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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.





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