Thursday, 14 June 2012

Gropius Betrayed: That Bloated Bauhaus Reputation

Regarding TLS and the Bauhaus:

Frank Whitford's take on the Barbican Bauhaus tout is perceptive, like his two books on the subject. But he aligns himself too snugly with the absurdly inflated reputation of the Bauhaus which was in fact a failed scheme during the Weimar Republic and its Nazi destruction.

As a homeless kid in Depression Detroit(1930-42), I was astonished in graduate school (Ph.D. in American Studies, 1957) to read in Nicholas Pevsner's classic study,"Pioneers of the Modern Movement:from William Morris to Walter Gropius" that Gropius had devised a school "to fuse art and technics to bring good design to the working classes".

As American Art and Architecture was one of my five prelims to teach American Literature, I was eager to assign my students a term paper on a great American Building, as I truly perceived that comprehending style physically in a well designed structure prepares the young to perceive style metaphysically in the more elusive literary genres. (It was perhaps the only fresh idea I brought to thirty years of teaching!)

My American Lit teacher at the University of Detroit, C.Carroll Hollis, supplemented his marginal pay by working at the Detroit Golf Club summers. Next to Cranbrook Academy (Detroit's own Bauhaus!) He urged us to follow the career of the German immigrant Albert Kahn who was the brains of that school which actually brought good design to the masses like the Bauhaus only promised.

His Finnish rector and teacher, Eliel Saarinen Senior and son Eero, Swedish sculptor Carl Milles, and American designers Charles and Rae Eames formed a small but effective faculty, unlike the bloated Bauhaus. And I earned tuition money for my doctorate by working in three of Kahn's factories during the summer. Later, when I freelanced for a decade in San Francisco, I learned about another Poor German immigrant, Timothy Pflueger. Like Kahn he couldn't even finish high school. But he soon became the greatest twentieth century architect in San Francisco. Nobody knows him either!

Kahn had a very low opinion of the Bauhaus whom he derided as the"Glasshouse Boys". Indeed, He insisted that Architecture was 90% Business, 10% Art. In 1941 he held a conference for architects who wanted to design defense factories. Mies, Gropius and the Saarinens were there. He lectured them on their mindless fancy factory buildings. All show and no function. Johnson was also there.

Phillip C. Johnson (1901-2005) spent a long career crippling truthful discourse on what he dubbed International Style. In 1926 he scanned Europe for "Great modern" building so he could have the architecture franchise at MOMA about to open in 1929. Indeed, he phoned Alfred Barr, Jr. in Berlin from Dessau, where he had just examined the new Bauhaus complex. He should have asked the students and professors who found its excessive glass made too cold in the winter and boiling hot in the summer. The newly invented Leica made neat black and white snaps of uninhabitable structures!

It was the first goof of the Modernoid, which I dub the Crystal Palace Syndrome--the unthoughtful use of glass, concrete and iron invented in that showplace of London World's Fair in 1851. Second only to the flat leaky roofs when Modernoiders abandoned the gable, the most important innovation since humans abandoned caves!  PCJ did his first Modernoid house, alas, for the deMenill family, that Houston couple who brought modern art to Houston. Alas, the roof so badly, their kids thought PCJ was a roofer he had to mop up so frequently. He was also cresting on Mies, insisting that this avant-garde pair use only Mies furniture, deployed a la PCJ. They told him to shove off, and allegedly never said another word to him.

Mies was soon to have his own client tussle, the Farnsworth House outside Chicago, where he built a weekend hideaway for his girlfriend. She sued him (and lost) for excess energy costs! Some decades later, several other tenants having failed at inhabiting the loser, it was declared a Visitor's Center dedicated to the architectural genius of Mies.

That's when I decided modern architectural reputations were an untieable knot. (Mies got even with the ever flip Johnson by sneering that PCJ's notorious GLASS House looked like" a hotdog stand at night".)

Someday soon (I hope) some dissertation drudge will sort through the damage this glib man inflicted on twentieth century architecture. I have yet to find a Bauhaus Uni professor who knows anything about Albert Kahn, the greatest factory designer in history, as well as the Beau Deco (a new category for an idiosyncratic wonder, the Fisher Building, where my Uncle Dan Fitzpatrick claimed its illuminated golden crown was the nest of the GillieHoo bird who would fly by several days a week and drop candy bars on the front room window sill). It took me several years to perceive that these flyanthropic drops always followed Dan's return from a driving assignment in downtown Detroit.

As I can't tell you how disappointed I became when I finally dug into the Bauhaus Riddles in 1999, when Weimar was the Cultural Capital of Europe. The first thing I noted, astonished, that he was a lousy architect! He wrote his mother plaintively that he couldn't draw! (He had a secret partner to do the heavy lifting.) There was no architecture course until 1927 when he dumped that assignment on Hannes Meier, the Swiss Communist whom the Dessau mayor would soon fire, leaving Mies in a last lurch.

And if I may be gross, Walter had no balls! His wife Alma Mahler chided him for not having the courage to attend the dedication of the Denkmal he had designed for the victims of the Kapp Putsch in the Weimar Cemetery. Like Mies whose first major work was a Berlin cemetery honoring the founders of the German Communist Party--Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxembourg, he had a PR problem. Why did he quit so suddenly in 1928. His star teachers ignored his plea for a $10,000 salary reduction when Dessau cut his budget. A local newspaper was baiting him for double dipping (his Dessau salary plus Torten suburb payments). And there was scuttlebutt a faculty member was romancing his second wife Ilsa. No matter. He must have known! Hannes was the end!

Which brings me to Mies and my best informant, the Chicago Bauhausler Bertrand Goldberg. Who?? everyone who should know asks me. He was in the last class and Mies's Azubi in Berlin. In 1970 at the Chicago Film Festival I spotted his ID. I had just been ogling his first masterpiece, Marina Towers. And I smart assed him by saying I was giving up teaching so I could sell enough dope to afford an apartment in the Towers. He laughed heartily and invited me to a dedication the next day of his innovative Women's Birthing Complex in the new Northwestern Hospital.

It was a wonder. He became my second Chicago mentor (Studs Terkel was the first!) When I passed through Chicago till his death (1997), we'd walk his dogs and he'd teach me architecture! What a serendipity! The Chicago Institute of Art has just shown a major exhibition on Bertrand's oeuvre. Amazon has the catalog. And the bloating Bauhustlers  have never given him a show, while they recycle the same old same old till you know it by heart.

His most dominant regret: that Gropius gave up his idealism to be a Fortune 500 functionary. Like Mies. He still believed in the meliorism of the first Gropius. The Bauhustlers in Weimar are preening about their projected 22 million Euro museum set for 2015. When I chided all 500 of them cheering on the museum builders that they had abandoned Gropius dream of good design for the working classes, they didn't say a word.

When I gave Hellmut Seemann, the major promoter my copy of TED savant Ricky Wurman's book on kids and architecture in the Philadelphia schools, he thanked me but had no word of discussion. I urged the crowd to take out another book I donated, Cameron Sinclair's "Design as if you Give a Damn!". His Architects for America has global ambitions to fulfill Gropius' dream.

Total Silence. They have betrayed Gropius.

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