Monday, 25 November 2013

America's "Bauhaus" / The Mystery of International Reputations

I got interested in the German Bauhaus because of Gropius’s ambition to found an art school that would bring good design to the working classes. Philip C. Johnson, the American architect who mocked this ideal when he first studied architecture under Gropius at Harvard in 1938, corrupted professional conversation over the social importance of the art for the rest of the twentieth century. (He lived to be a 105!)

My interest in the Cranbrook Academy of Art, the American Bauhaus, began as a student of University of Detroit American Lit professor of C. Carroll Hollis. He supplemented his meager salary summers by running the shop of the Detroit Golf Club, on the road to Cranbrook. There was a historic confrontation of the two Bauhauses in 1941 when Albert Kahn, the greatest American architect of the twentieth century, sponsored a conference at the University of Michigan in 1941 for architects seeking commissions for defense factories, as America started participating in World War II. Gropius and Mies, brand new American citizens, were there, along with the Saarinens, Eliel and Eero, father and son. 
Kahn openly mocked Gropius and Mies, sneering at them as “the Glass House boys”, more interested in splashy form than in effective function in building design. He proudly asserted that architecture was 90 percent business, 10% art. (The Bauhauslers reversed that ratio.) Kahn had the buildings to prove it: many major buildings at the University of Michigan, diversely Europeanized villas in Grosse Pointe for the new automobile aristocracy, and innovative commercial structures like my favorite, the Fisher Building (1927) born the same year as me, and great factories like the Henry Ford Highland Park array, which I passed every school day en route to the University of Detroit, and especially his Dearborn complex.

The biggest difference between the German and American Bauhauses was the tactical simplicity of the American. Gropius rounded up a half dozen major painters for his art teachers, an idiosyncratic grab bag of famous talent always more committed to their status and prestige than humdrum teaching. It was Mies’s same failing tactic of choosing 17 internationally famous architects to build Weissenhof (1927). Eliel had his wife Loja, a talented fashion designer, the Swedish sculptor Carl Milles, and his increasingly brilliant son Eero. 
But the real “founder” of Cranbrook was George Booth, publisher of The Detroit News. He was inspired by a visit to the Academy in Rome. Detroit was then a hick town faced with the multiple tasks of becoming an overnight metropolis. The Finnish master Eliel had achieved instant American notoriety by coming in second in the 1924 Chicago Tribune architectural competition. That led to a visiting professorship at the University of Michigan; Booth’s son Harry had Eliel as a teacher there who knocked his socks off. George hired him as the head of Cranbrook.

The biggest difference between German and American Bauhauses was that the former was big on aspirations and very small on products. I’ll always remember my first visit to the William Wagenfeld Museum in his hometown Bremen where I read on the last wall about Gropius’s grief at how few Wagenfelds his school had produced. All talk. Little achievement. Cranbrook was the opposite: small on self publicity, great on achievement.

Consider the talent gathered over the years: Harry Bertoia, Minoru Yamasaki, Victor Gruen, Ed Bacon, and most famous of all, the creative couple Charles and Ray Eames, whose multiple achievements started at Cranbrook. Their grandson Eames Demetrious (!) has summarized their artistic contributions in “an Eames primer” (New York, Universe Publishing, 2013) a new edition timed with the current “Essential Eames” exhibition at the ArtScience Museum in Singapore curated by their grandson. (

Booth bought 120 acres, beginning with a home for his family and another for Kahn. Then a Greek theatre (1915), Christ Church (1928), Boy’s School(1928),Girls (1931),Academy (1932),Art Museum and Library (1942). It is of course sad for a former Detroiter to think of their current bankruptcy. From 2 million population when I went off to Graduate School in 1949, to 800,000 in 2013, it’s going to take all the idealism of Cranbrook to rescue Detroit from self destruction.

The German Bauhaus died in 1928 when Gropius gave up and fled to Berlin, turning the school over to the Swiss Communist Hannes Meyer, effectively ending their dream.(He taught the first Bauhaus architecture in 1927!) When Mies took over in Berlin at an abandoned telephone factory, he had to explain to Hitler’s propaganda master Alfred Rosenberg why his first achievement was a Denkmal to Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxembourg (1926), the founders of the German Communist Party. He had no believable answer! By a marvelously serendipitous encounter in 1970 I met his Azubi in the last class--Bertrand Goldberg, the Chicago Jew who soon fled to Paris after his year with Mies.

Mies became a Nice Nazi sucking up to Albert Speer unsuccessfully until in 1938 Gropius got him a commission for a millionaire’s summer home in Yellowstone, Wyoming. Goldberg is the greatest architect to come out of the Bauhaus. Meanwhile what I sneer at as the current Bauhustlers have just published a brochure dubbing themselves “the Triennale” (Weimar, Dessau, Berlin), anticipating the centennial in 2019.

I’m eager to learn what they mean by establishing workshops for children 12 years and up fighting “Hateful Propaganda” against the Bauhaus. Hmmm! Wonder whom they mean? Or is it just more betrayal of Gropius’s idealism about helping the working classes: content to fake the sad true Bauhaus agenda by building more museums for middle class tourism instead of his true ideal of building for the poor German immigrants as well as the underhoused millions outside Germany. Architecture for Humanity and Habitat for Humanity both keep alive the real Gropean idealism. 

Heh! Last word: the German Architecture Museum in Frankfurt has just opened an exhibition, THINK GLOBAL/BUILD SOCIAL. Maybe the demented era of Bauhustling is over. I hope so. So would Goldberg, who has never had an exhibition in Germany even though he’s the greatest Bauhaus architect-ever and swore to me his undying compliance with Gropius class idealism when I last talked with him in Chigago, two years before his death in 1997!

1 comment:

Jay Rutherford said...

Hey Patrick -- don't be so mean. OK go ahead, it's fun. Which brand is more widely recognized in the world -- Cranbrook or Bauhaus? And this is not just a result of marketing -- the original Bauhaus did indeed produce good thing (not only material). Ideas are worth something.
I know, our school uses the Bauhaus brand shamelessly, but it carries a responsibility -- don't fuck up this brand.