Friday, August 21, 2009

Cycling through eastern Germany - Bauhaus

I was so spontaneously exciting to see the student dorm from the mid 1920s that I surprised myself. I studied Bauhaus twenty years ago, and to just turn the corner on my bike - and there it is!

The picture to the left looks like some painting from the era. It is a photo looking upwards in the dorm's stairwell.

The architects and designers at Bauhaus had one thing in mind: improving standards of living for common people. Back then, as one of the original videos shown at the exhibition explains, entire families lived in apartments with only 35m2 (350 square feet). And those apartments were dark, dank, and filthy.

Bauhaus developed both fancy single-family homes for the well-to-do as well as cheaper buildings that look like the kind of slums and high-rises we dislike today. The challenge for us is to realize how progressive all of this was in 1926. Modern architecture comes in large part from Bauhaus.

IKEA also comes from Bauhaus. Walk through the exhibition - with its stackable chairs and metal, egg-shaped tea sieves - and you realize that the only thing IKEA designed was logistics.

Of course, Bauhaus was not alone. Le Corbusier was another forerunner, but in his Plan Voisin he proposed that the historic center of Paris be razed and the kind of crap we hate today be put up in its stead. Even Corbusier's completed work is criticized today for being too large - not on a human scale. The buildings are too high without a lift, and the green space inbetween his buildings remains widely underused. People don't like it.

While Bauhaus did not propose razing Berlin (Speer did that - granite domes for 100,000+ people that modern architects say would have stood, but condensation from all those people would have caused rain to fall from the center of the dome), Bauhaus was not without its faults. Kandinsky (the painter) had his color scheme adapted: red means come in; black, exit; grey, only open door if necessary (toilets and private areas). The use of red for "come in" is, frankly, backasswards, and Kandinsky even varied the color scheme slightly, so you can't even rely on anything - I guess Saussure's sign/arbitrariness dichotomy came too late for Kandinsky.

More importantly, the windows - a major breakthrough for Bauhaus - were also crap by today's standards. Take a look at the second photo - that is the cafeteria today. We take such light for granted today, but it was a revolution back then.

Now look at the third photo: metal on metal. The cold air would blow through these windows uninhibitedly, and closing the window would be a very loud affair. But even the mistakes that Bauhaus made have led to great progress; today, Germany is the leader is glass manufacturing, from optics (Leica) to triple glazing in passive houses (not even available in the US) and the glass platform that tourists stand on over the Grand Canyon.

Hard to imagine, but as the fourth photo shows, Gropius, the founder of Bauhaus, had the radiators hung up on the walls where paintings would usually be hung. Due to the metal-on-metal windows, the buildings were nonetheless too cold. And if you look closely, you'll see that the door frames are not the same height, nor are they large enough to walk into. They were designed to enhance the position of the heating radiator when viewed from downstairs. Bauhaus staff were, unfortunately, not only craftsmen, but also artists.

But the building did not overheat; the glass facade is not flush with the floors, but rather set apart so that hot air can rise up the windows and out the top of the building - a sort of glass encasement that we are only now rediscovering (see last photo).

I could go on with photos, but I'll stop here. Visit Dessau yourself. Modernity started in many places, but none had a greater impact than Bauhaus - for better or for worse.

1 comment:

  1. Your post on the subject of The Bauhaus didn't appear (Aug 2009) until after my article (July 2009). So I added your key points in an addendum to "The Bauhaus School in Dessau".

    Thanks for the link
    Art and Architecture, mainly