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Bauhaus Dream-house - Modernity and globalization

Bauhaus Dream-house - Modernity and globalization

by Katerina Rüedi Ray
Routledge, NY, NY, 2010
228 pp.  Paper, $49.95
ISBN: 978-0-415-47582-2.

Reviewed by Florence Martellini

florencemartellini@gmail.com

The field of research around the Bauhaus has mainly emphasized art-historical scholarship based on formal and empirical approaches. Bauhaus Dream-house is the first book on the Bauhaus that presents the institution through the fascinating lens of a critical social theory. The author examines its institutional formation and the spread and influence of its ideas worldwide. Putting the Bauhaus into its daily context allows the reader to de-mystify it by realising the extent of its challenges and the impressive tenacity and creativity of its leaders to keep the school open and to disseminate its ideas. It was both an education establishment and a business of which development strategy is very familiar to us today even though initiated almost 100 years ago. The book starts by contextualising the birth of the Bauhaus. It, then, focuses on the life of the Bauhaus itself, explaining how social, economic and political pressures have influenced its original ideals and how it responded to the former. The last chapter traces its legacy, looking at the dissemination of its curriculum and the impact of its thinking on cultural identity and modernity.

The first part of the book Histories and Theories relates the history of architecture, design, and art education that led to the creation of the Bauhaus. Starting with the medieval guild to the late eighteenth century when new institutions were created in opposition to the expensive and 'out-of-touch' classical learning. In Germany, the Werbund tried to integrate art and industry, romanticising the guild model of uniting imagination and production. It aimed to ennoble products with art on the principle that mass-production can lead to quality product and that quality of industrial goods improves when designed by artists. Commodity design at the Bauhaus emerged from this history.

For those interested, chapter two focuses on the theoretical framework that informs the historical narration. Interestingly, the author explains that change is brought through fantasy, which helps construct new objects and practices. This often occurs during periods of drama (eco crisis, war). Fantasy is essential in capitalism because it gives 'meaning' to mass-produced commodities. And the Bauhaus did harness fantasy to represent socio-cultural change. It is heralded not only as a beacon of artistic, design and architectural modernism but also as the epitome of modernity. Hence, its history is also synonymous of that of the Weimar Republic as it became part of identity experiments by the new nation-state.

Part two Weimar Republic gives the reader an insight into the life of the school and its challenges. Founded in 1919 by Walter Gropius, who fused the Weimar Academy of Fine Arts and the Arts and Craft School, it was located in the provincial cities of Weimar (1919-1924), Dessau (1925-1932) and Berlin (1933) and had three consecutive directors Walter Gropius, Hans Meyer and Mies van der Rohe. Being on open admission, its Basic Course was the gatekeeper that offered formal and technical education but no history. The Bauhaus tried to straddle academy, technical and craft education, adopting during its first period medieval ideals to integrate them.

The First World War led to a rejection of history and the creation of a collective identity - space where people acquire embodied cultural capital, the habitus. The latter became the focus of critique and playful transformation. Gropius recognised the local political consequences of the Bauhaus' initial rejection of social and gender traditions and gradually re-established social conformity. As economic stability returned in 1924 the Bauhaus increasingly embraced a more conventional corporeal identity with its growing focus on standardisation, mass production and collaboration with industry. In addition, design being seen as key to the appeal of German products to compete internationally, the Bauhaus was doubly under pressure as an educational institution in regional and local systems without money and as a design school with national economic potential. It forced a stronger focus on marketing Bauhaus work. By 1924, workshops were working at full capacity but after the 1924 election the new right-wing Thurigian government questioned the school's future. The attempt to fight politics with economics by making the school less dependent on state funding was in Weimar ultimately unsuccessful - politics supervened. In 1925 the state terminated the contract with the school. Gropius foresaw the crisis and had the school moved to Dessau.

The second Bauhaus director, Hans Meyer, further strengthened business initiatives but had a different idea of the Bauhaus market - popular necessities came before elitist luxuries. He rationalised and restructured the workshops to improve productivity through standardisation. He disliked marketing. In collaboration with Rasch, a wallpaper company, wallpaper sales became central to the school's economy. The school's growing economic success as well as its collectivization of production formed a greater threat to the state than its economic problems. It was this rather than Meyer's Communist sympathies that allegedly became one of the reasons he had to resign in 1930.

Unlike Gropius or Meyer, the third director, Mies van der Rohe, felt no urge to create designs for mass consumers. When the Communist cell rebelled against his leadership, he called the army, ending the 'proletarianization' of the Bauhaus. He attempted to escape political conflict by denying a political role for the school. But when in 1933 the National Socialists, amongst other pressures, demanded him to remove several masters for their ideology, Mies van der Rohe closed the school.

Part three Europe and Beyond explains how the Bauhaus achieved such a global presence. When the school closed in 1933, its products were being bought or licensed mostly by German businesses. However, the Bauhaus images, writings and pedagogies had already acquired international presence and impact during the early days of the Weimar Bauhaus. To achieve such a global presence, corporeal and corporate identities, extensive networking and publicity were at the heart of its management. These communication efforts, which occurred through both personal networks and mass media, transformed the Bauhaus into an international phenomenon. Political and financial problems finally closed the Bauhaus, but the school dispersed across the globe, in particular, the USA, the former USSR, Mexico and Czechoslovakia where some of its leaders and students established themselves. The last chapter focuses on how the Bauhaus ideals continued to spread globally with its tools used differently in different contexts. However, the author does not really explain why neither the school's identity experiments nor its business models were adopted in its offspring’s institutions.

Overall, the book praises the Bauhaus for its un-disputable pivotal role in the twentieth century modernity and globalisation. Freed from 'dead conventions,' it became a sort of commodity itself by uniquely unifying design education, commodity production, marketing and sales. The author argues that it made visible “dangerous knowledge” [1] and challenged social norms. The Bauhaus' androgyny and a-historicism suited private, public and corporate interests of industry, colonialism and globalisation, distancing social issues from visual and spatial practice. The institution remained silent on social relations discourse and, instead, became a commodity brand, allowing bourgeois exploitation, control of resources and alienation of workers to continue. However, the author admits that the Bauhaus failed to fulfil its potential because it could not and was not permitted to continue experimenting to adjust to “realpolitik”. It lived and died in extreme economic and social conditions.

This critical approach, which takes the Bauhaus as a case study, shows how ideas about education impact institutional culture, how educational programs are interlinked with regional, national and international policy and how institutions connect to cultural networks and flows of ideas. Hence, this book can appeal to an extensive readership not only in the field of visual arts education but also in history, pedagogy and even business. Anyone who is curious about the phenomenon of the Bauhaus will also find this book fascinating.

References:

[1] Knowledge safeguarded by professionals to ensure monopoly and control.


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