Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Kibitzing the Bauhaus Kibbutzim

I bet you didn’t know that 2012 is the Centennial of the Kibbutz. I didn’t, until I read “Bauhaus 2” the second issue of the Bauhaus Dessau Foundation’s magazine, helpfully including a version of the theme in English, even though sometimes hard to read because of ridiculously small type as well as an”artsy” color that Herbert Bayer would never have used. So their story begins with the decade before the Bauhaus was founded in 1919. And the prehistory of the decade is necessary to see what developed.

For convenience, let’s begin with the first international industrial exhibition in London, 1851. There the architects of the world saw the first use of steel and glass to create a dazzling icon, the Crystal Palace, an innovation that would indeed make a dysfunctional mess of many of the Bauhaus’s first highly touted “mistakes”. The first thing the Crystal Palace did to the lagging industrial Germans was to motivate them to try and catch up to Britain, the first leading Western power.

The Prussians appointed the prestigious architect, Herman Multhesius, a spy in the German embassy in London. For 9 years he snooped and scooped the winner’s habits. Unfortunately he was a generation behind in his espionage, falling in love with William Morris’s “Arts and Crafts” movement. Alas, Morris hated factories. The whole industrial enterprise he thought was a mistake. He promulgated a pseudomedievalism that obscured the emergence of modern industrial design and architecture. And so Multhesius, blinded by a false “insight” , missed the most important cultural event of the last half of the British nineteenth century—the discovery of “industrial design” by a mere botanical illustrator, Christopher Dresser.

Dresser was a Glaswegian who studied the crafts of making botanically attractive wallpapers for interior decoration. Friedrich Schiller University in Jena even awarded him a prize in 1864 for his first book. And he gave a very well-received series of lectures on his emerging discipline at the Philadelphia Centennial World’s Fair in 1876. His lectures over, he spent several months in Japan studying the manufacture of their beautifully simple domestic objects. Upon his return, he proudly declared: “I went to Japan a mere decorator, but I have returned a designer.” Fully fifty years before the Bauhaus was founded British industry was mass producing his kind of designs Gropius et al only dreamed about. Multhesius’s espionage only led to a series of solid books on the kind of country houses Morris had inspired!

He soon did much better helping to found in 1907, the Deutsche Werkbund and their journal “Form” to nudge Germany into its industrial future. Pan-European architects like Henry van de Velde and Peter Behrens led the way. The year after the polymath Behrens built the AEG Turbine Hall in Berlin in 1909, he had three of the future most notorious Azubis in architectural history,Corbusier, Walter Gropius, and Mies van der Rohe! Indeed, blue collar mason’s son Mies had to report to upperclass Gropius in the Behrens office, twisting his muse permanently—valueing art over function for the rest of his long career.

Meanwhile Herzl’s Hearties were eager to try out the collectivist ideals of Zionism in” their” British Mandate Palestine. Many brought Bauhaus ideals in their luggage, especially students of the second Bauhaus director, Hannes Meyer. It is important to recall that HM was the first to teach architecture at the Bauhaus(As late as 1928 was the first course!) and there Mayer emphasized his Communist leanings, recapitulating Gropius commitment to “good design for the working classes” as his own contempt for “luxury”. (Meyer actually delivered on that ideal, whilst Gropius merely mouthed the platitude.)Which was fine for the Kibbutzniks. That was their original ideal as well-- until it kind of dribbled away over the decades.

In fact, the dissolution of Bauhaus idealism soon followed Gropius’s snap decision to quit the Bauhaus, make the Swiss Communist his successor, and head off to start a private firm in Berlin. Why did he quit? Well he had moved from Weimar to Dessau in 1926 because the Thuringian legislature had become more and more antsy about “foreign Bolsheviks”in Weimar and a liberal mayor in Dessau was interested in making the Junker Aircraft city bigger and better. But the city administration soon drifted to the right as Naziism bloomed there too.

Further, Pius asked his professorial staff to go along with a proposed 10% salary reduction and they balked. Moreover, a hot new Dessau journalist was headlining Walter as a “double dipper” --getting one salary as the director and more cash as the advisor for the Junker worker suburb he and Meyer were designing. Finally, there was even scuttlebutt that Herbert Bayer was moving on his second wife Ilse. Grope decided, Screw it, and fled to Berlin with Marianne Brandt, the best woman designer ever to work at the Bauhaus.

It was over. Dessau bounced the Commie Meyer, and Mies threw out the Commie students. (He was in a squeeze! His first success (1926) was a cemetery Denkmal to the founders of the German Communist party, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxembourg! ) My German architect friend Bertrand Goldberg, in the last Bauhaus class (1933) and Mies’s first Azubi in Berlin, told me Mies went nuts trying to convince Alfred Rosenberg that he wasn’t still a Commie. And he sucked up to Albert Speer, unsuccessfully, until 1937 until Gropius got him a commission for a rich man’s summer home in Yellowstone. The Bauhaus was real raggedy at the end, but the Kibbutzniks had conviction and courage to keep those old ideals alive for many years.

They were helped by the likes of major architects like Eric Mendelsohn who scored big with his Einstein Turm (1921) which was designed so that the great physicist could test his relativity theories there ,as well as great department stores (a new architectural genre)in Chemnitz, Nuremberg, and Stuttgart.

Finally, there were Bauhauslers like Arieh Sharon who made their reps in Palestine. His letter to Hannes Meyer on the state of their new architecture is a splendid précis of what worked and what didn’t. Ironically, UNESCO made Tel Aviv, the White City, a registered landmark. The net result of the award was to gentrify the city far out of the budget of most of those for it was designed! Indeed, at present, something like our Occupy Wall Street movement is motivating the young and now impecunious Jews who feel betrayed by a 99/1 type economy to protest their condition. But if the rocky history of Kibbutzim idealism is any indication, Bauhaus good intentions will triumph once more.

No comments: