Von der Leyen’s green Bauhaus dream

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Von der Leyen’s green Bauhaus dream

October 6, 2020 | News | No Comments

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DESSAU, Germany — Ursula von der Leyen wants Europe to tap into its inner avant-garde.

To meet some of its most pressing strategic goals — managing a sustainable industrial transition and finding new green technology to mitigate climate change — the Commission president has pledged to revive Bauhaus, the experimental art school founded in interwar Germany to marry artistic form with functional design.

“We need to give our systemic change its own distinct aesthetic — to match style with sustainability,” von der Leyen said in her State of the Union speech last month. “This is why we will set up a new European Bauhaus — a co-creation space where architects, artists, students, engineers, designers work together to make that happen.”

The European Commission is yet to set out how this will work in practice, saying only that it’s in talks with a number of organizations that may take part. “It’s just an idea and concept at the moment,” one EU official conceded.

“The main ambition will be to create houses and public buildings that help cities become greener and that reconnect us with nature,” a Commission official said of the project.

If the scope of the historic Bauhaus school is any indication, plans to revive it for the modern age — hazy as they still are — are likely to be more ambitious than other EU-funded academic projects and institutions.

The manifesto of the original Bauhaus school — founded by German architect Walter Gropius in Weimar in 1919 — was to “create the new building of the future that will unite every discipline, architecture and sculpture and painting.” The school made a name for itself by pushing boundaries and attracted high-profile artists such as Wassily Kandinsky, László Moholy-Nagy, Paul Klee and Anni Albers, along with architects like Mies van der Rohe.

A century later, the school’s architectural style has been exported around the world, and the name Bauhaus is shorthand for interdisciplinary education. Tuition at the school covered everything from bookbinding to ceramics, carpentry, painting and more.

“They wanted to rethink the world, to find new answers to fundamental questions,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said at the opening of a new Bauhaus museum in Dessau last year. “They asked: How do we live? How do we work? How do we modernize and improve life and society? These are questions that are timelessly topical but, of course, are asked today under completely different conditions.”

Green Bauhaus

From tubular chairs and nesting tables to Marianne Brandt’s teapot and lamp, Bauhaus has become a byword for simplified, functional design made for the masses. Because the 1920s were marked by a scarcity of goods in postwar Germany, the school also embraced an economical use of materials.

The German artist Josef Albers, who taught crafts at the Bauhaus, would instruct students to collect discarded materials and make objects out of what they found, all while avoiding creating any additional waste, according to Regina Bittner, interim head of the Bauhaus Dessau Foundation.

“This, one could say, is a recycling strategy,” Bittner said in an interview in her office deep inside the bespoke Dessau school building, designed by Gropius himself with huge windows and spacious, airy corridors. The building, the school’s second home after it left Weimar, is now partly used as a postgraduate study center, and was refurbished in the mid-2000s ahead of the Bauhaus centenary celebrations last year.

But being frugal with materials doesn’t necessarily make Bauhaus a good model for sustainable development, some caution.

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“Elements of what we now call the greening of the economy existed a century ago, but Bauhaus was essentially not a green institution,” said Max Welch Guerra, a professor of spatial planning at the Bauhaus University Weimar.

That underscores the contradictions at play in the Bauhaus. While it’s seen as a beacon of progressive attitudes today, women were barred from most of the programs. On sustainable practices, Bittner said the school was embedded in the “industrialization and resource exploitation” of the time.

Rather than emulating its system of production, von der Leyen seems to be using the Bauhaus model to champion the need for a cross-disciplinary approach to tackling the climate emergency, said Welch Guerra.

The school was not just concerned about “how to produce chairs and houses,” he said. “It was an ideology” that allowed artists to work across disciplines and develop diverse skills.

“[Von der Leyen] has understood it better than most, it wasn’t just an institution that developed a new style, the core of the historic Bauhaus is that they offered ways to adapt their day-by-day life to the potentials of the industrialization of that time,” he said.

If the highest rungs of EU politics today laud the school as an example of how to approach the challenges facing modern society, it’s an open question whether such free-wheeling, interdisciplinary collaboration will work in practice — particularly given the EU’s penchant for paperwork, annual reports and regular audits.

The historic Bauhaus school, after all, did not sit alongside politics easily. Despite his reliance on public funds, Gropius complained as early as 1920 of his desire to “decisively break away from politics” at Bauhaus.

In its short life-span — it only existed for 14 years — the institution often ruffled feathers and was forced to close three times after coming into the crosshairs of local politicians. It left Weimar for the bespoke building in Dessau in 1925, before being forced to move to Berlin where it was eventually stamped out by the rise of the Nazis in 1933.

Although the Bauhaus teaching staff was international, there may also be pushback to a perception that von der Leyen wants to impose a German invention on the EU as a whole. “This is the Europeanization of a German development model,” said Welch Guerra.

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