Sunday, 26 January 2014

The Corruption of Bauhaus Ideology

I came to Weimar in 1999 when it was declared The Cultural Capital of Europe to research the history of its most famous institution. As a homeless kid in Depression Detroit (1930-45), I was eager to explore what I had learned in graduate school about Walter Gropius’s attempt to bring Good Design to “the working classes”. Both he and Mies van der Rohe came out of the horrors of World War as “lefties”. That ideology would haunt both of them as the rightist ideals of Naziism gradually took over in 1933. Gropius’s Denkmal was for the Victims of the March Putsch (1923). Indeed the rightists were gradually expanding in the Weimar assembly. (The first minister of education to be a Nazi sounded the warning. But Gropius didn’t like fights. Indeed his first wife Alma Mahler chided him for being too nervous to participate in the Denkmal dedication in the Weimar cemetery.
Similarly, Mies (theoretically the third and final directors’ first famous work was a Denkmal for Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxembourg (1926) in the Berlin Cemetery.) In 1930 as Mies started to take over what was left of the Bauhaus, Alfred Rosenberg wanted to know why he had so honored the founders of the German Communist Party. (Mies tried to smile affably and dropped all the Communist students. But it was too late. He became a Nice Nazi until 1937 when Gropius got him a summer home in Yellowstone.)

I had a serendipitous encounter in 1970 with Bertrand Goldberg (1913-97) who was Mies’ Azubi until the school finally closed. He became my architectural mentor every time I visited Chicago. Indeed he was easily the greatest architect to attend the school, still in Dr. Annette Seeman’s standard history (2010) only his name is listed with thirteen other American Bauhaus students.. Period. 

In our last meeting, August 1987, the day after Timothy Dwight blew up the government center in Oklahoma, we were in a very gloomy mood. Bert sadly criticized the way the current Bauhaus had betrayed the working class ideals of Gropius which the Chicago architect implacably followed to his dying day. (There has never been a Goldberg exhibition in Germany, partly from total ignorance of his work and partly from the distorted hagiographical version the current Bauhaus promoters use to hide their shame at the real Nazi and DDR truths about his aborted ideal.) When I discovered these contradictions in the true history, I was removed from press contacts. 

The only exception has been Omar Akbar, the Afghani engineer who ran the Dessau part of what the Bauhaus brass have just re-named the Bauhaus Triennale (June 2013). Their plans include new teenage (12 and up) seminars to combat “Bauhaus Hate”! (I think they’re talking about me! Their latest, greatest lie: I only report objectively their betrayal of Gropius idealism!) I wish they would remind themselves of that bad old Nazi habit of Beruf Verbot. For sixty years I have written contentious journalism all over the world. Only today’s German Bauhustlers have stooped to conquer me so stupidly!

My first surprise was to discover how minor an architect Gropius was. He cried to his mother in letters, ”I can’t draw. I can’t draw!” Why for heaven’s sake did he aspire to be an architect?. A recent exhibition in Berlin’s Martin Gropius Bau gave me a satisfying answer. His great uncle Martin Gropius was generally regarded, excluding Schinkel , as the greatest pre-modern Berlin architect. So he asked Adolf Meyer to be his secret partner. No wonder the first architecture course didn’t come until 1927. And then he gave that absolutely central post to Hannes Meyer, the Swiss Communist! Yet the Dessau city politics were fast running faster and faster to the right.

And indeed they canned the Swiss Commie in 1930. Mies would stumble for three years to no avail, and then became a Nice Nazi until 1937, bugging Albert Speer for commissions that never came, so poisoned was his Denkmal past when he left for America.
But the biggest error in official Bauhaus history was that it ended in 1933. It really ended in 1928 when Gropius gave up and moved to build Siemenstadt in Berlin. His life was more and more miserable. A Dessau journalist was trying to create a career for himself by harassing Gropius for “double dipping”—a Bauhaus salary plus extra pay for consulting in the creation of the Junker suburb, Törten. And his pretentious star faculty was fighting against pay cuts, not to mention their contempt for his medieval Master concept when they argued for good old Patriarchal Professor! (They lost on the money and won on the status!) There was even scuttlebutt that Herbert Bayer was making moves on his second wife Ilse. So he talked Marianne Brandt to join him for interior designs and off they fled to Berlin. Meyer soon went to Moscow with many Commie dropouts and their work there is architecturally admirable. And many newly motivated students went to Palestine where they created a lush White City in Tel Aviv.

The saddest Chapter is the one created by the erratic gay fellow Philip C. Johnson (1900-2005). He dropped out of Harvard several times before he got his B.A.—not in architecture, but antiquities! His architecture period began in 1926 when he cruised Europe looking for new modern buildings to gain a post at the planned MOMA/New York. When he visited Dessau in 1926, he was so impressed he phoned the projected MOMA director Alfred Barr, Jr. that he had to come and see the greatest modern building—that Gropius claimed to design but where Ernst Neufert probably did all the heavy lifting.

Except he should have asked the professors and students how lousy the Modernoid structure really was: They fried in the summer and froze in the winter. It made great black and white photos with their new Leicas. That facility spread the falsities of Modernoidism throughout the civilized world. Call it International Style and ignore function as you relish its form (aka ART). Peter Blake (the English pseudonym he used after fleeing Nazi Germany), the greatest American architectural critic of the last century, argued in his obit of PCJ that he had totally corrupted the world conversation about modern architecture. He glibly referred to himself when anyone disagreed with him as the “whore of architecture.” His greatest sin was writing nasty letters about his Harvard dean Gropius (1938) mocking him for his obsession about working housing. So MOMA and the AIA sunk into the pit of Starchitecture from which we have barely begun to emerge.

Yet it was no joke being gay and a parvenu in Cleveland in the 1920’s. His German nanny made him fluent. So he partied in gay Berlin on his architectural searches. He returned to America in 1928 a Not So Nice Nazi politicizing for Huey Long before that Louisiana governor was assassinated. Then he started touting the radio priest Father Charles Coughlin who sneered over the air at FDR’s “Jew Deal”! Mies was his first favorite. PCJ made the first modern house in Houston in 1950 for the de Menil family, the greatest art collectors of the era. He also insisted they use Miesey furniture deployed the way the master would have ! They told him to get lost and never talked to him again! Their children thought the frequent visitor was PCJ. It was only carpenters repairing the leaky roof!

Later they quarreled and Mies sneered that PCJ’s vaunted Glass House in Connecticut (1970) looked like” a hot dog stand at Night”. Never mind. It’s a Visitor’s Center now, celebrating his architectural genius, at $150 a shot. Meanwhile his excessively glassed weekend house (1950) outside Chicago Mies had made for his one-time girl friend Dr. Farnsworth was uninhabitable. It’s now a Visitor Center celebrating his genius. Hmm.

But PCJ’s grossest aberration were those hateful letters he wrote in 1938 about his Harvard Dean Gropius, sneering about his obsession about worker housing. But his days of regard are almost over. Fresher voices like Cameron Sinclair’s Architecture for Humanity and Millard Fuller’s cooperative Habitat for Humanity are the thoughtful idealists of the future. PCJ was just a Modernoid aberration. In 2013 the globally important German Architecture Museum in Frankfurt am Main sounded its significant motto for architecture in the 21st Century: THINK GLOBALLY; BUILD SOCIAL. Johnson’s hyperestheticism is simply the last century’s bad news.

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