Sunday, 25 March 2012

Is the Bauhaus Going Global?

They sure hope so—to judge from their latest book, “Bauhaus Global: Collected Lectures of the Bauhaus Global Conference, September 21 to 26, 2009” (Mann Brothers Publishing,2010), 26 academic critics whistling the same happy tune. I went to the public conference that preceded this closed convention, where after a decade of Bauhaus research, I decided these intellectual paragons were whistling in their own darkness, to keep up their flagging spirits.

First of all, they were “celebrating” the 90th year of the Bauhaus’s founding. 90th? What’s the hurry. Because Bauhaus Weimar wanted another museum. They finally wangled the 30 million euros from the Thuringian parliament because MOMA New York impressed the locals by canonizing their ambitions with a global bonding of Weimar and New York by repeating the Weimar 90th exhibition in New York.

Great minds work deeply and silently! Noticeably absent from the Big Time speakers was Omar Akbar, the Afghani director of Bauhaus Dessau, whose last big conference in Berlin posed the tricky question: What have the first generation of Starchitects done to ameliorate the global housing crisis? The embarrassing answer is ABSOLUTELY NOTHING! In spite of the good examples of Habitat for Humanity and the burgeoning idealism of Cameron Sinclair’s Architects for Humanity, whose must read bible is “Design as if You Gave a Damn”.

Let me put this architectural crisis (make that Circus) in the context of Casino Capitalism—of the brand that nearly destroyed the United States in 2008 with the Lehman collapse. Fifty years ago, I “financed” a Ph.D. with the G.I.Bill and three summers in an auto factory and a year as the janitor of the East Lansing State Bank. Today, my counterpart starts a career with incredibly high debt. Why? Because Casino Capitalism took over the universities with million dollar presidents (with stupidly swollen aides), $100,000 professors, and peon ABD’s without health insurance, an adequate wage, and a crack at tenure.

What happened? If bankers need regulation, boards of trustees need but don’t have either prudence or self discipline. And the ART industry has become a casino in which “classics” can be auctioned for millions (of the kind the crooked 1% has “stolen” from the underpaid 99%), and comedians like Damien Hirst can be palmed off as a genius. A similar corruption has inflicted architecture, which picked up steam at MOMA New York when insecure parvenu Philip C. Johnson peddled his insecurity in the “International Style” he and H. Russell Hitchcock characterized to MOMA in 1938. While an architecturally ignorant PCJ sucked up to his architectural teacher Walter Gropius at Harvard while writing scummy letters on how obsessed his dean was in providing well designed housing for the worker.)

It was that Gropian idealism that brought me to Weimar in 1998. Was I ever disillusioned, quickly. He complained bitterly to his mother that he couldn’t “draw”! Why be an architect? My hunch is it was aspiring to the father figure of his great-uncle Martin Gropius, the last best non-modern architect in Berlin. (It was at the Martin-Gropius-Bau that these lectures were delivered.) And he was a lousy architect, who had a secret partner, Adolf Meyer, to do the heavy lifting. Doesn’t it tell you something that the Bauhaus never had a course in architecture until 1928, the year he fled to New York, giving the course and the directorship to the Swiss Communist Hannes Meyer, in short closing down the school!

And Gropius had no balls. His wife Alma chided him for not going to the dedication in the Weimar Cemetery of his Denkmal for the Victims of the Kapp Putsch, his last left-wing maneuver. And why did he quit so quickly? Opinions vary. His “creative” staff ignored his pleas to accept a 10% salary cut: he had complied with their gripe that they be plain old “Professors” and not the artsy fartsy “Masters” he dubbed for its medieval tang. And a new Dessau editor was harassing him for double dipping (Bauhaus salary plus Toerten Junker suburb consultancies). I would have taken his architect’s license away for “designing” the ugliest suburb I’ve ever seen—and I lived in Levittown, PA for three years. Come to think of it, I’ve never relished anything he designed, especially his losing entry in the Chicago Tribune 1924 competition.

But Philip Johnson is the real missing link here. He was gay, and believe me I have seen Cleveland gays suffer. So when he started sleuthing “modern” architecture for an exhibition after MOMA’s opening in 1929, he went GaGa over Gropius’s Dessau Bauhaus—all that glass and glitter. He phoned Alfred Barr,Jr, MOMA’s first director in Berlin and said he had just seen the best modern building yet! No so, groaned the professors and students, freezing in the winter, sweating in the summer. Heh, remember, it’s the ART that counts. Ya, Ya. Ya.

But he loved the leather jacketed boys in Berlin which was wide open sexually in the 1920’s. He got on with the New Nazi’s. When he returned to America, he was already a not so Nice Nazi, digging Father Coughlin’s “the Jew Deal” anti FDR slime. And supporting Huey Long until he was assassinated. You got to hand it to PCJ. Whenever he was chided by his fellow architects for his sneaky deals, he conceded he was the “whore” of American Architecture (his phrase), except he kept peddling his Arty ASSthetic until he died at 105. His corruption still poisons the intellectual atmosphere. Perhaps Barry Bergdall, the new Philip C. Johnson Curator of Architecture at MOMA, will purge the atmosphere.

The “Bauhaus Global” lectures won’t help much. There’s an inspiring chapter on how Kibbutzer Arieh Sharon after a summer in Dessau got good ideas moving in Palestine. And a fascinating take on how architecture students from Turkey exploited the secular agenda of Ataturk. And there are episodes in Shanghai, Kalkutta, and Moscow that revealed how widely if not deeply the Bauhauslers moved. And Black Mountain College and the New Bauhaus in Chicago are crisply covered.

But the Bauhaus and World War Two in the USSR flops in two ways . First it ignores what Hannes Meyers did in Moscow after he and his clique were expelled from Dessau. And it blows the case of Albert Kahn compeletely. You don’t mess with my hometown hero. He emigrated from Germany at 11 in 1880, the eldest of a Rabbi’s six children. Architecture School? He couldn’t even afford high school. Yet he was so gifted a designer that the greatest firm in Detroit sent him for a year to Europe to round him out. He became Henry Ford’s architect and remains the greatest factory architect in history. He spent 5 years in Russia designing almost 500 structures. He only went there because the depression killed his building Detroit.

He held an important meeting of architects at the University of Michigan in 1941 (where he designed most of the main buildings). There they all were: Saarinens, Eliel and Eero (Eliel was the director Cranbrook which actually did what the Bauhaus merely hoped to do), Mies and Gropius. They wanted into the defense industry money, but Kahn slapped the wrists of whom he called “the Glasshouse Boys”. He tried to explain that you start with the production process and build a shelter that expedites its processes, not start like Gropius did at the Fagus factory with a glamorous glass exterior (Remember Johnson’s goof at Dessau?). We used to joke on the factory floor that Albert won World War II single-handedly—with the Chrysler Tank Factory in Warren, Michigan and a Soviet tank from Novgorod. (He quit Russia because they got behind on payments.)

My final grumble comes from screening their index. Neither Marianne Brandt nor Wilhelm Wagenfeld—the two most creative designers whose stuff still sells today. And I always resent their ignorance of the greatest architect to come out of the Mies Bauhaus—in 1933: Bertrand Goldberg, the Chicago polymath. He was Mies’s Azubi in Berlin until he got antsy about being Jewish as the Nazis closed in. At our last visit in 1985 (he died in 1987) he talked sadly about how he tried to keep Gropius’s dream of good design for the working class—while most architects still shill Art and Money (shame on you PCJ!).

Until every favela disappears in the trash, I’m a Cameron Sinclair fan.

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