Friday, August 21, 2009

From Bauhaus to my house

Every year I teach a course at Utah State University about the Bauhaus. It's a pretty idiosyncratic course since it's based on my own personal interests. I'm not an art historian, so I can't claim the course has any real academic rigor. What it does have going for it is that I teach it as a part of a study abroad experience and have access to all kinds of primary sources that would be out of the question for an on-campus course. There are some readings for the course and I do require written assignments as well, but the bulk of the class happens in casual conversations in museums, over dinner or traveling on the Straßenbahn. I try to relate the artifacts of the Bauhaus to political history, to the particularities of German culture and to our own current attitudes about design. A best case scenario for how the course works: while under way to a museum somewhere in the Ruhrgebiet, I tell the student group that I need to stop into a bank for a minute and they should wait for me in the lobby. I leave them for a while and inevitably a sharp eyed student notices that the lobby furniture is vaguely familiar and says, "Hey, isn't that like... a Marcel Breuer chair?" When I return, discussion is underway and they have a million questions for me. There's no better way to drive home the point that the Bauhaus was about developing products for mass production, not painting and drawing.

This year is the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Bauhaus in Weimar and cities around Germany are celebrating with some fabulous exhibitions. I find the situation ironic, since after a full year in Germany with lots of travel and museum experiences, I didn't see even one of the exhibitions that are getting so much press now. Now that I'm back in the US, I'm trying to figure out how that happened.

It's really not so very surprising when I think it through. I've been to the Bauhaus Archiv in Berlin 10 or 20 times. Likewise the Albers Museum in Bottrop and the Museum Für Angewandte Kunst in Berlin. I've visited the Gropius building in Dessau and seen countless works by artists that worked as "Masters of Form" during the Bauhaus 14 year run. I may be a little over saturated by Bauhaus stuff.

I also find it a little paradoxical that my own house in Logan is so much not in keeping with the Bauhaus aesthetic. One could maybe make an argument that it fits into the William Morris "Arts & Crafts" thinking, but honestly, it's just a farm shack with a series of not very well thought out lean-tos. If there's a foundation under that part of the a house that serves as a kitchen, I can't find any real evidence for it. Walls, floors and ceilings meet at something approximating 90 degrees but follow Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle more often than not. Still, I like my house and admire the vernacular wisdom that went into building it. On days when the temperature breaks 100, my house is cool. The ground floor walls are lined with mud-brick and it's oriented in a way that minimizes heat gain in summer.

The "desirable" homes in Logan, built in the last ten years, tend to be in the neighborhoods up on the hillsides. Many are 5000 square foot barns that feature a three story wall of windows facing southwest. Heat gain? No problem, there's a central air conditioner in the back yard. Out in front there's probably a Sport Utility Vehicle with a bumper sticker exhorting readers to reduce their carbon footprint. These kinds of houses win awards from architectural journals, but if I were in charge, their designers would win different kinds of awards. The kind that would involve jail time.

Coincidentally, that's exactly what happened to the students that were still around when the Nazis showed up at the Berlin factory building that housed the Bauhaus on 11 April, 1933. It was just a few weeks after the Reichstag fire and Hitler had been Chancellor for only about three months. The school had been on the decline for several years already but the Berlin police† made it official by arresting about 32 students and searching the school for Bolshevik propaganda and evidence of decadency. As I gaze out at the McMansions from my own back yard, I ask myself, where are the Nazi paramilitary units when you really need them? And I'm comforted to know, that regardless of what some people might think about my house, no one would ever be likely to see it as decadent.

†There was tension between the regular Berlin police and the NSDAP jackboot types and it's the subject of an interesting series of novels by Philip Kerr. I haven't actually read any of them all the way through yet, but I think they're pretty good. They were the subject of a recent NPR piece you can read/listen to here.

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