by Meghna MehtaOct 02, 2019
HAPPY BIRTHDAY BAUHAUS!
“The Bauhaus was an Idea. Only an idea has a power to disseminate itself so widely.” - Mies van der Rohe
The Bauhaus has undoubtedly been one of the most significant movements in the world. After taking the Bauhaus Dtour to the sites at Weimar, Dessau and Berlin among other, experiencing comprehensively curated exhibitions to celebrate its centenary, one is marvelled at the influence and impact of the very first design school in the world - that lasted for just about 14 years, from 1919-1933. Most contemporary design schools today are barely able to make a reputation in this span of time, but the Bauhaus school was very much at the forefront of discourse during its existence, and even 100 years after!
There were many factors that contributed to the success of the Bauhaus movement, despite it getting shut down by the Nazis in 1933, who termed it as 'degenerate'. Some of the aspects are discussed below -
The Pioneering Vision
One of the largest contributing factors of the Bauhaus becoming extremely well-known and standing the test of time was - its fundamental philosophy of the integration of the arts with crafts, as well as architecture thereafter. The Bauhaus combined the education of the arts that were considered as ‘elite’ studies, with crafts – something done for the first time in the world and conceived as a new field of study, called design, as we know it today. This concept of unity in visual material culture was very radical and avant-garde for its time. The combination of a movement that spread across such fields contributed immensely to its widespread reputation as it filtered through textiles, products, visual arts, sculpture, furniture, theatre and architecture.
The curriculum of the Bauhaus focused on the mass production of goods and how design could help everyday life. It was done to add soul to manufactured products and add social relevance to the arts. The rejection of ornamentation in favour of prioritising the function, first, was reflected in the works produced by the students and masters of the Bauhaus. Its approach to teaching encompassed the relationship between the arts, crafts, society and the technology. It levelled the hierarchy that was prevalent in the arts since the Renaissance period. The Bauhaus school introduced the common foundation programme in the first year of education – known as the ‘preliminary course’, which is still followed in most design schools today as the ‘foundation’ course!
Bauhaus as a School of Thought
The Bauhaus was not just a physical college, it manifested into a school of thought that was synonymous with the free-spirited, the avant-garde. Women at Bauhaus wore cropped hair and were permitted into metal workshops. People wrote in low caps. There was a sense of play in everything they did at the Bauhaus – which is very evident of the photographs of the Bauhaus parties, which became so popular that they were even written about in the press very actively. There was lightness amongst the teachers and students. All symbolising a departure from traditional views of manner and etiquettes as well.
The Teachers and Students
Teachers were called Masters at the Bauhaus and it attracted some of the best tutors in the world. Imagine being taught elements of design by Paul Klee, furniture making by Marcel Breuer, and abstraction by Kandinsky amongst others. The outstanding students taught at the Bauhaus as young masters and they frequently had guest lectures by visiting masters. Masters lived in austere modern residences designed by Walter Gropius at the Bauhaus campus with furniture by Breuer; in essence, they lived the vision.
The Founder and Directors of the School
Walter Gropius was a modernist architect, and when in 1919 he was asked to become a director of the Grand-Ducal Saxon School of Arts and Crafts in Weimar, he transformed it into the Bauhaus. Gropius’s vision, flair for PR and outreaching network led him to invite some of the best artists and craftsmen of the time to come and teach at the school. However, from the day the Bauhaus began, it was subjected to much criticism and scrutiny – Gropius sailed through it all and found new ways to make people aware of this new philosophy and way of life.
In 1923, Gropius organised a huge exhibition with the works of the students and teachers, as well as multiple lectures on ideas of modern thinking and living. Haus am horn – a model house was also designed and built for this exhibition. The Bauhaus even had a publication of its own to document and share the latest updates of the school. Post the exhibition, Gropius was granted state funding and he designed the new Bauhaus residential campus at Dessau, where a Bauhaus GmbH company for selling its products was also launched.
The direction of the school was highly dependent on the Director leading the institute. This was perhaps very refreshing as the curriculum was regularly updated to factor for the zeitgeist and the future needs of the society.
After Gropius, architect Hannes Mayer became the school in-charge. He insisted on the idea of the ‘social’ as many Bauhaus products were already becoming affordable by just a few, and therefore reinstated making products accessible to all. He introduced subjects like photography and urban planning as a part of the curriculum and insisted much lesser focus be given to artistic expressions in design. His communist manner led to the radicalisation of students who along with Gropius approached the university and removed him as the Director.
He was succeeded by architect Mies van der Rohe, a successful and famous architect at the time. During his short tenure and increased political activity in the school, the Bauhaus was restrained. The curriculum shifted towards architecture. It was less experimental, more conventional, the preliminary course was removed, workshops were combined, the GmbH was shut. Eventually the Dessau campus also shut and Mies continued to run the Bauhaus privately in Berlin, by self-funding it until the Gestapo intervened, briefly imprisoned the students and sealed it.
The Aftermath of the Bauhaus
Most of the Bauhaus masters and students immigrated to the United States and joined leading institutes. Gropius and Breuer taught at Harvard, the Alberses were at the Black Mountain College, and then Yale; Mies went to the Illinois Institute of Technology; Bayer to the Aspen Institute; and Moholy-Nagy at the New Bauhaus in Chicago. They actively propagated the Bauhausian ways in their new environment. Many Jewish students of the Bauhaus went to Israel and contributed to the establishment of the ‘White City’ - where over 4000 Bauhaus style buildings stand tall in Tel Aviv today.
The idea of unifying a college with a sense of common purpose and shared ideals – conceiving a strong ideology that can translate and transcend to the invisible aspects of campus, curriculum and conversations, is a lesson for all design schools of today and the future. The Bauhaus is relatable even today- of how design and life can become synonymous- how all schools face the same issues of trying to attract the best educators, facing challenges of bureaucracy, yet being unyielding of their vision. Whether it was the Eames taking cues from the Bauhaus while writing the India Design report to establish the National Institute of Design, or more recently a group of designers coming together to conceptualise The Design Village Institute, the Bauhaus undoubtedly has been influential and inspiring.