Serendipitous juxtaposition is the joy of my intellectual life. No sooner had I finished reading William Smock’s simple but brilliant “The Bauhaus Ideal: Then and Now” (Academy Chicago Publishers, 2004), off the Bauhaus Uni’s new book rack than Time’s Person of the Year issue (December 26, 2011) dropped in my mailbox, with its story of how the Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei became obsessed with architecture after investigating the deaths of students whose shoddily constructed schools during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.
“I got involved with architecture,” he explained. To work in architecture you are so much involved with society, with politics, with bureaucrats. It’s a very complicated process to do large projects. You start to see the society, how it functions, how it works. Then you have a lot of criticism about how it works.” (Time, p.90.)
Sina (a Chinese internet company) inveigled him into becoming adept at blogging, to get some justice for those victims of incompetent architects. Smock chose the analogous task of seeking what the Bauhaus tried to do and explaining his findings with clear English and illustrative images. It’s first time I found explained how the Bauhaus grew out of a Gilded Age prehistory of Modernism, following through on how Postmodernism complicates the Bauhaus heritage.
"Most modern design ideas,” Smock shows, "predate the Bauhaus—sans serif type, skeletal furniture, flat roofs—but the Bauhaus wrapped the up in a compelling package.” (p.vii.) Indeed, a major weakness of the Bauhaus was ignorance of their forerunners, e.g the British wallpaper designer Christopher Dresser who spent some months in Japan studying their folk art after lecturing in Philadelphia at their world’s fair in 1876.
He liked to say that he went to Japan a mere decorator and returned an industrial designer, arguably the world’s first. Similarly Ernst Meyer was mass producing the so-called Frankfurt kitchen in the apartments he was multiplying as the city’s architect. You could excuse Gropius and company as they fought a cruel inflation and rightward drifting legislature, but they were also blind to obvious opportunities.
As he tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to harness his Star-artists in an experimental curriculum, two penniless immigrant autodidact German architects, Albert Kahn (Detroit) and Timothy Pflueger (San Francisco), innovated brilliantly—Kahn in automobile factory design and Pflueger in urban parks and multimodal transportation complexes.
The reputation of the Bauhaus architects and designers (or ignored!) was inflated to compensate for post-Nazi guilt. Marianne Brandt, one of the most creative Bauhauslerins, never had an exhibition during her lifetime. And the greatest architect to come out of that school was Mies’ Azubi, Bertrand Goldberg, who transformed Chicago architecture—and proudly remained true to the movement’s blue collar idealism to his dying day. We discussed the sadly superficial “successful” career of his mentor Mies at our last meeting in 1995, two years before he died.
Smock is especially good in describing how non Bauhaus designers like Charles Eames and George Nelson achieved what the Bauhaus “stars” merely promised to achieve. Smock gives short vignettes of all the major Bauhaus stars. And his bibliography is essential for serious students who want to quickly get up to date on the issues of mass access to good design. The Swede from Ikea did what they only gassed about. And Henry van de Velde’s ouvre, culminating in his Weimar buildings that are now the HQ of the Bauhaus Uni makes you speculate on what he could have achieved if his Belgian passport made him an enemy alien in 1916.
And Smock’s blast against Robert Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown in their faux celebration of the idiocies of Las Vegas is as credible as any indictment of that false architectural maneuver I have yet read. Ai Weiwei’s serious program for coping with the grim effects of bad architecture in China makes their fancy academic ploys the intellectual flops they really are.
Louis Kahn’s protégé, Richard Saul Wurman’s "Man Made Philadelphia“ was designed to give students in the Philadelphia public school intelligent patrons of architecture. Smock’s volume complements it ably. Ricky went on to create TED, the intellectual movement to sponsor discussions over cultural crises like inadequate architecture. His series of volumes on the architecture of diverse American cities is also exemplary.
But the closest the newly thoughtful West gets to Ai Weiwei’s movement to use social media to promote adequate architecture in all our underdeveloped countries is in Cameron Sinclair’s “Design As If You Give A Damn”, his Bible of Architecture for Humanity. He expands Millard Fuller’s “Habitat for Humanity” to include professional architects to volunteer home builders. Gropius would be thrilled by their effective humanism. Anybody with a hammer is welcome!