Skip to main content

Long Live the Bauhaus

Bauhaus 1919–1933: Workshops for Modernity, an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, presents a straightforward but elaborate visual chronology of the school from its beginnings in Weimar to its new building in Dessau and finally to its end in Berlin.

Advancing the story through a sequence of gallery spaces, the exhibit explores the intellectual and creative struggle among its leaders as they thought through the basic principles of design in a machine age. While the school's direction shifted under the consecutive administrations of architects Walter Gropius, Hannes Meyer, and Mies van der Rohe, the institution's endeavors to create a sort of unified field theory in every medium of communication never ceased.

The comprehensive exhibition of some four hundred objects gives a strong sense of an engaged community of artists and designers creating work of great functional beauty, having some fun, yet at the same time grappling with what to do with the increasingly disturbing economic, cultural and political events around them.

Every organization goes through a similar familiar pattern - the excitement and creativity of its beginnings under a strong leader (Gropius), the attempt to impose formal rules through a period of growth, a phase devoted to outreach (as in Hannes Meyer's emphasis on designing for the working class), and a period of professionalization (Mies). But this school, with its inherent values of cosmopolitanism (with the involvement of several Russian artists) couldn't escape the pressures of national socialism.

This exhibition, the first serious accounting of the Bauhaus at MoMA since 1938 (and the earlier one, just five years after the school's demise, did not consider developments after 1928) goes far in complicating any simplistic understanding of the Bauhaus. The inclusion here of objects of vibrant colors and tactile qualities, many created by the little publicized women artists of the school, upsets notions of the school as dominated by masculine geometries.

The exhibit turns what was previously remembered through a series of textbook black and white drawings and still photos (with a Leica, as it turns out) into something like CinemaScope. The craft roots of the school are wholly restored. For example, even toward the final years of the Bauhaus, faced with financial instability, the school kept its weaving department. In showing us the products of the cabinet workshops and textile workshops, among others, the exhibition seems fully in sync with our own back-to-basics artistic moment. The "New Typography," too, looks relevant for any contemporary course in design.

Even if we still come to understand the school's main personalities through monochromatic film stock, we're nevertheless presented in the MoMA Bauhaus exhibition with a geometric rainbow of works by Paul Klee, Johannes Itten, Vasily Kandinsky, Benita Koch-Otte, and of course, the highly color conscious works of Joseph and Anni Albers. Objects such as fiber wall hangings, puppets, lights fixtures, carpets, ceramic pots and examples of famous chairs (perhaps the Bauhaus's best known export) aid in imagining the various iterations of the school's interior school rooms and workshops. In other words, if you were expecting mainly pictures of boxy buildings and geometric fonts on posters, you're in for a surprise.

The exhibition's online interactive chronological presentation of objects by each year gives a good sense of the richness and variety of the school's creativity, especially within the dictates of overarching design principles. While the latter days of the Bauhaus may have been guided by strict architectural directions under the strong personality of Mies van der Rohe, you can nevertheless see in Mies's own career designs and in those by his students the long-lasting emphasis on materials and texture.

While only a few more weeks are left to see the MoMA exhibition, the architectural influence of the Bauhaus, in contrast to its craft beginnings, remains for viewing in the urban landscape of New York. The Bauhaus school may have shuttered in Germany in 1933, but twenty or so years later, it arrived, after a fashion, in the city. Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe and Gropius protégé Marcel Breuer played roles in designing high-profile buildings for post-war New York. Unfortunately, as with other International Style gurus like Le Corbusier, some of their design spirit became woefully lost in translation overseas, often succumbing to the different demands of the American corporation.

• In the book Modern Architecture Since 1900 (3rd. ed. 1996) architecture historian William J. R. Curtis describes Mies van der Rohe's Seagram Building (1958) at 375 Park Avenue as "one of the seminal works of the post-war period in defining an image for the prestige office building." Sleek, soaring, and minimalist, clad in bronze and glass, the building recalls the type of structure that the architect envisioned for Berlin in the 1920s. Along with Philip Johnson, who was responsible for the interiors, the Seagram influenced many copy-cats, but few were as successful in sensitivity to site or design. The building introduced the modern plaza, a space still frequented by midtown workers during pleasant weather.

• Walter Gropius gets a credit line for the massive modern Met Life Building (formerly the Pan Am Building), built in 1963, an imposing edifice that intervenes and destroys what would otherwise be a fine unobstructed vista of Park Avenue. Emery Roth & Sons, the lead architects, consulted with Gropius and Pietro Belluschi on the building's shape. The octagonal structure sported one of the first precast concrete curtain walls in the city.

• Marcel Breuer's design for the Whitney Museum (945 Madison and 75th St., 1963-1966) has become one of the best known modern designs in New York. With its unusual step-back cantilevered entrance and concrete and granite hard exterior, the building symbolizes the principles of modern and avant-garde design at mid-century. Breuer's firm also designed several buildings on the campus of Bronx Community College as well as the library and Shuster Hall for Lehman College in the western Bronx.

To see all three buildings, walk north up Park Avenue from the Met Life Building to the Seagram Building and continue to E. 74th. Walk a block west and then up a block to see the Whitney.


View Mies, Gropius, Breuer in New York in a larger map

Beyond these three buildings, however, it's possible to see the influence of the Bauhaus in many other locations. For example, go to Chambers Street in Tribeca, near where it intersects with West Street, walk up the steps of the Borough of Manhattan Community College, turn around and look south. Behold.

Long live the Bauhaus.

Bauhaus 1919–1933: Workshops for Modernity continues at the Museum of Modern Art through January 25, 2010.

Images by Walking Off the Big Apple. Tribeca's Most Tripped-Out Vista, taken from the steps of the Borough of Manhattan Community College, was originally published on this website March 14, 2008.









Popular posts from this blog

North Towards Autumn: A Day Trip on the Metro-North Hudson Line

The peak of autumn colors in New York City tends to fall sometime in the days following Halloween, but those anxiously waiting leaf change can simply travel north.  Near Beacon, a view of autumn colors from the Metro-North Hudson line One way to speed the fall season is to take the Hudson line of Metro-North north of the city and watch the greens fade to oranges and yellows and the occasional burst of red.  Autumn light in Hastings-on-Hudson Weekends during the month of October are ideal times to make the trip. The air tends to be crisp with bright blue skies, and the Hudson River glimmers like a mirror in the light of autumn. As the Hudson line hugs the river for much of the distance north, the train ride alone provides plenty of opportunities for sightseeing. Try to grab a window seat on the river side of the train car for views of the Palisades and the bends of the Hudson Highlands later in the trip.   Autumn leaves on the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail in Hastings Still, October is a gr

Early Voting in Washington Heights, and A Walk

Early voting for the 2020 federal election in New York began on Saturday, October 24 and continues through Sunday, November 1. The weekend was overcast and autumnal, with the bright yellows of fall on display. In New York City, thousands of New Yorkers turned out at the 88 early voting locations and waited in long lines, many stretching around the block.  A line to vote in Washington Heights. The line stretched around the block multiple times. Madison Square Garden in Manhattan and the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn were two of the well-known sites, but most voting places were typical neighborhood places such as schools, churches, and hospitals.   The scene outside the entrance to the Russ Berrie Medical Science Pavilion, one of the early voting locations in Washington Heights. In Washington Heights in Upper Manhattan, two early voting locations were within a short walk of one another, causing some confusion for voters emerging from the 168th Street subway station. The Columbia Universit

The Lonesome Metropolis: A Walk from Grand Central Terminal to Rockefeller Center

As New York City reopens, why do the attractions of the great metropolis still look mostly deserted on a summer morning? A morning walk from Grand Central Terminal to Rockefeller Center sought to address this question. As it turns out, there are several adequate explanations. But for what happens next, there are no right answers. Grand Central Terminal, 9:40 am. Wednesday, July 22, 2020. Many neighborhoods outside of tourist New York are still buzzing along. While some residents of wealthier neighborhoods have largely decamped to mountain cabins, beach houses, and other second homes, the less wealthy have nowhere to go and may still be working. Just visit Washington Heights or Corona or Flatbush, and you’ll see sidewalks full of shoppers and summer evening street partiers. Those who fled the city remain only a fraction of the total population.   Grand Central Terminal, 9:40 am. Wednesday, July 22, 2020. Other renowned parts of the city such as City Hall and Brooklyn Bridge have been fr

The Season of Owls

 A walk in Inwood Hill Park. The days following the holidays and the first of the year make a good time to check in on life in the winter forest. I have a forest just down the street from me in Inwood Hill Park in Northern Manhattan. There, a vast old growth forest still stands. A Barred Owl faces the setting sun in Inwood Hill Park in Northern Manhattan. A few weeks ago, someone on a local Facebook page posted a snapshot of a Barred Owl, and I was keen to go looking for it in the park. I didn't find the owl on the first day, but the next day I saw it. A handful of birder enthusiasts were already on the scene and kindly pointed it out high up in the pines. What a beautiful creature!  A stand of White Pines provides the habitat for the Barred Owl. The owl is in this picture. I know, hard to see.  Since my first owl visit, everyday life during the otherwise dreary post-holiday doldrums has taken on a finer aura. I have returned several times, each taking a different path up to the o

The City Turned Inside Out: A Walk from Battery Park to Fulton Street

While the cast of HAMILTON sings “The World Turned Upside Down,” New Yorkers could easily hum along to “The City Turned Inside Out” this summer. (not a real song) Where once a city’s important work took place indoors - within the soaring office buildings, famous restaurants, legendary museums, and storied performance halls, the COVID-19 epidemic has literally turned the residents outdoors.  New landscaping in Battery Park At least it’s summer in the city, when spending time outdoors is common and pleasant enough. Still, the city remains strange this summer of 2020.  Shade plants like hosta thrive in Battery Park. The Statue of Liberty is in the distance. With the absence of tourists, and with office workers connecting virtually from home, many of the city’s main attractions aren’t attracting many visitors. A walk from the Battery to Fulton Street on a pleasant Thursday afternoon bore this out.  Statue Cruises is still sailing. It’s uplifting to at least find plants that are alive and

NYC Re-openings and Travel Advice

What will open, and how will you get there? This list will be updated following official announcements. UPDATED October 10, 2020.  Many favorite local destinations have now reopened.  Hand sanitizer dispenser at the Marble Hill station of Metro-North's Hudson line Openings  - General Information and Popular Destinations    • Restaurants: Consult this NYC Department of Transportation map  (updated link) for restaurants currently open in NYC. Starting September 30, NYC allowed indoor dining at 25% capacity. • As of September 25, outdoor dining in NYC has been extended FOREVER. • The  9/11 Memorial  reopened on Saturday, July 4. Visitors must wear masks and keep social distancing practices. • (update) Libraries: NYPL. T he library will allow a grab-and-go service at 50 locations.   • Governors Island reopened July 15 with advance reserved tickets.  • The High Line  reopened on July 16, with several rules and limitations in place, including timed entry passes - available July 9. Entra

MoMA in Masks

Update. Beginning September 28, MoMA will require all members to reserve tickets in advance.* Walking into the gallery devoted to Claude Monet’s Water Lilies (c 1920) at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) on Saturday afternoon, I saw a woman seated on a bench. She was looking at the artist’s dreamy depiction of his garden at Giverny, and I thought for a moment she might be dreaming as well. As she was the only person occupying what is usually a packed room for fans of Impressionism, I was hesitant to invade her private garden reveries. At MoMA I would enjoy my own such private moments with my favorite MoMA works that afternoon, including Marc Chagall’s I and the Village (1911). The painting depicts a colorful and geometric fairy tale of peasants and animals, memories of the artist’s childhood home outside Vitebsk. And I had a long time to feel the scorching sun of photographer Dorothea Lange’s Woman of the High Plains, Texas Panhandle (1938), a setting closer to my hometown. Later I wou

An Early Autumn Walk in Central Park: 2020 Edition

This week, the singer Diana Krall released a cover of “Autumn in New York,” the standard by Vernon Duke. An accompanying video , filmed in New York by Davis McCutcheon and directed by Mark Seliger, portrays the city in moody yet beautiful black and white tones. Beyond the lack of autumn colors, the film shows the empty streets of the pandemic city. The mood riffs on the underlying melancholy of the song’s lyrics, that the fall season “is often mingled with pain.” Approaching The Mall in Central Park  When I think of autumn in New York, I automatically imagine walking in Central Park in the vivid colors of the season. The images here, from a meandering one-mile stroll this past Saturday, show only a hint of autumnal glory but reflect more conventional representations of both the season and the song. Yet, walking in Central Park at the beginning of autumn is tinged for me with a hint of sadness, or truthfully, with some anxiety about the coming months. The Mall in Central Park I hadn’t v

Walking It Off: Coping with Holiday Stress During the Pandemic

When I began this series, “Pandemic Posts from the Pause: New York City in the Age of Coronavirus” in March of 2020, I could see the first young greens of spring from my window. New Yorkers were told to stay home then and away from others. As someone who enjoys walking in the city, I knew that I would need to sacrifice many things this year. I was not going to give up walking. I quickly figured out that I could safely go to Inwood Hill Park near my house and wander the trails in the old forest. In March, I could breathe in the spring air away from others. There was little else to do during those early days of the “pause.” New Yorkers suffered greatly at the beginning. In a few months we were able to get the numbers down and to manage some semblance of human interaction, at a distance and masked.  Now, with the beginning of the holidays, the city and nation faces the existential threat of the virus’s return, the political assault on democratic norms, and the ongoing threat of the clima

A Morning Walk from Penn Station to Times Square

Penn Station to Times Square New York City entered a new phase of the reopening on Monday, but you would never know it from a morning walk in Midtown on the day after.  At 34th Street and 8th Avenue, an outsize reminder of the public health crisis from Montefiore Medical Center After running an errand near Penn Station, I decided to take a walk up to Times Square and Broadway before heading home from 59th Street and Columbus Circle.  34th Street looking east toward the Empire State Building I wasn’t altogether prepared for the sights and sounds of this time and this place. Like many other New Yorkers, I have rarely left my neighborhood for the past four months.  8th Avenue at W. 38th Street After exiting a quiet Penn Station near 8th Avenue and W. 33rd Street at what would normally be the end of rush hour, I found myself suddenly dropped into a city (mostly) bereft of crowds.  A few commuters near Port Authority and The New York Times building, 8th Avenue and W. 40th Street Yet, I had