Monday, December 7, 2009
When pedagogy became a team project
What's presented at the MoMA Bauhaus show is not only an extensive survey of drawings and objects produced in the school, but also a collective effort of its faculty to reform art and architecture education. I was amazed by the strong connection between what I saw as a fascinating collection of works and the fascinating group of people behind them. These people experimented together and pushed the limit of design, injecting the ideology and discourse into pedagogy that rigorously shaped the identity of the school, and consequently the identity of a generation of architecture.
The marriage of design and making was the key to Bauhaus since its formation in 1919. As Gropius claimed in the Bauhaus Manifesto, "The ultimate aim of all creative activity is a building! ... Let us therefore create a new guild of craftsmen without the class-distinctions that raise an arrogant barrier between craftsmen and artists! Let us desire, conceive, and create the new building of the future together." To "embrace architecture and sculpture and painting in one unity," the school was formed in a workshop-based fashion. After completing a compulsory preliminary course (Vorkurs), students would pick a workshop, which was headed both by a fine artist and a master craftsperson. In the workshops, the basic theories of the craft, together with design parameters, were directly combined with practical experience.Principles laid out a plan. Its execution relied on a group of brilliant teachers who work together as a team. It's interesting to walk through the chronologically-organized exhibition and see how the ideas of the school evolved as the faculty members changed over time.
1923: Itten's departure
The works shown in the first room display a strong influence of Johannes Itten, who taught the preliminary course from 1919 to 1923. Itten's teaching focused on the principles of abstraction, including studies of color, form, and materials in themselves. The goal of the class was to release the students' creativity and give them an opportunity to find out their specific strength. All this was rather personal and subjective, even spiritual. Itten would start his almost cult-like classes with gymnastic and breathing exercises in order to put the students in a relaxed state. The problem was, individual sensibility didn't seem to be teachable.
As the exhibition turns to the second room, a new slogan pops up: "Art and Technology – A New Unity." To me, this new direction was not just about technology per se, but rather an engagement in social changes, in the commerce of mass production. Gropius wanted to run the school as business, and Itten hated it. He resigned in March, 1923. The dramatic Gropius-Itten conflict reminds me of the earlier Werbund debate, when Henry van de Velde argued for a craft basis for design and Hermann Muthesius insisted on implementing industrial prototypes.
After Itten left, the preliminary course was split into two: László Moholy-Nagy assumed the more theoretical aspects, and Josef Albers took over the practical perspective. Compared to the expressionist works directed by Itten, Moholy-Nagy's class took a more constructivist approach, emphasizing the notion of structure and the conveyance of a preconceived concept. Similarly objective, the studies of materials in Albers's class pointed directly to workshop manufacturing techniques rather than personal feelings of the textures.
1925: The young masters
The idea of "New Objectivity" intensifies as the exhibition unfolds forward, especially after 1925, when Bauhaus moved to Dessau and four former students were appointed masters. Herbert Bayer headed the workshop for printing and advertising, Marcel Breuer the cabinet making workshop, Hinnerk Scheper the wall-painting workshop, and Joost Schmidt the sculpture workshop. In the same year, the Bauhaus Co. Ltd. was founded.
(From left to right: Josef Albers, Hinnerk Scheper, Georg Muche, László Moholy-Nagy, Herbert Bayer, Joost Schmidt, Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Lyonel Feininger, Gunta Stölzl, Oskar Schlemmer. December 5, 1926)
Exhibits from this period expanded to the full spectrum of art: textile, mural, sculpture, poster, typography, tables and chairs, lamp, kitchenware, performance, stage set, puppets, toys, photography, collages, film... Teachers were exploring design together with the students, creating notable pieces such as Breuer's tubular steel chairs, Gunta Stölzl's wall hangings, Marianne Brandt's samovar and ceiling lights. The school united as an enterprise that provided good design to the society of modern life.
1928: Gropuis's resignation
In order to focus on his architectural practice, Gropius resigned from the Bauhaus and moved to Berlin. Moholy-Nagy, Breuer, and Bayer decided to leave at the same time. As new director, Hannes Meyer advocated a more scientific approach in the work and the classes. He demanded the exclusion of any aesthetic criteria (which he regarded as forms of elitism), criticizing the former direction at the Bauhaus as too formalist. Under his leadership, works after 1928 became mostly charts and diagrams, precise calculations of light/heat/acoustics, and the relentless repetition in Ludwig Hilberseimer's drawings.
1930: Mies in power
Hannes Meyer was dismissed in 1930. Mies van der Rohe took over and was supposed to ease the political tensions and revitalize the aesthetic aspect of the Bauhaus. I had the feeling that this rebound had gone too far - the preliminary course was no longer mandatory; the architecture course became more important while the role of the workshops, and therefore of industrial design, was reduced. This is why there are not many objects displayed in the last room of the exhibition. Ironically, the loose organization of this last room resembles the faltering Bauhaus at the time. The school was forced to a sad dissolution in 1933.
Walking through the exhibition and seeing what these people were doing 90 years ago, I can't stop comparing with the academia today. No school still keeps the integrity of design as a unity of various disciplines, nor the integrity of design and making. Students are out of touch from reality and have little idea how things are actually made. Professors have stopped advancing the design discourse and only concentrate on the fight for tenure. What's wrong? Do people still care about "bau" at all?