Neufert (The Blue Box in folk talk) in Gelmeroda, just 3 km South of Weimar, which Lionel Feininger made famous by his lovingly obsessive images of their local church.
Peter Mittmann has turned this little town into the Santiago de Compostela of early German Modernism. I’ll never forget our dinner on the balcony of the oldest house in Gelmeroda (1804), viewing PM’s Lichtskulptur, venerating LF’s benign obsession. It was the best dessert imaginable. Mittmann also rehabbed the 1929 house Neufert had built there to confirm the principles of his theory of industrialized architecture, built while he was dean of the Fachschule which finally, in 2008, became under architectural historian Gerd Zimmermann, our Bauhaus Uni. Mittmann was a Wessi from Cologne, who’s parents fluckteten aus Ostdeutschland aus Halle (Saale) in 1950, who became the planning partner in the Cologne firm of Neufert, Graf and Mittmann. After the Wende, PM moved to Gelmeroda to rehab the properties for Nicole Delmes, Ernst’s granddaughter. The Neufert in NGM was Ernst’s son, Peter.
Omar Akbar has made another inspiring shrine of the rehabbed Dessau Bauhaus. You can overnight now in the Atelier House at 25 euros for a single. It started as backup for Tagungen and morphed into a hotel / hostel for anyone into the Bauhaus! I’d like to found a Marianne Brandt Fantasy society in which when the current members at breakfast believe your fantasy of spending the night with the greatest artist who ever attended the Bauhaus you are allowed to enter her Society! (Heh, retired professors have to do something with their battered old imaginations!)
It is a continuing scandal at how shabbily the Bauhaus Patriarchate treated MB. She did rise to be the first woman to head a workshop, but when Gropius impulsively handed over the reins of the Bauhaus to the Swiss Communist Hannes Meyer, MB followed Pius to Berlin. (He was pissed that his Startists wouldn’t take a 10% pay cut as the city government drifted rightward faster and faster, and he was being hassled by a local newspaper editor for double dipping—his director’s salary as well as fees for guiding the development of Törten, a worker’s suburb for Junker Aircraft workers. MB got caught in a double whammy of political change in East Germany. First, the Nazi’s judged her entartete, or “decadent.” Then the East Germans said she committed the “felony” of Formalism. Her hometown Chemnitz became Karl-Marx-Stadt. PCJ never mentioned her as far as I could find.
Nor could PCJ have talked to the Dessau students and professors who were actually using the buildings at Dessau instead of merely gawking at them, only fancying how they might appear in the “canonical” exhibition he and Russell-Hitchcock were already fantasizing over. Those poor folks who in them complained bitterly that they were too frigid in the winter and sweaty in the summer! Ah, yes. What I call the Barcelona Pavilion syndrome. Too much glass when you move the venue, say, from semi-tropical Barcelona to Plano, IL; you’ve got problems.
I’m talking of course of the house (1950) Mies made outside Chicago for his weekend girlfriend Dr. Farnsworth. When their romance cooled, Dr. Farnsworth took Mies to court for excess energy charges! She lost, but not in the court of international public opinion! Strangely, when they finally gave up trying to live in it a few years back, they declared it a Visitor’s Center dedicated to the architectural genius of Mies. Huh? Am I missing something here? They have also just reassigned Corbu’s twins at Weissenhof as another Visitor’s Center, dedicated to the genius of the 17 Mies architects Mies picked to make a name for himself!
That didn’t stop the greatest German Feminist since Hildegard von Bingen packed it in in the eleventh century, one Dr. Marie-Elisabeth Lüders, the first German woman to get a Ph.D. in Politics in Berlin (1910). She headed German women’s work in the defense industries in World War I. Afterwards, she ran a girl’s school in Dusseldorf, and was elected to the Reichstag. Hitler jailed her twice, for having too big a mouth! But the autobiography of this great pathfinder she entitled “Never Fear!”
And that applied to Mies and his Weissenhof apartments (1927). Dr. Lüders had the gall in those still patriarchal 1920’s to judge his apartments from the perspective of a woman and mother! How dare she? In Kinder, Kirche, und Kuche Land. “Never Fear” she told herself and used the Deutsche Werkbund magazine “Form” to indict him as a feminist flop! No room to take off wet clothes. Too much glass at both ends of the abode so that the floor was a pneumonia generator for tykes scrabbling around there. Indeed the exterior staircase had gaps through which children could fall many stories down. And when you opened the kitchen door the wind blew out the flame on the stove. Hmmm! As a moderately generous grader of term papers, I’d say Mies got a D+. What’s going on here?
Short of a complete psychiatric evaluation, I’d say these things: Mies had a crippling inferiority complex as the son of a mere mason from Aachen. He bitterly resented when he had to report to upper class Gropius in Peter Behrens bureau (1910). The other Azubi that year was Corbu! What a trio! In Weissenhof, Mies was not making a Wohnung. He was making a Kunststück. That is where Starchitecture was born. So is Gehry psychically needy. Changed his name from Goldberg when he moved down from Canada. An interesting comparison and contrast is the great German-American architect Albert Kahn.
He came to Detroit, my hometown, in 1880, the eldest of six children of a Jewish Rabbi from near Mainz. Albert didn’t even finish Gymnasium. He had to work. He was such a gifted designer he became the LiebslingAzubi at Detroit’s leading architectural firm. They so loved little Albert, they sent him for a year to Yurp, to polish off his rough edges. The abstemiousness of his account books in Europe would give contemporary expense account cheaties atrial fibrillation right off. Albert used to say that architecture is 90% business, 10% art!
Just the reverse of the Bauhauslers he had early on dubbed the “Glass House Boys.” In 1942, Kahn convened a conference of foreign architects at the University of Michigan, most of whose main buildings he had designed. The Saarinens (Eliel and Eero) Mies, and Pius Kahn was not an easy grader. He claimed to build a defense factory you analyzed the production processes, and then covered it. Fagus may have struck him as backassward—those famous curved glass corners.
The most important architectural virtue Kahn had that both Gropius and Mies lacked was the centrality of serving the client. Interestingly enough, another German American innovator, Timothy Pfleuger, had the same creed. He invented the idea of a parking garage under an Urban Park, as in San Francisco’s Union Square (1945). Analogously, he designed a high rise Medical / Dental Center at 440 Sutter where the lower floors were for parking, and the higher for doctor’s offices. His most famous creation, Top of the Mark, the grandest 24 / 7 view of SF and the Bay area, saved the Mark Hopkins Hotel from bankruptcy during the Depression.
I’m especially fond of Tim for commissioning Diego de Rivera to paint a mural on the lunchroom walls of the Pacific Stock Exchange, thereby giving bond traders permanent Bauchschmerz! His TransBay Terminal in downtown San Francisco was the first multimodal mass trans complex, until trains stop crossing the Bay from Oakland. Even in America these great architects are known only to the specialists. And even they tend to know more about Louie Kahn than Albert.
To wit, my Greenbelt Knoll house (1956) was designed by Louis Kahn, who was always hard up until the big commissions in Bangladesh came his way in the 1960’s. He designed our house and 18 others in an experiment as the first interracial community in Philadelphia. We only discovered Kahn provenience last year as part of the process of declaring us a local historical site on our Golden Jubilee.
And who is responsible for the skewing, even screwing, of architectural reputations in my architectural Faust? None other than PCJ. In 1950, PCJ made the first Modernist House in Houston for the great De Menil collect. PCJ told them to use only Mies furniture, deployed the way the Master would have it. They told him to take a hike! And never spoke to him again! The poor De Menil children, plagued by a leaking roof, thought the roofers were the architects.
Which leads me to Hazard’s First Law of Iconic Modernism: No modern house shall be called Iconic if its roof doesn’t leak. In a snippier mood I call such houses MODERNOID, to keep the Faithful (those who believe in me) safely away from such flops.
Both Mies and Pius are absurdly over-praised (a function of the Hero Gap after the Nazi adventure). Albert Kahn and Timothy Pflueger are almost unknown.
You do the Math: mommas know what MOMA shows. Behrens and Berg are giants hidden in the shadows of Mies and Pius. Moral? Palaver corrupts. Johnsonian Palaver corrupts absolutely. Peter Blake, the best architectural journalist of our time (whose Anglicized name obscures his German Jewish provenience) believes the total commercialization of American architectural idealism derives from the wider and wider spread of the PCJ virus. I agree.
While he was Pius’s student at Harvard, PCJ viciously badmouthed what he considered Gropius’s obsession with worker housing in private letters. So there we are. A long career of imposing his parvenu obsessions on the innocent. But Mies didn’t always comply. He sneered that PCJ’s notorious Glass House in New Canaan, CN (ahem: just declared a Visitor Center!!) looked like a Hot Dog Stand at night!
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