For many Americans the International Style in modern architecture is synonymous with the Bauhaus (building house), the influential German school of art, architecture, and design. This is true in large part because faculty and alumni of the institute, not least its charismatic founding director Walter Gropius, brought many of the forms and methodologies of modernism with them to the United States as refugees from the Third Reich. Although other German-speaking architects and designers contributed to American modernism, nearly all crucial episodes of German American relations in modern design can be traced to the Bauhaus, in the fields of commercial graphics, furniture design, and design education, as well as architecture. Walter Gropius’s refusal to limit his school’s mission to the teaching of architecture, his insistence that every field of practical design could be an outlet for creativity as well as social betterment, is the key to the Bauhaus’s worldwide influence.
The Bauhaus’s roots can be traced to currents in design during the German Empire (1871-1918) and the young architect Walter Gropius’s concern for design’s fate in an industrial mass society. A member of the German Werkbund, an organization of designers, industrialists, and educators founded in 1908, Gropius shared its concern with the inadequacy for modern needs of traditional fine arts training of artists and architects, as well as the apprenticeship and trade school systems in the applied arts. Inspired by fellow Werkbund member Henry van de Velde, who in turn based his ideas on the arts and crafts philosophy of William Morris, Gropius began to plan a school curriculum that erased distinctions between “fine” and “applied” art. It was based on a philosophy of design education that would identify basic laws of form and fitness for use. The resulting products, Gropius believed, would meet modern needs both practically and spiritually, as they healed the schism between the artist and the ordinary citizen.
By the time he founded the Staatliches Bauhaus (supported by the state of Thuringia) in Weimar in 1919, Gropius, shocked by his experience in World War I, had retreated from his prewar embrace of industrial civilization. He established the school on a handicraft- rather than an industrial-training basis, and its dominant mood was that of a utopian colony divorced from the world. The institute’s Vorkurs (Basic Course) was taught at first by painters identified with the antimodern Expressionist movement, with the Swiss Johannes Itten as the leading figure and Wassily Kandinsky, a founder of abstract painting, among the staff. (The German American painter Lyonel Feininger, although always essentially detached from the school’s practical education, was part of this initial cadre.) Gropius hoped that the investigations into pure form pursued by radical painters would lead to a new basis for design thinking in architecture and applied design, replacing the imitation of classical or Gothic prototypes. The idea of a new beginning in society as well as art was paramount.
It has been suggested that Itten’s philosophy of creating form out of the tasks and inspirations of the moment borrowed from American pragmatist John Dewey’s philosophy of education as learning through experience instead of memorizing a “correct” curriculum. Itten encouraged students to find laws of basic design, formal and practical, through free experiment with scrap material and exercises with colors and patterns. Itten’s Expressionist antimodernism and mysticism pushed the school’s meager output toward a rough, heavy, vaguely cubist-influenced style.
The Bauhaus took its mature direction in 1922-1923. Many students, and then Gropius himself, were swayed by the pro-machine arguments, backed up by striking designs, of the Dutch De Stijl movement and the Russian constructivists. Deciding that only by embracing the machine and the forms most in tune with its processes could the school help society, Gropius proclaimed, “Art and Technology—A New Unity.” The Hungarian-born constructivist painter Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, an unabashed enthusiast for the machine, replaced Itten in 1923 as director of the Vorkurs. He and his pupil, painter Josef Albers, became the bulwarks of Gropius’s curriculum. Keeping Itten’s Vorkurs intact, Moholy-Nagy and Albers encouraged play with smooth surfaces, simple geometric shapes, serene yet dynamic formal compositions, and industrial materials. Under Moholy’s direction of the metals workshop, the school created the first mass-production modernist lighting fixtures and pioneered chromed-steel furniture. Gropius’s stirring rhetoric and personal charisma quickly made Bauhaus a shorthand term for avant-garde functionalist design throughout Germany. In the process he awakened the enmity of the political and cultural Right, which would dog the school for the rest of its existence.
During the Bauhaus’s peak period of 1925-1928, when the school relocated to Gropius’s striking white-cubic building complex in Dessau—with its soon-to-be-famous glass-walled workshop wing—the school’s credo was a creative process without preconceptions. However, the Bauhaus quickly became identified (not entirely unfairly, since Gropius had pushed the school to find a universal grammar of design) with a style of smooth horizontals, white or glass cubistic forms accented with primary colors, clean sans-serif or lower-case graphics, and the air of machine functionality. In addition, for many students and some faculty, Americanization was a powerfully attractive ideal that steered them away from art and toward bold practicality. As an architect, Gropius thought of himself as a creative experimenter with standardized industrial modules, like Henry Ford with the Model T, and is alleged to have solicited Ford (unsuccessfully) for support. More generally, if nebulously, America’s supposed spirit of engagement with the present, its bold embrace of the machine age and spurning of the past, inspired many at the school. American-style jazz was popular among students, and one student declared in the school magazine that Ford and Edison were honorary Bauhausler (along with Pablo Picasso and Albert Einstein). Gropius himself toured the United States in 1928 and became preoccupied both with issues of mass production and the technologies of skyscraper construction.
By this time, however, Gropius had stepped down as the Bauhaus’s director. Under his successor, Hannes Meyer, the politically engaged functionalist who had headed the school’s architecture department, the school’s americanism intensified. However, the school’s pursuit of free creativity waned, a consequence of Meyer’s insistence on practical design that would serve the industrial masses. Student spirit for engaging with society ran high, but dissatisfaction among those who still valued the fine arts and a fear that the school’s political engagement endangered it led to Meyer’s replacement by the apolitical, magisterial Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in 1930. Mies ran the school as an architectural atelier, with only Kandinsky and Albers remaining from the Gropius era, until Nazi elements in the Dessau city government forced the school’s closure in early 1932. Mies reopened it in Berlin as a private school, but the Nazis sealed its building under suspicion of Communist activities soon after Adolf Hitler’s seizure of power. Rather than accept Nazi demands to alter the curriculum, Mies chose to disband the institution in the summer of 1933.
The Bauhaus had attracted a few American students, beginning with artist Florence Henri in the late 1920s, but for the most part the American presence was limited to male architecture students in the final years under Mies. American avant-garde “little magazines” occasionally spotlighted Bauhaus architectural designs along with other European modernist manifestations, and architectural journals described the “extreme functionalism” of Gropius’s architecture, ignoring the rest of the curriculum. Significant American attention to the school began in 1927, when the young Harvard-trained art historian Alfred Barr toured the school and met Gropius. Barr’s preoccupation with finding a unified style for all the arts in the machine age seemed to him to have been triumphantly met in Gropius’s school. As director of the new Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), Barr exhibited architecture, painting, photography, and typography from the school. Although it featured Gropius only as one of many architects in a worldwide “International Style,” MoMA’s 1932 “Modern Architecture: International Exhibition” brought the Bauhaus’s founder to the attention of American design schools desperate for reform.
After Hitler’s seizure of power, Barr’s efforts and those of MOMA’s architecture curator Philip Cortelyou Johnson (a devotee of Mies) secured teaching positions for Bauhaus alumni in the United States. Albers found a position teaching art at the experimental Black Mountain College (1933). Chicago industrialists brought over Moholy-Nagy as head of a New Bauhaus in Chicago (1937), soon reorganized as the School of Design. Barr and architectural educator Joseph Hudnut secured Gropius’s appointment as director of the architecture curriculum at Harvard University (1936-1937). Alumni designers Marcel Breuer, Herbert Bayer, Alexander (Xanti) Schawinsky, Herbert Matter, and Mies soon followed. Even though MOMA’s 1938 show on the Gropius years of the Bauhaus was a critical and popular failure, it helped cement a growing idea that functionalist architecture, modernist commercial design, and geometric abstract art were all synonymous with the Bauhaus.
Renewed contact between the former Bauhausler in optimistic circumstances led to new creativity for many, notably in Breuer’s imaginative output of small country houses (in practice with Gropius) and Bayer’s exhibition designs for MOMA and advertisements for the Container Corporation of America (CCA). The Swiss art historian Sigfried Giedion’s book Space, Time, and Architecture (1941), based on lectures he had given at Harvard at Gropius’s invitation, was influential in cementing the Bauhaus approach as the cornerstone of modern architecture. (Mies and his most loyal Bauhaus faculty, especially Walter Peterhans and planner-architect Ludwig Hilberseimer, tended not to associate with the Gropius group.)
The post-World War II years saw both triumph for and growing criticism of the Bauhaus influence in the United States. Gropius uprooted the Beaux-Arts curriculum from Harvard but was unable to introduce the complete Bauhaus Vorkurs curriculum. His approach, which influenced all departments of the Graduate School of Design, stressed an unprejudiced approach to problems of architecture as a social environment. In practice, this meant planning exercises that stressed urban decentralization and an approach to building design that turned functional elements into bold formal patterns. Marcel Breuer emerged as the dominant teacher of architecture in the school. Although graduates like I. M. Pei and the Australian Harry Seidler adopted much from his form language, Paul Rudolph and Philip Cortelyou Johnson (who had chosen architectural practice over historical scholarship) increasingly took their own paths. So did Mies, directing the architecture program at the Illinois Institute of Technology and becoming increasingly preoccupied with the steel industrial frame. Moholy-Nagy proved more successful as an inspiring spirit than director of a school, although his impact on younger designers like Charles Eames and Paul Rand was considerable. The élan of the Bauhaus years survived most undiluted at Black Mountain College, where Gropius, Moholy, and other alumni were frequent visitors to Albers’s courses and to the school’s famous Summer Institute. The school had no architecture or design curriculum, however, and by the late 1940s was increasingly under the influence of writers and teachers of literature.
Albers became head of Yale’s fine art curriculum in 1950 and successfully directed its path toward abstract art until 1970. His wife Anni, an important member of the Bauhaus community, gained respect as a leading textile artist. Throughout this period an American Bauhaus style of lightweight planes in bright, simple, primary-colored forms, playful yet machined, could be felt in the best American commercial design until the 1970s, epitomized by Herbert Bayer’s work for CCA and Atlantic Richfield.
Unfortunately, Americans who picked up Bauhaus forms and methods often ignored the idealism (social and philosophical) behind them and began to equate Bauhaus style with either blank utility or a formalism of abstract geometry. It might be said that Gropius’s decision in the early Weimar days to drop the study of past design, as a drag on individual creativity and an irrelevance to modern conditions, encouraged a reaction toward a more historically rooted (or at least more familiar-looking) forms. The use of apparently Bauhaus-influenced forms in the much-reviled megaprojects of late modernism, such as Wallace Harrison’s New York State governmental complex in Albany, discredited (however unfairly and uncomprehendingly) Gropius’s philosophy of “total design.” By the time Gropius and Mies died in 1969, a looser, more ironic, and historicist pluralism, often casting the Bauhaus as its enemy, had begun to push aside the Bauhaus ideals of learning through doing and exploring the fundamentals of design.
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