Media Studies

The architectural media likes an anniversary and 2019 is the year we’re meant to be grateful for The Bauhaus and all it did for us. Last week I suggested the real legacy of The Bauhaus lay in legitimizing the idea of design as a standalone activity isolated from manufacture because once design could be valued for its own sake, manufacture could then be performed at low cost and high value-added by faceless people in any factory in any industrial city at the time or, now, in any “industrializing” country. The idea of separating design and production was like adding a spark to a mix of fuel and oxygen. 

Manufacturing was never the problem as that’s what factories were for. And nor was the problem one of design as people tend to buy what they’re told. The problem was that there weren’t enough people wanting enough stuff to achieve the “economies of scale” [a.k.a. profits] machine manufacture promised. The industrial world knew it wanted to separate design from production and for us to accept it. All that was missing was people to design things and to tell us we needed them. And we’ve been being told ever since.

We’re also being told to be grateful. One could always visit bauhaus100.com I suppose. Or go to Harvard Magazine for the article ominously titled What A Human Should Be. [Thanks Curtis!] The title refers to the last sentence of this next paragraph that is eighteen words of reported criticism in a 2,900-word piece. 0.62%. Never say you’re not getting both sides of the story.

You’ll be seeing a lot of this image this year. It seems to function in today’s media as a representation of unbridled creativity the likes of which the world had never seen. If machine production meant there was less place for craftspersons anymore, then I don’t think we should be so blindly accepting of performers being reduced to anonymous bodies going through silent and robotic motions. Superficial individuality is the smiley face of impersonality and interchangeability.

Look what we have here!

The following is most of the text of the article Bauhaus at 100: what it means to me [by Norman Foster, Margaret Howell and others]. In the spirit of the 0.62%, I’ve appended my thoughts.

The powerful notion that design and production can and should be separate activities was applicable across the entire spectrum of craftsman production. Such separation already existed for machines as their designers do not involve themselves in their production. The innovation of the Bauhaus was to transfer the separation of design and production across those aspects of design and production that until then had been performed by artists and craftspersons. One hundred years on, it’s fair to say that design didn’t save the world and that production is killing it. We are in no doubt that the impact of this single powerful idea is global. The Bauhaus paired with Industrialisation, The International Style with Globalization, and Postmodernism (and all its variants since) with Neoliberalism. All have the same relationship between design and production, morphing with the times.

Craig-Martin sees The Bauhaus’s influence across the entire spectrum of design as proof of the universality of its artistic/stylistic ideas. This is partially true because if something – anything whether a chair or a lamp or a tea service – could be designed and made by a craftsperson then it could now be designed by a designer and made by a machine. This was universal. The idea of separation was vital. It mattered little that The Bauhaus couldn’t produce what they designed. Facilitating the production and supply of inexpensive consumer necessities doesn’t seem to have been a priority.

Craig-Martin says, “[Albers thought] the most important relationship was between the artists and their work”. This shows a wilful ignorance of craftspeople as an existing system of production. The notion of an artist having a relationship with their work was not invented by The Bauhaus. This notion still survives in our current conception of the artist (whether YBA or not).

Bauhaus chairs may have been designed for machine manufacture but they weren’t designed for minimal transportation and warehouse volume that incur other costs. Apart from the Mart Stam chair (later made more expensive by Breuer), I can’t think of any Bauhaus designed product that actually hit that sweet spot, spawning many variants and interpretations. The first chair I remember is a kitchen chair like the one on the left, below but instead of the upholstered surfaces it had Formica on plywood. The first school chairs I remember were like those on the right.

Bruer’s 1925 Wassily Chair was destined for a life of limited licensed production and value of a different kind. Craig-Martin is right however in seeing Ikea as a contemporary embodiment of what we like to think the Bauhaus was about. Ikea designers are not as anonymous as they used to be but what hasn’t changed is the essential split between design and production. Craft is as absent as ever, unless one counts the self-assembly and even then a service exists to dissuade people from potentially gaining any satisfaction from putting it together themselves.

Perhaps more today than in the immediate past, there’s a conjunction between ideas in architecture, furniture design, art – the boundaries between different disciplines have softened a great deal. The things that the Bauhaus hit on and developed through the years went right to the heart of the design of things, the nature of things. They got it so accurately that it has never been truly displaced.

I would simplify this as “The thing the Bauhaus hit on and developed went right to the heart of the production of things. They got it so accurately that it has never been truly displaced.” I can’t see it happening in the future either.

Foster comes closest to admitting there might be a link between design and production and is first to mention the production of buildings. I wasn’t aware Gropius envisioned a time when buildings would be mass produced in factories. Buildings have proven very resistant to factory production but we do have a situation where many component parts are prefabricated and assembled on site by increasingly unskilled labour. Modular housing is still being designed but the conceit is for the production to be modular and the design not to look it. This goes against what machine production is supposed to be or have been. The enthusiasm with which we are expected to embrace the 3-D printing of buildings suggests that even those workers might be out of a job soon.

Foster gushes about Gropius’ house in Lincoln, MA. Here’s a refresher.

I agree with Foster saying the lasting influence of The Bauhaus is not stylistic, but the attitude of mind it cultivated. I don’t see this as a good thing. [Whether High-Tech was ever really a thing or just another example of fashion over substance is a topic for another time.] However, to say that Bauhaus at its best was a revolution in the relationship between arts and crafts, aesthetics and functions, conceiving and making is not a lie. I’m just unsure who gained what.

While attempting to find out where Margaret Howell’s Minimalist clothing line is manufactured I found this web page detailing the company’s tax strategy, its governance in relation to UK taxation, its risk management strategies, its attitude towards tax planning and level of risk, its attitude towards tax planning and level of risk and, finally, its relationship with HMRC (Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs).

Howell says much the same thing as tax exile Foster. The coming together of different disciplines and the practice of combining design with manufacturing was inspirational, imaginative, experimental and, above all, a break with the past – which is all fine, apart from the fact it was none of those. Every discipline has its method of production and, it’s safe to say, The Bauhaus ideology destroyed them all. It was not the first time any designer ever thought about how things were made.

Some artists still have a one-to-one relationship with what they create and so do some architects known as sole practitioners that take pride not only in the design but also in its realisation in terms of materials, details and processes. If we don’t hear so much about sole practitioners these days then we have The Bauhaus to blame. [c.f. Architecture Misfits #34: The Sole Practitioner]

All this does is make me recall that symbols are substitutes for the real thing.

It’s telling Barnbrook says everybody should learn the theories of the Bauhaus before they are allowed to touch … a computer! But I do agree that Ikea probably is the most prominent expression we have of the professed ideals of The Bauhaus – or at least what Gropius suddenly claimed them to be in 1923, five years before his exit and after having claimed the opposite since 1919. This is Ikea’s Melltorp table, designed by Lisa Norinder for IKEA’s 2011 catalogue. You may remember it from this 2011 post. Apart from Stam’s tube chairs, it’s superior to anything designed by the Bauhaus. They didn’t do tables.

Lisa Nrinder for IKEA: MELLTORP, 2011 catalogue

It has a total of 41 parts, all of which are necessary. In Step 1, the circular spacers aren’t there to create a shadow gap. Instead, they increase the distance between the table surface (the top flange) and the lower part of the long beam (the lower flange) to make a web beam which is stronger than the long beam would be otherwise. The short beams don’t support anything. Their role is to provide the other other anchor for the corner bracket in Step 3. In Step 4, these hidden corner brackets secure the legs to the long beams and the short beams and it is this final step, that makes the table perfectly rigid and stable. The table top is covered with melamine, a moisture- and scratch-resistant finish that is easy to clean. $69.99.

It’s brilliant construction design for flatpack transportation and on-site assembly. Although “the table top is covered with melamine, a moisture- and scratch resistant finish that is easy to clean”, I wouldn’t mind purchasing and assembling a deluxe edition in oak, mahogany, teak or jarrah.

This is the first time we hear of the physical realities of buildings as well as their political symbolism. Regardless of style, fitted kitchens and communal areas, the building of buildings still indicates a claim to land, as ever.

“The Bauhaus’s focus on multifaceted ideation and execution carved out a new dialogue across design theory and aesthetics that became the blueprint for my generation’s newfound freedom.” I can’t unpack this sentence. It may be one of those machine-made sentences Elon Musk was talking about last week. The Bauhaus’s reach across time is truly remarkable.

Not much here, apart from art still being made by artists. I wasn’t familiar with the Pirelli Tire Building in New Haven, but I must have seen the Ziggy stardust costumes at some time.

Yep.

Hans Obrist attempts to bring some perspective to the proceedings but falls short. Much has never been remembered, let alone forgotten. I’m not sure we need any more remembering of Johannes Itten. Hannes Meyer I’ve tried. Lotte Stam-Beese I knew nothing of. I’m wary of parallels between political intensity and artistic intensity. Industrialisation knew no borders or factions. Promoting design for machine manufacture could be done just as well in the US as in Germany. Even better, it turned out.

Not much happening here. Sure, The Bauhaus may have dealt with issues of housing, affordability and global aesthetics but not on Gropius’ watch. Hannes Meyer would have objected to the term “global aesthetics”. I doubt renewed interest in The Bauhaus will accomplish anything. Much like the legacy of Le Corbusier, it can be reformatted into anything the times demand and, as the above shows, just about anything can be made to make a point about something.

As we’re approaching the end, and as a kind of summary, the separation of the act of design from the act of production was something that could be applied to all of the decorative arts. Anything that was previously designed and crafted by hand was fair game. This is not in the spirit of inclusiveness.

As I wrote last week, arty-crafty William Morris didn’t particularly care who or what manufactured the objects he designed. Taha’s final statement about following through and developing ideas is something that has been taught at all schools for quite some time now and all it has bequeathed us is a system where design has been elevated so high it can now exist without any manufactured or constructed reality to validate it. Meanwhile, somewhere in the world, unknown people are busy tending machines or making things by hand for us. All this might have happened anyway had The Bauhaus never existed but Gropius and Co. decamping to the US and spreading the word certainly hastened the process in what was then the world’s most influential economy.

• • • 

All told, the above recollections and musings didn’t have much to say about architectural education, apart from Libeskind, Foster and i Gilabert seeing themselves as the living embodiment of the Bauhaus’s teachings. In a sense, they are.

We never learned much in the way of specifics and I suspect this is because, contrary to the mythology, Walter Gropius, the Dessau Bauhaus and architectural education never existed in the same place at the same time. Walter Gropius and the Dessau Bauhaus overlapped for three years 1925-28. The Dessau Bauhaus and architectural education overlapped for two years 1928-30 under Hannes Meyer and two more 1930-32 under Mies. Architectural education and Walter Gropius overlapped in the US from 1937 but forever since in our minds, as the assorted thoughts above testify. Given that The Bauhaus was run out of Weimar because of the number of communists (not to mention Expressionists!) on the payroll, for someone who could supposedly read the writing on the wall, Gropius’s appointment of communist Hannes Meyer as his successor in 1928 seems like a deliberate act of sabotage.

Party on.

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I can’t help thinking that any architectural education worth having is the one that one makes for oneself, that exists outside of formal education, and that starts well before. As a welcome antidote to all the above, I received this which I’ve added to the Architecture of Innocence post of a few weeks back. Thanks Josh.

Joshua, (Australian; aged 10 – now 26)

This is a photo of a drawing I did of a farmhouse, a windmill and some power lines. I was maybe 10. Almost immediately my mum had it framed and it’s been hanging in the lounge room of the family house ever since. I remember trying to make a small scale model, complete with power lines. It’s an imaginary scene of a colonial-style rural dwelling often found in Jindong in Western Australia where, two years ago, I designed a farmhouse and managed its construction. Next month I sit my registration exams.

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1 thought on “Media Studies

  1. victorperunkov

    After that many incantations, it comes clear how “the machine” was and still is an upsetting diminishing of millions of people involved in industrial production, who are denied even a mention of their existence and involvement in production work. The craftspeople are at least recognized as skillful.

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