The Politics & Philosophy of the Bauhaus Design Movement: A Short Introduction

This year marks the cen­ten­ni­al of the Bauhaus, the Ger­man art-and-design school and move­ment whose influ­ence now makes itself felt all over the world. The clean lines and clar­i­ty of func­tion exhib­it­ed by Bauhaus build­ings, imagery, and objects — the very def­i­n­i­tion of what we still describe as “mod­ern” — appeal in a way that tran­scends not just time and space but cul­ture and tra­di­tion, and that’s just as the school’s founder Wal­ter Gropius intend­ed. A for­ward-look­ing utopi­an inter­na­tion­al­ist, Gropius seized the moment in the Ger­many left ruined by the First World War to make his ideals clear in the Bauhaus Man­i­festo: “Togeth­er let us call for, devise, and cre­ate the con­struc­tion of the future, com­pris­ing every­thing in one form,” he writes: “archi­tec­ture, sculp­ture and paint­ing.”

In about a dozen years, how­ev­er, a group with very lit­tle time for the Bauhaus project would sud­den­ly rise to promi­nence in Ger­many: the Nazi par­ty. “Their right-wing ide­ol­o­gy called for a return to tra­di­tion­al Ger­man val­ues,” says reporter Michael Tapp in the Quartz video above, “and their mes­sag­ing car­ried a type­face: Frak­tur.” Put forth by the nazis as the “true” Ger­man font, Frak­tur was “based on Goth­ic script that had been syn­ony­mous with the Ger­man nation­al iden­ti­ty for 800 years.” On the oth­er end of the ide­o­log­i­cal spec­trum, the Bauhaus cre­at­ed “a rad­i­cal new kind of typog­ra­phy,” which Muse­um of Mod­ern Art cura­tor Bar­ry Bergdoll describes as “polit­i­cal­ly charged”: “The Ger­mans are prob­a­bly the only users of the Roman alpha­bet who had giv­en type­script a nation­al­ist sense. To refuse it and redesign the alpha­bet com­plete­ly in the oppo­site direc­tion is to free it of these nation­al asso­ci­a­tions.”

The cul­ture of the Bauhaus also pro­voked pub­lic dis­com­fort: “Locals railed against the strange, androg­y­nous stu­dents, their for­eign mas­ters, their sur­re­al par­ties, and the house band that played jazz and Slav­ic folk music,” writes Dar­ran Ander­son at City­lab. “News­pa­pers and right-wing polit­i­cal par­ties cyn­i­cal­ly tapped into the oppo­si­tion and fueled it, inten­si­fy­ing its anti-Semi­tism and empha­siz­ing that the school was a cos­mopoli­tan threat to sup­posed nation­al puri­ty.” Gropius, for his part, “worked tire­less­ly to keep the school alive,” pre­vent­ing stu­dents from attend­ing protests and gath­er­ing up leaflets print­ed by fel­low Bauhaus instruc­tor Oskar Schlem­mer call­ing the school a “ral­ly­ing point for all those who, with faith in the future and will­ing­ness to storm the heav­ens, wish to build the cathe­dral of social­ism.” In their zeal to purge “degen­er­ate art,” the Nazis closed the Bauhaus’ Dessau school in 1932 and its Berlin branch the fol­low­ing year.

Though some of his fol­low­ers may have been fire­brands, Gropius him­self “was typ­i­cal­ly a mod­er­at­ing influ­ence,” writes Ander­son, “pre­fer­ring to achieve his social­ly con­scious pro­gres­sivism through design rather than pol­i­tics; cre­at­ing hous­ing for work­ers and safe, clean work­places filled with light and air (like the Fagus Fac­to­ry) rather than agi­tat­ing for them.” He also open­ly declared the apo­lit­i­cal nature of the Bauhaus ear­ly on, but his­to­ri­ans of the move­ment can still debate how apo­lit­i­cal it remained, dur­ing its life­time as well as in its last­ing effects. A 2009 MoMA exhi­bi­tion even drew atten­tion to the Bauhaus fig­ures who worked with the Nazis, most notably the painter and archi­tect Franz Ehrlich. But as Ander­son puts it, “there are many Bauhaus tales,” and togeth­er “they show not a sim­ple Bauhaus-ver­sus-the-Nazis dichoto­my but rather how, to vary­ing degrees of brav­ery and caprice, indi­vid­u­als try to sur­vive in the face of tyran­ny.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch Bauhaus World, a Free Doc­u­men­tary That Cel­e­brates the 100th Anniver­sary of Germany’s Leg­endary Art, Archi­tec­ture & Design School

How the Rad­i­cal Build­ings of the Bauhaus Rev­o­lu­tion­ized Archi­tec­ture: A Short Intro­duc­tion

The Bauhaus Book­shelf: Down­load Orig­i­nal Bauhaus Books, Jour­nals, Man­i­festos & Ads That Still Inspire Design­ers World­wide

An Oral His­to­ry of the Bauhaus: Hear Rare Inter­views (in Eng­lish) with Wal­ter Gropius, Lud­wig Mies van der Rohe & More

Bauhaus, Mod­ernism & Oth­er Design Move­ments Explained by New Ani­mat­ed Video Series

The Nazi’s Philis­tine Grudge Against Abstract Art and The “Degen­er­ate Art Exhi­bi­tion” of 1937

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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