Sunday, 30 December 2012

Euro-Neurosis: German Mythmaking about the Bauhaus

I’ve been in Weimar, Germany since it became the Cultural Capital of Europe in 1999—to write a book on Walter Gropius and the Bauhaus. Why? In Depression Detroit (1930-44) I was a homeless kid. When I read in graduate school that he had founded an art school to create good design for the working classes, I was hooked. Harvard, to celebrate it tercentenary in 1936 had invented the multi-disciplinary American Studies Ph.D., and I earned one such in American Lit in 1957, with one field in American art and architecture. I was granted a two year Carnegie post-doctoral grant (1957-59) to design a course on Mass Culture at the University of Pennsylvania, the first such university course. Then I helped found the Annenberg School of Communication in 1959 where I was Dean Gilbert Seldes’ "gofer” and taught their history of media class. His classic “The Seven Lively Arts”,1924, had turned me on to the efficacy of studying popular culture, instead of just complaining about it, which was, and remains, the copout of most academic humanists.

I was immediately puzzled by the hagiographical tone of most Bauhaus scholarship. And put off by the patriarchal bias that flourished there in the beginning, e.g. Gropius ruled that only 30% of applicants could be applicants—with only one woman on the first faculty, the great weaver, Gunta Stötzl. Even she wanted to be called a Meister, not a Meisterin, as Gropius “blessed” his staff by calling them medieval Masters, not Professors! (Theysoon won that useless prestige wrangle.) And the greatest designer to study, then teach there, Marianne Brandt (1893-1983) never rated an exhibition until 2005, when the Swiss Miss, Dr.Anne-Marie Jaeggi, as the first woman director of the Berlin Bauhaus Archive, broke the spell—by exhibiting Brandt’s photo-montages. Her metal tableware, although not yet exhibited, is still sold by the Italian firm. Alessi.

Worse than that, I discovered that my friend and informant, Chicago architect Bertrand Goldberg, the best architect to come from the Bauhaus has never ever been recognized by the complacent contemporary Bauhustlers. They’re not even ashamed to be so ignorant of his existence, let alone his achievements! He was in the last class (1933) and when Mies van der Rohe shut down the school at the Nazis’ request, Bertrand became Mies’ Azubi in his new Berlin office. (He soon had to split for Paris as a Jew, then to return to Chicago and innovate the way Gropius only hoped to promote.) The saddest plaint of Pius I ever witnessed was when I went to the opening of the then new William Wagenfeld Museum in Bremen. On the wall was Pius’ complaint that only Wagenfeld had so far achieved his objective: that Bauhaus ideal of meliorism for all should dominate all production of industrial design.

I met Goldberg at Charles Benton’s afterparty for the Chicago Film Festival in 1970. When I told him over a drink my ambition to write about the Bauhaus, he invited me the next day for an opening of his innovative birthing complex at Northwestern University’s new women’s hospital. It led to my scouting the most inventive Chicago architecture every time I routed my return to Detroit via Chicago. (It’s the only architectural education I’ve ever had, walking an architect’s dog!) He and fellow Chicagoan Studs Terkel were my most instructive mentors .Our last tutoring took place in 1995, two years before he died, when our conversation was unusually somber because Timothy Dwight had blown up the Federal Building in Oklahoma City the day before!

And our conversation turned on his own total faithfulness to Gropius’s dream of democratizing architecture. And he told me how sad he was that his first Bauhaus mentor had sadly become a Nice Nazi, sucking up to Hitler’s builder, until Gropius got him an American commission, a rich man’s summer villa in Yellowstone in 1937. Bertrand explained Mies’s problem: his first famous work was a Denkmal in a Berlin cemetery for the founders of the German Communist Party, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg! When Alfred Rosenberg was checking out the failing Bauhaus in 1931, just kicked out of Dessau, Mies assured Hitler’s propaganda minister that he was no longer a leftie! What he was, was a mason’s son from Aachen who bitterly resented his blue collar status. At his first job, a member of AEG polymath Peter Behrens’ famous apprentice trio in 1912, Corbusier, Gropius and Mies, the blue collar van der Rohe detested his having to report to upperclass Gropius. 

Indeed, in 1927 when Germany’s Urfeminist Dr. Marie-Elisabeth Lüders (she was the first German woman to have a PhD in politics, 1910) criticized Mies’s first Weissenhof apartments because they took no notice of a mother’s needs. Mies made Art Works not Inhabitations! (I recently finally got an inside Weissenhof visit last year, and you couldn’t pay me to live in such a cement cemetery!) Mies had invited seventeen of the allegedly greatest European architects to create an Artist/Architect Exhibition (shades of his Barcelona 1928 structure) rather than a community. Indeed when the Stuttgart SPD which was creating the Friedrich Ebert Homes across the street invited him to share plans for water and garbage problems, Mies told them to piss off! (He was too busy becoming an Artistic Genius.) Visit both “communities” almost a century later, and tell me where you’d prefer to reside—the Ebert late Jugendstil or the Mies Modernoid.

Now Gropius also had a leftie problem. He had left the First World War’s calamity totally disillusioned, so much so that he became a leader of the cultural Soviet in Berlin and expressed his new values by designing a Memorial for the Victims of the Kapp right wing Putsch. Alas, when it came time for that Denkmal to be dedicated in the Weimar Cemetery in 1923, he panicked and refused to go to the dedication parade. His wife Alma Mahler chided him for his lack of cojones, but Gropius was already getting flack from the Weimar parliament rightwingers who were suspicious of the free wheeling students and their “Bolshevik” professors.

His radicalism, as muffled as it was, moved the city to cancel his Bauhaus contract, and a temporarily left wing mayor of Dessau, an industrial city dominated by the Junker aircraft factory, moved the Bauhaus, lock, stock and barrels—except for the photographs Gropius insisted the staff take of their innovative, which were not found until the 1950’s abandoned in the attic of the glorious Van der Velde building. It finally became under the architectural historian Gerd Zimmermann the HQ of Bauhaus University. Gropius indeed was not good at all at follow through, as we sense why he suddenly quit the Bauhaus altogether in 1928. The catalog for the latest MOMA/NYC Bauhaus extravaganza casually asides that Pius decided his dream was in good hands, so suddenly went off with Marianne Brandt to start his private office in Berlin.

Not so fast! What sloppy scholarship. The Dessau brass was drifting rightward and asked Gropius to get his razzle dazzle staff to take a $10,000 salary cut. They NEINed him. A new editor at the local paper was hassling Gropius for “double-dipping”, i.e. taking his director’s salary plus extra outside cash for advising the Törten suburb he was preparing for Junker workers. (Alas, to my eye, it’s the worst thing he ever designed. And that covers a lot of mediocrity.) 
 
It’s timely to assert that Gropius was never a great architect, not even a reasonably good one. He used to complain bitterly in letters to his mother that he couldn’t draw! Well what, I asked myself more than once, why did he want to become an architect. (He even had a secret partner, Adolf Meyer, to do the heavy lifting.) EUREKA. His great uncle, one Martin Gropius, after whom one of the best art display buildings in Berlin was named, is regarded as one of the best pre-modern architects, though he was no Friedrich Schenkel. There was also scuttlebutt that another faculty member was chasing his second wife Ilse! More than enough reasons to split suddenly! 
 
Except for one decision. He appointed the Swiss Communist Hannes Meyer his successor as director! (We wont here explore the paradox that the first architecture course didn’t come until 1927—taught not by Gropius, but by that Swiss arriviste! A brazen invitation for City Hall to cancel the school, which it promptly it did, two years later. And Meyer was off to Moscow, with a group of lefties. Modernism there had not yet been Stalinized, and even as creative genius as the Dutch Rem Koolhaus was moved to switch from journalism to architecture because of Russian Modernism. (They actually did design for workers, not just palaver about it!) And as the third and final director, Mies scrounged up an abandoned telephone factory and told all the Commie students to split.

Now as I write, a group of Bauhaus Boomers are meeting to plan more and greater exhibitions for the centennial in 2019: I would urge them to really look at their history, not the twisted tale that keeps them from really rejecting the Nazi era and the violence that preceded it, from 1871 on. Now that was part of a great European failure, not just theirs. And that their current hagiographizing the really pathetic Bauhaus of yore is what I define as a new German humanistic disease: Euro-neurosis. Beneath all this hoopla, there is a growing anxiety that the New Europe is about to fold—with the most powerful Germany ever, to lead the collapse.

Let them learn something from America, for a change. Mies and Gropius were at their “best” mediocre architects, driven by devils their Nazi pasts have inflicted on them. Here is what I learned about the “Bauhaus” before I ever left America. My first American Literature professor, C. Carroll Hollis, used to run the store at the Detroit Golf Club, summers (Jesuit salaries were painfully small.) And the Club was on Woodward Avenue, Detroit’s main drag, which led to the suburban Cranbrook Academy of Art, the dream of George Booth, publisher of the Detroit News. He wanted to civilize the arriviste leaders of the new automobile empire. 

Counseled by the greatest German architect of the twentieth century, Albert Kahn, he assembled a small but brilliant faculty, architect/planner Eliel Saarinen from Helsinki and sculptor Carl Milles from Stockholm. They had students like Edward Bacon, who became Philly’s city planner, the Eames family who designed for local manufacturers, doing brilliantly what Gropius et al. only hoped to do. Eliel’s student son Eero, who sadly died at 50, but not before he designed the GM Tech Center in Warren, Michigan (where I worked my first year after my Navy service), Yale’s Hockey Rink, and the great St. Louis Entrance to the West.

In 1941, Kahn called together at the University of Michigan (where he had designed the major buildings) Mies and Pius, and the Saarinens to discuss their desire to design defense factories. He teased the Bauhustlers by calling them “the Glass House Boys.” 

He lectured them on how you first analyzed the way your industrial objects were made before you built a factory. (Gropius’ first factory was the Fagus shoe last factory totally ensconced in glass, an example of what I call the Crystal Palace Syndrome.) Looks great, but is a profligate waste of energy. Just like the Dessau Bauhaus where the professors and students complained it was too hot in the summer, too cold in the winter, and wasteful of energy all year round. They didn’t enjoy his scorn .He used to tease them that architecture is 10 percent art, 90 percent business. I worked in three different Kahn factories, comfortably and safely. He’s right. But the Gehry’s of this esthetically captive Uni-verse want to be praised as artists, capital A. Like Mies!

Heh, the BAUHAUS HAS BETRAYED Gropius’s main aim—good design for the working classes. When The Bauhaus brass announced their plans for a fourth Bauhaus museum last spring at the Bauhaus University’s crowded AUDIMAX, I asked the first question: Why aren’t you and your students joining Cameron Sinclair’s “Architects for Humanity” to fulfill the Gropius ideal throughout the world? Not one of the 500+ audience had a word to say about AFH’s Bible, “Design As If You Give a Damn”. I gave the book to the Anna Amalia library three years ago. No one has taken it out but me. An informal quiz of the Bauhaus brass told me they know about the book but it would make their art education much different, and harder if they followed its ideals.

Yo, why not try them yourself at their annual convention in San Francisco. Kill your Euro-neurosis before it cripples you more. Join the human race and design for all the classes. Not just the bored rich! And stop nationalizing your scholarship by the same unrealized Euro-neurosis. Albert Kahn is not the only German immigrant who glorified American architecture. Albert immigrated at 11 (1880) the first of six children of a poor Jewish rabbi. He didn’t even have enough money to finish Gymnasium, let along go to architecture school.

There was one other contemporary German immigrant architectural autodidact, Timothy Pflueger, son of a L.A. dry cleaner, who moved to San Francisco. Modern architecture in the Bay Area followed his creative heritage. I relished this heritage when I lived in San Francisco in the 80’s and wrote about its design. So both my experiences of architecture in America were formed by two real German innovators—almost totally unknown in contemporary Germany! Perhaps that made me expect too much from the German Bauhaus. 

Paralyzed by the Euro-neurosis of German disasters in the twentieth century, they’re too nervous to see their sad recent history and accessible opportunities open to them. Cameron Sinclair’s Architecture for Humanity is fulfilling the Gropius ideal of good design for all humanity. The Bauhustlers have betrayed that ideal by putting tourism growth before compassion. How sad that would make Gropius. And me, who hoped that dream would avoid the kind of society that crippled my youth. 
 
P.S. Good news at last!. Ten years after my harassing the Bauhaus Bamboozlers, an essay has just appeared in the daily “Die Welt” chastizing theGerman architecture establishment for ignoring the errors of early Modernism—too much showing off glass, which wastes energy; flat roofs which leak endlessly. In short, putting a fast-talking unbelievable esthetic ahead of practicality in architecture. The writer is a prizewinning Denkmal Schutzer (protecting historically important old buildings!) He has even organized a roundtable of experts in the five states most ill served by fatuous Bauhaus worship, including especially, my own Thuringia. My frustrating days of chiding those airhead Bauhustlers into becoming credible critics of their manmade environment may soon be over. So I can give all my attention to Cameron Sinclair’s Architecture for Humanity, which actually does what the Bauhustlers only pretended to do—honor Walter Gropius’ indispensable idealism.



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