Wednesday, 24 April 2013

At Last, the Bauhaus Myth is Rejected by a German Critic

As a homeless kid in Depression Detroit (1930-45, when I joined the Navy as an aviation electronics mate), architectural education was shamefully neglected in Catholic grade school and a B.A. in philosophy at the Jesuit University of Detroit. In graduate school I took an interdisciplinary Ph.D in American Studies, specializing in literature but with one prelim in American art and architecture. So when I read Nicholas Pevsner’pioneer book on modern architecture in graduate school, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the German Walter Gropius founded an art school in 1919 to bring good design to the working classes.

Our first married house in 1954 was a National Home prefab (Lafayette, Indiana) designed by Charles Goodman, a marvelous Cape Cod built on what had been the fall before a corn field. $4000, $400 down, $40 a month! (Gropius’s prefab General Panel Corporation had been a total flop which I will explain in due course.) We’d still be there had I not won a Ford Grant in New York City in 1954-55 to mingle with TV brass (and especially with my first academic hero, Marshall McLuhan, whose first book had just published his popular culture essays I had already read in “Commonweal” the lay Catholic weekly— was a visiting professor at TC, Columbia.) 

I had already invented a monthly column for “The English Journal” making it easier for high school teachers to assign outstanding TV programs for class discussion. Bill Boutwell asked me to become the radio TV editor of “Scholastic Teacher” which I did for six years until an appointment as the first director of the Institute of American Studies at Honolulu new East-West Center in 1961 made contacts with continental media impractical.

My Ford year was intellectually stimulating, but I was puzzled by a paradox: my humanities peers thought my stooping to conquer media was degrading. For example, my doctoral committee rejected my proposal to write a dissertation on Marshall McLuhan! But Pat Weaver, the creative head of NBC TV spent two hours with me, reacting to my innovative educational program, putting me in touch with all the relevant NBC personnel.

When I read in the New York Times that there would be an educational convention in D.C. that weekend, I invited myself! As I entered the convention HQ I saw Ralph Bunche speaking with great intensity with a man I knew not. As the pushy Julien Sorel of East Lansing, Michigan, I orated “I’m Pat Hazard and I’m on a Ford grant to improve high school students responses to the Newer Media.” The anonymous one replied, “Well, how’s it going?) “Lousey,” I replied, explaining how Pat Weaver’s secretary was getting more and more unfriendly the more I called for an interview.

Mr. Anon identified himself, ”Well I’m the publisher of “Time” and I’m on the board of the Ford Foundation that gave your grant, and I like what you’re doing. Would an office in “Time” help?” “ GULP!” He handed me his card and told me to call Monday. I called Weaver’s office from “Time”, and his secretary was suddenly very, very amicable! A half hour later I was in Pat’s office, wondering if he always received guests on a bongo board! I was treated like an ambassador at “Time”. He sent me around the country to better understand their national nature. One exciting afternoon I and the son of the founder of “Der Spiegel” (Germany’s “Time”) watched the main editor and his photography chief plan the next issue of “Life”!

Not all the Humanists were media snobs. At the Freshman English teachers annual convention in May I gave a media plea, “Liberace and the Future of Cultural Criticism”. Three tough looking cookies asked after my lecture if I’d like to give that spiel in their blue collar commuter college, Trenton State?! I said yes, hoping it would give me time enough to finish my dissertation on John Fiske, a popularizer of Herbert Spencer in America.(I finished it, thinking all the time I was letting Marshall down.) It actually turned out all right—Penn gave me a two year Carnegie Post Doctoral grant to create the first two semester course on “Mass Culture” in America .I was being to fear that all my good luck would run out!

Not yet, TV Guide publisher Walter Annenberg gave Penn 2 million dollars to found a graduate school of communication at Penn. And, faute de mieux, I became the university’s gofer: to travel around the USA telling media brass and graduate J school deans how different and good we were going to become! I convinced the brass that the Philly boy who first turned me on to media studies, one Gilbert Seldes, “The Seven Lively Arts” (1924), should be the first dean! He was, and I became his gofer, a unique experience!

I taught media history at the new Annenberg School of Communication! Meanwhile, my commitment to architecture became bigger and bigger, I MC’ed a TV series on it at Walter Annenberg’s TV station. The most memorable hour was devoted to Louie Kahn’s maquette for his new Biological Center in La Jolla, CA. In 1959 we had bought an almost new (1956) Kahn in Greenbelt Knoll an experiment in racial integration in North East Philadelphia. (We had only been able to buy it because the wife of the first owner didn’t feel comfortable with all those blacks!) 

By the way, we had lived for three years in Levittown. The great sociologist Herbert J. Gans who wrote the classic book on the positive values of “The Levittowners” while most humanist snobs mocked the genre. He came to Penn the same year I did, and I learned a lot about mass housing from him. I sadly sold “My Kahn” in 2009, to buy a flat in a 1782 villa in Weimar. Fifty years in a Kahn is a blessing. And 18th century German architecture can be regal!

So as the years passed, I saw all our greats’ works, Frank Lloyd Wright, Louie Sullivan, Kahn,the Saarinens, Albert Kahn ,Bertrand Goldberg, and Timothy Pflueger.I spent 30 years teaching English, followed by thirty years roaming the world to comment on it in alternative journalism. I was ready for Weimar! In 1999 it was the Cultural Capital of Europe, so I was finally ready to be thrilled. It has on the contrary been the greatest disappointment of my cultural life. See if you agree with me why?

Gropius had a great heart, but not much follow through. And he wasn’t much of an architect. He complained in letters to his mother that “I can’t draw! I can’t draw!” I was puzzled about his diffidence until I visited the great Berlin museum named after his great uncle, Martin Gropius. He was the second most respected premodern Berlin architect. Gropius covered his fears by hiring a silent partner, Adolf Meyer.

Further the wastefulness of World War I, where he was a cavalry officer, had made him a leftie—whose Denkmal for the victims of the Kapp Putsch (1923) in the Weimar Cemetary haunted him because the Weimar legislature was drifting inexorably rightist. They bounced the Bauhaus in 1924. Dessau, a more industrial city where Junker Aviation dominated welcomed him. At first they “flourished” until you realize there was no architecture course until 1927. He was being hassled by a headline hunting journalist for “double dipping”, i.e. taking his director’s salary as well as adviser’s pay for working on the Törten worker’s suburb. And in 1928 he quit in a huff and suddenly went to Berlin to build Siemenstadt!

That suddenness was reckless enough, but he made the Swiss Communist Hannes Meyer director. That was Bauhaus suicide. When Mies van der Rohe became the third director, he rented an abandoned telephone factory and fired all the Communist students! That was not enough because he too was a leftie. His first work (1926) was a Denkmal for the founders of the German Communist Party, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxembourg! Alfred Rosenberg, Hitler’s propaganda chief, grilled him about that aberration. He became a Nice Nazi, trying unsuccessfully until 1938 to get commissions from Hitler’s architect. No go! Until Gropius got him a commission for a millionaire’s summer home in Yellowstone, he was just spinning wheels in Germany.

Here is where serendipity helped me understand Mies. The Chicago Jew Bertrand Goldberg was in the last 1933 Bauhaus class. When that folded, he became Mies’s Azubi in Berlin until he fled to Paris to avoid Hitler. In 1970, as I was visiting my mother in Detroit from Philadelphia, I stopped in Chicago to take part in the their Film Festival. (I had been advising TV tycoon Charles Benton on what NBC TV he should buy for rental in the schools.) At a film festival afterparty I buttonholed Goldberg by teasing him I was quitting teaching to sell dope at his Marina City complex-- so I could afford to live there. Luckily he got my joke, and invited me to an architects visit the next day to his new Women’s Hospital for Northwestern University. It was a pivotal day in my life.

He became my most influential mentor (Studs Terkel was the other).From then on, every pitstop en route to Detroit was a spontaneous Goldberg lecture on the streets of Chicago. The first time I walked his dogs as he explicated his Chicago. Never in architectural history was canine urination so intellectually stimulating.

Our last meeting in 1895 I’ll never forget. I was showing a sweet social worker from Leipzig her first USA visit. Bertrand picked us up in his sports car and whisked us to his private club, high in a skyscraper overlooking his greatest work, Marina City. We were in a solemn mood because the day before Timothy Dwight had blown up the Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Bert was sad that Gropius had abandoned his blue collar idealism .He insisted that he never had. 

Then is when we talked so frankly about Mies’s Nice Nazi reputation in the 1930’s. Goldberg is the greatest architect by far to come out of the Bauhaus, including the overpraised Mies. It is a scandal that Goldberg has never had an exhibition there! My hunch is that his social idealism embarrasses the Baushustling Triad (Weimar, Dessau, Berlin) because they can’t be bothered with Pius’s blue collar ideals as they build Upper Middleclass Tourism--and search for legislative grants!

My increasingly impatient frustration over their refusal to discuss our disagreements honestly and honorably has been very upsetting. Their pathetically anti-intellectual reaction has been to drop me from their press lists. A weasel tactic that would never be employed by American scholars. If Mies diminished his seriousness by his becoming a Nice Nazi, I regard this fascist evasion of serious thinking as Nasty Nazism! I was ready to abandon this nondiscourse until three months ago.

Thomas Hass, a retired chemist from Munich, daily reads the international press with me at the Anna Amalia student center. He excitedly discovered an essay in “Die Welt” by a well-regarded journalist, Dr. Dankwart Gutratsch. (He has been honored for his journalism on Denkmals.) But in the essay that renewed my faith in German seriousness about the Bauhaus, he argues, for example, that Modern German architecture ended in 1918—the year before the Bauhaus began!

He argues convincingly that their obsession with flat roofs, concrete walls and excessive glass made energy wasting a major failure demanding correction. How he proposes to achieve this correction of failed Modernoid (my neologism) by 1919, the 100th anniversary is the subject of my next essay. (He mocks their 90th and other irregular celebration times.) Those false anniversaries turn out to be motivated by tourism and fund raising for bigger, better museums! How glad I am that I didn’t give up the critical debate over Bauhaus ideals before stumbling on Guratsch’s brilliant essay.

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