Monday, 15 September 2014

Our Forgotten Bauhaus Women

In the ten years I’ve been studying the history of the German Bauhaus, the legendary Weimar arts school that opened in 1919, one overwhelming trend has prevailed. A new generation of female scholars has buried the Bauhaus patriarchy for good and always. It had it coming. Walter Gropius early on announced a ukase that there would be a 30% quota on female applications. (He feared they would overwhelm the student body, their leisure time enrollments at art schools looming large.)

And the women suffered a Beruf Verbot as well— they couldn’t enter the allegedly prime architecture course. They were shunted off into woman-friendly occupations such as weaving! (A supreme paradox here is slowly emerging: As the architectural reputation of the Bauhaus proper sinks inexorably in the West, the international stature of women weavers like Gunta Stölzl and Anni Albers rises dramatically.)

Not that the architectural exclusion mattered in point of fact: Such a highly discussed curriculum didn’t actually exist until Gropius quit in a huff of frustration in 1928 and the Swiss Communist Hannes Meyer took over as director.

Marianne Brandt's low priority
There were other instances of patriarchal distortions. Upon my arrival in Germany in 1999, I asked the Bauhaus Berlin Archive director Dr. Peter Hahn why there had been no exhibition of so creative a Bauhausler as Marianne Brandt  (1893-1983) while minor figures like Herbert Bayer were given full-scale retrospectives. Hahn took me over to a library file cabinet and showed me his collection of Brandt photos. I asked when he had exhibited them. Not yet, but patrons could buy them for several hundred dollars!

Hahn could have told me (if he knew) that Dr. Anne-Katrin Weise had recently written a thesis on Brandt at Humboldt University in 1991 as well as her Habilitation in 1995! And that Weise had been agitating for an exhibition in Brandt’s hometown of Chemnitz (aka Karl-Marx-Stadt during the East German regime) to no avail. Dr. Ingrid Mössinger, the very creative head of that city’s art collection, has such aspirations— so we can be sure such an exhibition will ultimately come to pass, however shamefully delayed, more than 40 years after Brandt’s death.

First the Nazis, then the Communists
Her brilliant career was cut brutally short twice— once by the Nazis and then by the DDR. To the former, Brandt was “decadent.” To the latter, too Formalist! And, admittedly, that city’s excellent Industry Museum has started a biennial design competition in Marianne’s name for artists under 40.

 But it wasn’t until the Swiss Miss, Dr. Anne-Marie Jaeggi, succeeded Dr. Hahn that Brandt got an exhibition— not of her canonical metal works (still in mass production after 50 years by the Italian design factory Alessi), but of those filed photo collages Hahn had shown me as evidence of the archive’s awareness of Brandt’s importance. Jaeggi is one of the most productive of this new cadre of female Bauhaus scholars, with solid books on Gropius’s “hidden” designer, Adolf Meyer, as well as a study of Gropius’s first factory, the Fagus shoelast plant in Alfred am Leine in North Rhine Westphalia.

Women armed with Leicas
But Jaeggi is not alone: Two new Ph.D.s published a catalogue for a Dessau exhibition on neglected Bauhaus women architects. Neglected? They were virtually unknown until retrieved by these woman scholars. The Finnish photography curator at the Folkwang Museum/Essen set an admirable example in 1995 for the Dessau show when she organized an exhibition on German women photographers in the 1920s. She showed how the invention of the Leica 35 mm. camera made the emerging profession of news photographer accessible to women with cash enough for a Leica and heart enough to crash another male precinct. Many had both. (My count was 53 retrieved photographic careers.)

Anja Baumhoff has written the standard book-length study of gender discrimination at the Bauhaus. And most recently, Kathleen James-Chakraborty has put Bauhaus Modernism in perspective with German Architecture for a Mass Audience (Routledge, 2000)—showing how structures like Max Berg’s stunningly Modernist Centennial Hall (1910-13) in Breslau antedate glib Bauhaus claims for architectural innovation. Her fresh perspective perceives such large audience structures as indispensable new media for broadening working class access to political participation. Dr. Chakraborty, just become professor of architectural history at University College, Dublin, has also edited an indispensable volume of essays, Bauhaus Culture: From Weimar to the Cold War (University of Minnesota, 2006). Most of those essayists are female.

But pride of first place must surely be reserved for that ur-feminist, Dr. Marie-Elisabeth Lüders, the belated follower of that tough-minded 12th-Century nun, Hildegard von Bingen. Lüders was the first woman to get a Ph.D. in politics in Berlin (1910). She directed women’s work (and related child care) during World War I, and was elected to the Weimar Parliament, with two Nazi incarcerations for mouthing off (her inspiring autobiography is entitled Never Fear!). After World War II, Lüders helped West Berlin get up and running again politically. And Otto be praised, the speedily diminishing German patriarchate (the days of Kinder, Küche and Kirche are mercifully almost over!) belatedly honored her in 2005 by dedicating the new Bundestag Library on the Spree as the Marie-Elisabeth Lüders House.

A few details Mies neglected
But I am not concerned here with delayed honors, but with prescient architectural criticism. In 1927 Mies van der Rohe made his first effort at achieving international stature by assembling a cadre of 17 European architects for “his” Weissenhof Siedlung. Dr. ”Never Fear!” Lüders had the temerity to immediately criticize Mies’s apartments in the Deutsche Werkbund quarterly, Form (1927), from the point of view of a woman and mother.

Alas, she pointed out, Mies’s design provided no room for removing wet clothes. The external steps between floors had gaps through which tykes could fall perilously. The excessively glassed-in walls created pneumonia-generating floors on which infants crawled at their own risk of sickness. And, cruelest blow of all, when you opened the kitchen door, those same gratuitous winds blew out the flame. Little details. (Less isn’t always more!)

Heh, no mystery here. Mies wasn’t creating a dwelling, whose parameters he had carefully thought through for its future inhabitants. He was creating a work of art! He was after fame, this poor Aachen stone mason’s son, who even bristled at having to take orders from the higher-class Walter Gropius (his supervisor in the Legendary 1910 Berlin office of Peter Behrens, where Corbusier was the other Azubi). This is what I call the Philip Johnson Fallacy: Architecture begins—and ends—with a capital A. When Johnson was belatedly a student of Gropius at Harvard, PJ mocked Pius for his obsession about building working-class housing. A is for Art, the parvenu from Cleveland shrilled throughout his long, long career.

And when Johnson created a Mies simulation as the first modern house in Houston (1950) for the de Menil family, famous for their legendary art collecting, the roof leaked so furiously and long that the de Menil children thought the always-returning roofers were the architects! Johnson made the terminal mistake of insisting that these aesthetes use only Mies furniture in “his” house, deployed the way the master would. The de Menils told him to get lost and allegedly never spoke to him again. I suppose it was unpoetic justice that when Mies got around one night to visiting Johnson’s notorious Glass House in New Canaan, Conn., he said, “It looks like a Hot Dog Stand” at night.

Barcelona in Chicago (not)
 Mies wanted Corbusier to be his Top Attraction at Weissenhof, thereby securing his own international reputation as a great architect. When I visited "The Corbu" in 2002, as part of a 75th anniversary Weissenhof symposium, I couldn't imagine living in such a concrete unjungle. Last year, as it seems to happen to most Modern Icons, it was reduced to an uninhabitable Visitors Center. Ditto Frank Lloyd Wright's "Falling Water" in western Pennsylvania. And, of course, the Farnsworth House in the Chicago suburb of Plano.

Creating it as a weekend escape for his girlfriend, Dr. Farnsworth, Mies made the strategic mistake of replicating the Barcelona Pavilion"” outside Chicago. Too hot in the summer, too cold in the winter, not to mention that the marsh engendered mosquitoes the rest of the year. It became too expensive to live in and, their romance over, Farnsworth took Mies to court for the non-habitation's excessive energy costs.

Final audit? It's now a Visitors Center, dedicated to the "genius" who spent a haunted life worrying about his own status and stature. So you might say that those first two female doctors, Lüders and Farnsworth, were early warnings to the Bauhaus Patriarchs that their days were numbered.

This essay is also published by Broad Street Review.

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