Utopia and disappointment

The keynote lecture by Prof. em. Dr. Lucian Hölscher was a highlight of this year’s “Weimar Controversies”. The former teacher at the Ruhr-Universität Bochum impressed with his profound and entertaining thoughts on “Utopia and disappointment. 100 years of the Bauhaus”. Reason enough for us to publish his lecture.


Photo: © Tillmann Franzen, tillmannfranzen.com

[Translate to English:] Absatz 1 - 2

Everything looks different in hindsight: 100 years of the Bauhaus. 100 years ago, looking into the future and uttering those words would have evoked a joyful, impressive world full of smooth surfaces, broad, bright spaces, expanded by other artists and projects conceived by the modern “Neues Bauen” movement; it would have included [Bruno Taut’s] “city crowns” and developed mountain peaks, a world of organised rural landscapes, broad bridges and beautifully rising columns.

To the Bauhaus, looking 100 years into the future was a familiar perspective to most protagonists of Neues Bauen. Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier and Bruno Taut would have envisaged their utopian building projects constructed by then, in an open future with an endless array of beautiful new edifices to please the eye. We are familiar with these sketched plans, the broad views of Neues Bauen narrowed down by extreme perspectives, where no dark constrictions, no ugly mixed developments and certainly no ruins exist; where people appear merely as dots and lines, if at all, apparently relaxed and yet filling the emptiness in a sophisticated manner, structuring them in inner spaces, filling them with life, dynamism and significance.

Gravel covered in algae

We all know this, but we are also aware of actual Bauhaus architecture, because we live a hundred years later; a hundred years in which an infinite amount has been built in the spirit of the Bauhaus; in which these buildings mix with other older and newer edifices, combine with them and have had to form new ensembles; in which people have lived, wanted to live and had to live in these buildings, both happily and unhappily; in which the old structures no longer suited them, so they changed them, built over them and emptied them; and also in which the often cheap materials became brittle, decayed and cracked, leaving ugly scars; in which the structures’ bright glass became milky, the flat roofs leaky, their gravel surfaces covered in algae and overgrown by thorny shrubs, stained brown and yellow; in which estates, once designed for endless youth, mutated, decayed or were even bombed and demolished into hideous holes full of bleak misery. In short, we know today how time has affected this architecture, how vulnerable and short-lived it can be if it is not constantly maintained, preserved and restored.

Who would have thought that at the time? Nobody. When we talk about the history of the Bauhaus today, we must therefore include its disappointments. They are its fate, its signatures, its future and its past. But most Bauhaus literature has been completely silent on this aspect to date. And if mentioned, the theme is only reluctantly addressed as a disturbance, with sadness, as one speaks of a loss or a deformity.

Revealing spaces of hope

Written histories of buildings always end with their topping-out ceremony. Only very rarely do we learn about what happened in them afterwards: how existing buildings are used, converted, misused and occasionally reused in a creative way. Much needs to be done in this respect: not only empirical, but also conceptual work. To do so, we need a different model both of history and the future, one that contrasts with the future that the Bauhaus conceived for itself, in which the future is not only grasped as linear, as a point of departure and a new beginning, but also as a path of failure, a path towards consequences one never intended and yet nevertheless created: as a place to rediscover old things that have apparently been dismissed and overcome, but also to discover a completely different future that is different from our grasp of it in the past.

All this begins with the disappointment over the outcome of ideas and projects of the Bauhaus. But to understand this disappointment, we must first shed light on its utopias and aspects of hope, even though this has often been done before: for they only become clear against the background of later disappointments, and inversely, the disappointments only come to the fore against the background of their utopias, which have been downtrodden in many ways, but still survive, indeed more robustly than one might expect in view of the thousandfold tale of Bauhaus woes. That in itself is a miracle.

How did it all begin? It started with a new desire for simple, clear forms: in 1919, after the ornamentation of Wilhelminan period, after Historicism’s meaningless mixture of older building styles, after the loss of wide open spaces in the increasingly constricted city centres, Gropius and his colleagues (who were not the first – others such as Peter Behrens had preceded them) proposed a shift towards clear, new forms, new materials full of light and simple workmanship, a liberation: space to breathe and soothing for the eyes. In all of its thousand forms (since there is no definitive Bauhaus style), it appeared to be a victory of beauty in restoring people’s demoralised lives.

Klassik Stiftung Weimar.
Bauhausfest im Ilmschlösschen bei Weimar, Foto: Louis Held, 29.11.1924.

Wartime destruction

Like the classicism of Palladio, albeit even further reduced to simple forms, the new, functional, turn-of-the-century architecture – for instance by Henry van de Velde – established a connection between an incredibly distant past and the future: including the archaic art of ancient Greece and the remote cultures of East Asia and Oceania. The destruction of global war, the Second even more so than the First, also had its effect, clearing away the old and presenting a hardly lamented opportunity for creatio ex nihilo. An incredible demand for construction needed fulfilment and the scarce resources demanded simple, standardised solutions. Nevertheless, an atmosphere of resurgence and liberation pervaded. Not only was there a sense of a dawning new age, but also of an emerging task for humanity as a whole.

Since the mid-19th century, the generation had experienced a sudden expansion in the perceived history of the world: from a few millennia to hundreds of millions of years, almost billions. For instance, even until 1880, the Brockhaus lexicon stated that the Earth was 6,000 years old, based on teachings dating back to the Middle Ages. Only in the 1860s did the spectral analysis of distant stars reveal that the cosmos had already existed for many millions of years and would continue to do so for an immeasurable period of time. In such a generation, the geometrical forms of early humanity suddenly seemed much closer, giving a simple straight line, circle or rectangle endless space for the future opportunities of an ever renewing humanity.

Klassik Stiftung Weimar / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2017
Gebäude der Kunsthochschule Weimar, Architektur: Henry van de Velde / Foto: Louis Held, um 1911.

Reality horizon of a future imagined in the past

When people considered the future at the turn of the 20th century, they thought far further forward than today. Instead of thinking decades and centuries ahead, they imagined millennia and even millions of years: “The Time Machine”, written by H. G. Wells in 1895, tells the story of a time traveller who effortlessly jumps 30 million years into the future. Which science-fiction film of recent decades has ventured beyond the next three or four centuries? In 1905, the Anthroposophic priest Friedrich Rittelmeyer held a sermon in which he speculated on the nations that would inherit the Europeans in the future: the Americans, Russians, each of them dominating for centuries, possibly millennia; or perhaps African or other nations, continuing ever further until the Earth begins to cool and slide back towards the sun, from where it once came, “before the dance can begin again on a different star.” Thinking in millennia was certainly common in the early 20th century and in this respect, the “thousand-year Reich” of the Nazis was not unique.

Returning to the Bauhaus: nothing is more difficult than retrospectively grasping the reality horizon of a future imagined in the past. The simple forms, smooth surfaces and new materials: glass, concrete and a little later plastic – were at the time filled with a utopian promise and a yearning for a better world. Global war and its destruction had cleared the way for a new society, tearing apart the wrong nature of outdated forms and conventions, touching on a new horizon, into which life could flow. The hopes of the artistic avant-garde were not only aimed at destroying old art, which was considered false and no longer relevant, but also at a new form of art, which it did not yet know, did not even consider as a theoretical possibility, and would in turn invite new destruction and crimes against humanity. Before moving to this new form of art, we must consider the threshold that was crossed at that point, when the artistic process of setting off into the future was still in progress.

Gables and cornices without any significance

The Belgian Art Nouveau artist Henry van de Velde was probably one of the first to introduce a new programmatic element after the turn of the century. In 1907, he wrote, “In early manhood, my generation knew the burden of being led by people of meagre intelligence, who played with the organic elements of architecture like children with building blocks, stacking columns and arches, gables and cornices without any significance, without any need, without any consequences (…). It was a dread of such an artistic direction and the fear of such a future, which we also opposed, and which drove us to burst open windows and doors, crying for reason to liberate us.”

Others went further, such as the Belgian Johannes Lauweriks in 1908, with his conviction that “the conclusion of the present day already indicates the presence of guiding principles for the future”. Similarly in 1911, the Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky stated in his programmatic text “On the spiritual in art” that all art reaches beyond its present time and towards the future ahead: “[…] art, which bears no potentiality for the future and which, therefore, is only the child of its time, cannot grow to be a mother of the future. It is, therefore a barren art.”

Functionality and beauty

Retrospectively, that could no doubt also be said of older art. However, nobody had stated this before with respect to the future. Only then did the future become an explicitly dimension of art. Art saw its task in shaping the future even more than shaping the present day. It strived to overcome the present, not only factually, but also programmatically. And the Bauhaus stood at the centre of the movement, indeed it even effectively pooled it more than any other art school after World War I.
So what did that future look like? The aim was not just to give people a new home, but even to create a “new human”.

In other words, it was not only intended to fulfil current requirements, but also to create new ones. This was an incredible, utopian aim that could only emerge where artists were completely convinced of their visions of a new, better world. The key words for this goal of a new world were “functionality” and “beauty”. Functionality, which had been sacrificed at the altar of ornamentation, called for usability and the technical permeation of designed forms. In this form of art, beauty was regarded as a medium of a future way of living. It was fulfilled in simple, clear forms, in light and expanse, in the de-individualisation of living forms.

However, this was not meant in the sense of an empirical assessment of existing requirements, such as asking which surroundings people really wanted to live in. Instead, it was aimed at instructing what needs the “new human” should have. The mass human of the future was to benefit from industrial mass production. His future must be planned, while beauty was transformed from a luxury to a simple, mass-produced item, just as the clear lines of buildings, apartments and furniture strived for democratic equality, and the reproducible character of elements represented the equality of basic human needs.

Understandable. But ugly.

Everything else was denigrated as old, outdated and even reactionary. But not only that: even where it accorded to more elevated tastes and the desire of affluent individuals to have exceptional things, for instance in the case of Piet Mondrian’s “neo-plasticist” design of a boudoir for Ida Bienert in Dresden, Bauhaus art dictated to new residents what they should find beautiful, indeed what they would have always found beautiful had they only listened to their inner feelings – in the conviction stated by Mondrian’s “abstract-realist artist” in 1920:

“It is as essential to decorate an aesthetic person’s apartment or room according to his inner qualities as it is to eat and drink, since for such a person, the aesthetic element is the equivalent of the material element.” To a small degree, it was already possible to see what disappointment such an artistic stance would lead to: for instance the conversions carried out in 1925 by the new owners of the estate in Dessau-Törten, which was designed by Gropius: the windows directly beneath the ceiling, which Gropius had positioned there so that furniture could be arranged under them, were replaced by ordinary windows at eye-level, through which people could perceive the outside world, as they had done since time immemorial.

Another example is the conversion of the communal park grounds in Taut’s Berlin “Horseshoe Estate” into individual allotments, which undermined the idea of a Socialist collective. To this day, one could say: understandable, but ugly. At least it was far removed from what Socialist artists deemed right for the post-war working class.

Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin / © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2017
Die Siedlung Dessau Törten mit dem Gebäude des Konsumvereins, Architektur: Walter Gropius, um 1928.

Signature of Modernity

Neues Bauen architects could be quite tyrannical when it came to their urban planning designs: for instance in joining together hundreds of identical housing units, making it easy to lose one’s way in the monotonous system; or, as Le Corbusier declared in his Athens Charter, in precisely defining how many cubic metres of living space a person needs to live in; not to mention their willingness to flatten centuries-old cities such as Paris, Moscow and Berlin to erect high-rise housing blocks there. We need only think of Corbusier’s 1925 “plan voisin”, which he still propagated on French television in 1958.

Resistance, even public resistance, quickly stirred, not only among nostalgic right-wingers, who merely regarded it as proof of their claim that Communists and Socialists were raping human nature. The political events that initially led to the Bauhaus moving from Weimar to Dessau and then finally closing in 1933 are evidence of the sceptical and even antagonistic attitude adopted by large parts of the general public.

Another symptom is the many jokes and caricatures with which Bauhaus architecture was publicly ridiculed: for instance the caricature by Thomas Theodor Heine in his 1932 “Simplicissimus”, which includes the anecdote: “The new Bauhaus style has removed everything that distinguishes apartments from prisons. In the interest of an orderly penal system, it is therefore necessary to add ornamentation to prisons.” In the 1960s, Berliners derided the poor sound-proofing in the new Hansa district apartments with a sarcastic joke: When an annoyed woman mentions that their neighbour is talking to his friend in Hamburg again, her husband answers: “Well why doesn’t he use the telephone?”

© gemeinfrei
Karikatur von Thomas Theodor Heine im „Simplicissimus“ vom 21.3.1927

Advertising media and designers

But what was it that transformed the Bauhaus over the years into the signature of Modernity, despite all the resistance it experienced? Two things: firstly a small, but widely visible group of avant-garde artists staging their own departure towards new horizons, or more precisely: the occupation of art with a demand for a future that art had never demanded before. This was not purely an ambition of ideals. In doing so, the Bauhaus was supported by a broad movement among craftsmen, trade and the industrial economy that could use the word “future” as a selling point: from the turn of the century onwards, it was above all advertising media and designers that increasingly approached buyers, promising that buying a car with a streamlined design meant acquiring a long-lasting product of the future. This concept was also continued in the following decades under fascist and National Socialist rule. The Bauhaus, which participated in developing such “future forms” at an early date, above all found its most powerful supporters in economic circles, not just in Germany, but also for example in the USA.

Secondly, it was its very persecution that helped the Bauhaus to become a sign of the times. First in Germany itself: in 1933, the National Socialists not only closed the Bauhaus in Dessau, replacing it with a state-controlled women’s vocational school, but it also competed very deliberately with its demands for the future, taking over specific formal elements of the Bauhaus. Everything had to become even bigger, more prestigious and often also even simpler and more monumental: a different future that made the “old” future of the Bauhaus actually look “old”. At the same time, individual National Socialist functionaries also cooperated with Bauhaus architects, if they were willing to bow to their supremacy. For instance in 1934, before emigrating to the USA, Walter Gropius participated in a design competition for the “Haus der Arbeit” in Berlin.

Crumbling buildings

In the fledgling Soviet Union, Bauhaus architects won some prizes, but they were often prevented from building their designs by local party officials. This soon forced them back out of the country to which they had originally pinned such great hopes. As later in the GDR, another country where the Socialist order had initially inspired great hope, Bauhaus architecture was often rejected in the Soviet Union as bourgeois and decadent. It was precisely this rejection that paved the way for its recognition in many western countries: initially in the new state of Israel, where the booming settlement cities of Tel Aviv and Haifa were soon almost flooded with Bauhaus architecture.

The situation there was very similar to the first post-war years in Germany, where a lack of funds combined with great demand for building materials. However, the uncertain socio-political climate called for the construction of far more radical models for families and settlements, such as the many Socialist kibbutzim. These conditions are especially suitable for studying both the new beginnings and the disappointments that come with Bauhaus architecture: broken family structures, authoritarian forms of community, crumbling buildings and so on.

The dark side of Bauhaus history

However, Bauhaus architecture began conquering the world in the United States of America. Despite the fact that it had been decried as Communist around 1930, emigrants arriving from Germany, including many Jews, created new institutions there to teach Bauhaus ideas: including the “Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where Josef and Anni Albers emigrated in the winter of 1933, and the New Bauhaus Chicago, which was led by Moholy-Nagy from 1937 onwards, the same year that Walter Gropius joined Harvard University.

Some artistic styles stand for an era: Classicism for the Age of Enlightenment, Historicism for the late 19th century. The Bauhaus can be regarded as such a signature of the “western” 20th century. This does not mean that the majority of buildings were constructed in a Bauhaus style (whatever that may be). But the surviving buildings characterise the dominant image of the age. Perhaps on a higher, historiographical level, it is even possible to claim that in times when the model of progress is ever less capable of classifying historical ages into a fixed order, such visual signatures become increasingly important in making such historical periods recognisable.

But they also include the dark sides of Bauhaus history, which we only learn if we study the buildings’ uses. Two examples are worth mentioning here: Bruno Taut’s “Horseshoe Estate”, which was erected in Berlin-Britz in the spirit of Neues Bauen between 1925 and 1930, was affected by disagreements among its owners and a lack of funds. It was only completed thanks to strong support from Berlin’s city council. However, as a result of the tight budget, the social facilities – a library, communal kitchens etc. – were dropped, eliminating the idea of a social community.

Tillmann Franzen, tillmannfranzen.com
Hufeisensiedlung (1925–30), Architekten / architects: Bruno Taut, Martin Wagner

The dream of an utopian form of society

Thus the housing community already fell apart during the estate’s construction and the houses and apartments later became private property. What remained of the estate’s promise for the future was ultimately only its original aesthetic signature, which is recognised today as World Cultural Heritage and a gem of “Berlin Modernity”. It upheld the dream of a utopian form of society that never became a reality.

Even more evident is the fate of major estates such as the Märkische Viertel in Berlin-Britz, which was designed in the style of Neues Bauen and built after World War II to accommodate the growing metropolitan population. With its expansive housing blocks of differing forms and sizes, which were recessed from the street, their public green spaces and communal facilities (schools, kindergartens, old people’s homes, cafés, cinemas and sports grounds, among others) were aimed at counteracting the monotony and ennui of previous estates.

However, they too failed to fulfil the needs of their residents due to monotonous details in the building methods, the decaying concrete deserts, the high rents, the social composition and the long distances residents needed to walk and travel to their workplaces. Thus the estates quickly declined into “social flashpoints” where nobody wanted to live if they could afford to be elsewhere. The future does not depend on buildings, but buildings provide spaces for highly contrasting futures.

Hermann Collischonn \ Copyright: ernst-may-gesellschaft e.V., Nachlass Rudloff, Inv. 07-10-01
Siedlung Höhenblick um 1927

Rejecting residents

However, although the Bauhaus has played no significant part in such cultural renewal in recent decades, the history of its use can provide insight into the path of architecture towards Modernity. It must include the destruction that allowed architectural history to become part of social history: following its expropriation in 1933, the Dessau Bauhaus was painted in the colours of National Socialism. In 1940, the Junkers factory occupied almost the entire building. A building team run by Speer also moved in there. In 1945, an incendiary bomb hit the building, destroying parts of the interior and almost all of the façade. Surrounded by semi-ruins, even after its first restoration, the building resembled an unwanted remnant for decades.

A recent publication describes the disastrous impression it made on visitors at the time, describing how one could mistake it for a school or an office building. “Perhaps no building was ever so famous that now seems so ordinary.” It is easy to forget that aspect when visiting it in today’s condition, prepared like a glossy brochure. However, its former condition is also part of the Bauhaus identity, not only its history, but also its present day.

The identity of the Bauhaus

However, although the Bauhaus has played no significant part in such cultural renewal in recent decades, the history of its use can provide insight into the path of architecture towards Modernity. It must include the destruction that allowed architectural history to become part of social history: following its expropriation in 1933, the Dessau Bauhaus was painted in the colours of National Socialism. In 1940, the Junkers factory occupied almost the entire building. A building team run by Speer also moved in there. In 1945, an incendiary bomb hit the building, destroying parts of the interior and almost all of the façade. Surrounded by semi-ruins, even after its first restoration, the building resembled an unwanted remnant for decades.

A recent publication describes the disastrous impression it made on visitors at the time, describing how one could mistake it for a school or an office building. “Perhaps no building was ever so famous that now seems so ordinary.” It is easy to forget that aspect when visiting it in today’s condition, prepared like a glossy brochure. However, its former condition is also part of the Bauhaus identity, not only its history, but also its present day.

© smow.com
Das durch eine Brandbombe zerstörte Bauhaus Dessau (1945)

Appropriation for our times

One could say that external factors were to blame. But the same applies to most other Bauhaus buildings: their destruction and conversion, extensions and new facilities are all witnesses of many accommodating measures that were necessary to appropriate them at different times. That cannot be undone, not even in the form of a museum in which we mostly encounter such buildings. The underlying conditions have changed too much: the austere times in which they were produced have passed. The building principles and forms of the Bauhaus are so well established that, instead of competing with Wilhelminian ornamentation, they now have to withstand styles that themselves owe much to the Bauhaus. Above all, however, the society that the Bauhaus wanted to reshape has not become what its builders had hoped for. Nothing is more ephemeral than the future of the past. The renewal it promises only succeeds by appropriating it in our own times.


Daydreams of utopian thought

Finally, one much more profound difference should be noted: today, the future no longer appears to be the open space it once was. In the Anthropocene age, we are fighting to prevent an ecological catastrophe that can easily lead us to believe that the “daydreams” of utopian thought after World War I were merely further steps in an acceleration towards environmental disaster. This assumption would be wrong: utopias should not be confused with what became of them through their implementation. They are mere shells, open spaces that can be filled in different ways. Thus, the new beginnings of the Bauhaus are not incompatible with present-day ecological imperatives. So there is only cause for pessimism if we are unable to draw strength from our current threatening scenario and apply it to a utopian change of course.


    [LH 2019; Translation: TBR]

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