How Bauhaus Redefined What Design Could Do for Society

By on February 5, 2019

From NY Times:  On April 11, 1933, the architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe stepped off the tram in the Steglitz neighborhood in southwest Berlin, crossed a bridge and found that his place of work had been surrounded by the Gestapo. The Bauhaus, where he taught and served as the director, had occupied an old telephone factory building there since 1932. The school first opened in Weimar in 1919, as a place for uniting craftsmanship with the arts in the service of architecture; over time, it changed, becoming more about uniting art with industrial techniques. Once Mies took over the directorship in 1930, it became almost purely a school for architecture.

But this instability, even vagueness, of purpose helped propagate its influence. In just over a decade, it had become a byword for modernity in design, a symbol of a progressive age across the world, from New York to Calcutta. The Nazis perceived the Bauhaus to be, along with atonal music and Expressionist painting, yet another specimen of the globe-spanning Jewish Bolshevik conspiracy they sought to eliminate. They weren’t wrong to intuit a basic radicalism at the heart of the Bauhaus project: Uniting all of its multiple tendencies and impulses was an attempt to put art and architecture to use as social regeneration for the world’s working classes. As National Socialism steadily took power across the country, the school became itinerant, always in search of a safe home. It traveled from Weimar, where it lay not far from where the constitution of the first German Republic had been drawn up, to industrial Dessau, where it left its most enduring architectural presence, before ending up in the capital, where its time would be fleeting, with no physical testament to its having ever been there. By that point, the Bauhaus was on its third director, Mies; political developments ensured that he was to be the last.

The local government in Dessau, among the first municipalities in Germany to be won by the National Socialists in 1931, had voted to close the Bauhaus, which was a state-funded school, in 1932. Mies reopened it as a private institution in Berlin later that year, but it only lasted one semester. The Nazis in Dessau sought, according to one fascist editorial, nothing less than “the disappearance from German soil of one of the most prominent places of Jewish-Marxist ‘art’ manifestation,” and they were not going to relent. With Hitler now chancellor of Germany, the Dessau public prosecutor called for a search of the school’s new Berlin headquarters. The police found materials that were deemed to be subversive, making it subject to closure. Three months of fruitless attempts by Mies and others to forestall this inevitable conclusion followed; they tried various ways to accommodate themselves to the Nazis and preserve the Bauhaus as a private art school. But in the end, the Dessau authorities used a new Nazi law to declare that “support for and action on behalf of the Bauhaus, which presented itself as a Bolshevist cell,” amounted to a political crime. In July 1933, Mies and other Bauhaus masters gathered together at the studio of the interior designer Lilly Reich in Berlin. Mies discussed the financial and political situation of the school and proposed that it should be closed. The proposal was met with unanimous agreement, and the Bauhaus was dissolved.

This, the formal end to the Bauhaus as a school, only precipitated the birth of the Bauhaus as an enduring myth, with its various iterations created and carried on by its former students and teachers, who began to flee Germany, arriving on the shores and at the borders of other nations as refugees. What might plausibly have been only a minor episode in the history of Modernism became a recurring one, translated into different languages and geographies and contexts and economies: a movement whose aesthetic was inextricable from the fact of its diaspora. In retrospect, the Bauhaus invested a particular concept, “design,” with such a quantity of meaning that it overwhelmed the word. Governments across the globe were experimenting with forms of planning, from the city block to the factory floor to the entire economy itself. In that context, the Bauhaus was an idea that could accompany that process — could give aesthetic, architectural and spiritual weight to the revival of society through design.

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