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Building on Bauhaus Legacy

TIMES STAFF WRITER

“Less is more,” the innovators of the Bauhaus proclaimed more than 80 years ago of their design revolution that enshrined austerity and function in everything from teapots to skyscrapers.

But apparently, their idea of “more” is still not enough. Today, the heirs to Germany’s most successful design movement have resurrected the famous school of art and architecture to apply its principles to the urban development challenges of the 21st century.

Denounced by the Nazis as “Bolshevik” and by the Communists who ruled this part of Germany for the next 40 years as “bourgeois,” the design ideology sent packing on the eve of World War II has discovered newfound respect in the decade since German reunification.

More than merely reviving what became known as the “international style” in housing and home furnishings, those who reopened Bauhaus College in this grim eastern city a year ago and Bauhaus University in the design ideology’s birthplace, Weimar, are tapping its powers to correct contemporary social ills.

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“The idea here is not to reproduce the Bauhaus. The idea now is to try to pick up where it was before it suffered an unnatural death and apply it to today’s challenges presented by globalization,” says Bauhaus University Rector Gerd Zimmermann in Weimar.

The Dessau devotees, disturbed by a yawning digital divide in today’s high-tech world, also insist that Bauhaus is as relevant now as it was in the 1920s.

“The Bauhaus was murdered many times in its short history, but it is still not dead,” says Omar Akbar, director of the Bauhaus Foundation here, which this year inaugurated an international urban design award and gathers mid-career professionals for fellowships and seminars at the college. “We are still driven by the impulses and ideas of the original movement.”

The guiding principle of the Bauhaus founders was to apply industrial techniques to the production of handicrafts and thus provide affordable design and decor for the masses. Those concepts are reflected today at huge home-design chains such as Ikea, Pier 1 Imports, Pottery Barn or Crate & Barrel, fans of Bauhaus say.

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German architect Walter Gropius established the first Bauhaus school in 1919 on a mission to develop creative minds for the design of buildings, handicrafts, furnishings and utensils. The school attracted an eclectic mix of artists and idealists from throughout Europe who introduced what were then revolutionary concepts giving priority to function over form and fashion.

The school produced novel household items like Marcel Breuer’s tubular steel furniture and swept away pretense and expressions of abundance. It was one of Gropius’ successors as Bauhaus director, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who coined the movement’s defining concept that “less is more” and applied it to the furnishings that still bear his name.

Post-World War II Housing Is Panned

The very name of the movement, which in German means “a house of building,” highlighted the usefulness of the construction materials and decor as well as the openness and functionality of an entire dwelling. The 300-plus townhouses designed and built here in the 1920s, with their austere facades and lowered ceilings, were a radical departure from the grander scales in fashion before the Bauhaus influence--and the subject of much artistic debate for decades.

While Bauhaus was unabashedly socialist in its origins, today’s practitioners concede that mass production went too far toward social leveling in the post-World War II era, tarnishing the legacy of the design philosophy with low-quality output and dehumanizing scale, most notably in grim housing construction.

Dessau, like most eastern cities that suffered benign neglect under Communist rule, is an unwitting showcase of both the best and the worst brought to life by Bauhaus.

The recently restored duplex built for two of the original school’s luminaries, artists Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky, exhibits the movement’s streamlined form and much-applauded attention to light, as do the surviving townhouses in the south of the city known as the Toerten Estates. But elsewhere in Dessau, the architectural landscape is blighted by shabby prefabricated high-rises thrown up after the war in a development drive that ignored the Bauhaus commitment to quality while exploiting its idea of mass production.

But today’s architectural directions are even more errant, Akbar charges, pointing to the newly opened Potsdamerplatz business and entertainment quarter in Berlin, where sleek, mirrored office towers overwhelm pedestrians and security guards telegraph that really only the elite are welcome.

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“I call this the privatization of public space,” says Akbar, an Afghan-born architect chosen by the Bauhaus Foundation two years ago to oversee its return to the design scene. “What does it say about a society when it transforms its inner cities into museums and develops squares and shopping centers where some citizens are not allowed to enter?”

Of the posh places rising in modern cities across Europe, he asks: “Where are the bums? Where are the down-and-out who have always belonged to the inner cities?”

Putting the people back into popular art and culture is one objective of the new Bauhaus that borrows heavily from the old movement. So, too, does the fresh challenge of harnessing the power of information technology for the common good and taking the original school’s aim of marrying art and industry like never before.

“The historical Bauhaus was about open-mindedness and experimentation,” says Marie Neumuellers, the new design school’s public relations director. “Social responsibility is fundamental. Bauhaus was always concerned with issues like housing for poor people and producing affordable design items, and we encourage today’s students to keep these social elements in mind.”

In the current semester at the Bauhaus College, where guest lecturers and professors are brought in to acquaint 25 scholars with art and architectural trends around the world, the students are at work on a project titled “Beyond Sprawl.” It aims to improve slum neighborhoods around the world, with the first case study proposing relief solutions for the Jacarezinho favela of Rio de Janeiro.

Bauhaus on the cusp of the 21st century also has taken on dimensions its founders never dreamed of, especially in the media sphere, which involved little more than a few crude advertising designs in the original movement’s 1920s heyday. In today’s information-driven society, media artists and designers are challenged to apply the technological breakthroughs to public service and to rethink centuries of habit and presumption.

“We’ve always navigated dictionaries and encyclopedias alphabetically, but with CD-ROMs and databases, you don’t need this,” media design professor Lorenz Engell says by way of example. “The Koran starts with the longest chapter and finishes with the shortest. We have to ask ourselves where these ordering systems come from and how technology might change them.”

Zimmermann, the university rector, acknowledges that the revitalized Bauhaus so far involves mostly Germans--even Akbar has lived in Germany since he was 7--unlike its forerunner, which attracted more diverse and multicultural talent. The original school founded in what is still the university’s main building drew on intellectual powers from across the continent, from Hungarian-born Breuer and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy to Russia’s Kandinsky and Switzerland’s Klee.

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The almost missionary zeal with which the early Bauhaus sought to open art to machine production was in some respects a necessary response to the times. Gropius pulled together his school of arts and crafts in the impoverished ruins of vanquished Germany after World War I, when few could afford the opulence that marked urban living before the conflict.

But as poverty, inflation and unemployment poisoned the political atmosphere throughout Germany--especially in Weimar--Adolf Hitler’s Nazi party gained sway among the disgruntled masses and branded the Bauhaus philosophy an outgrowth of “Bolshevism.”

State support for the design school was rescinded in 1925, when the first Nazi ministers entered the local government, setting the art school on an itinerant journey that took it to Dessau for the next seven years, then to Berlin, until the Nazis banned it altogether in 1933. Most of its founders took their talents abroad, giving rise to what was in the late 1930s called the New Bauhaus in Chicago and the “international style,” which competed with the more spacious and stylized construction then popular in the United States.

A few Bauhaus artists stayed behind and sought to influence urban development through cooperation with the Nazis, notes Baerbel Mees, a curator at Berlin’s Bauhaus Archiv, a museum hronicling the movement.

But the aims and ideas were at such odds with the Nazi reverence for romantic pitched roofs and surrounding gardens that even the few willing to collaborate wielded little influence over that era’s design.

All the key venues of Bauhaus development were in what became East Germany after the Nazis were defeated, and because the Communist-era stewards considered Bauhaus bourgeois, it was ignored until the two parts of Germany were reunited in 1990 and the search for new ideas in development began.

Those charged with preserving the legacy of the original movement dispute the claims from Weimar and Dessau that the Bauhaus is alive and kicking.

“The Bauhaus is over. It ended in 1933. What we have today is only copying,” says Mees, although she concedes that the movement’s spirit asserts itself in contemporary design.

The new generation of Bauhaus teachers at the movement’s namesake university in Weimar begs to differ.

“It’s not revival. It’s taking the ideas the next step,” says Liz Bachhuber, an art professor and vice rector of the university, which has 4,700 students of design, art, civil engineering, media and architecture and encourages cross-pollination of the urban-development disciplines segregated in most German institutions of higher learning.

“This Bauhaus is very pragmatic. We take what works today and get rid of what doesn’t work,” Bachhuber says. “We don’t feel beholden to the dictates of the past, but the idea of experimentation is still very important to us.”

Creative Process Lures Students

It is that new application of open format--to education, as much as to design--that attracts some to the resurrected Bauhaus.

“The movement’s history was of course part of what drew me here, but I most like the loose structure and the support for creativity,” says Heide Rosenbaum, a 20-year-old freshman in the architecture school. Like the administrators, she feels free to pick and choose what remains relevant from the old school, eschewing the mass-production focus of her artistic forebears as “a huge mistake.”

Despite its sudden return after a nearly 70-year absence, the Bauhaus movement suffers from a split personality. Its internationalist aspirations are incubated in this provincial city of 95,000 more than an hour’s drive southwest of the vibrant German capital, its main educational and experimental works are underway in Weimar, and the historical significance is being defined and written as an open-and-closed phenomenon by the curators in Berlin.

“Maybe we can bring together these disparate themes,” says Akbar, the foundation director. “That’s what I see as the challenge now, and an undertaking that reflects the surviving principles of the Bauhaus.”


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