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The Bauhaus Idea and Bauhaus Politics

Éva Forgács

Chapter 1. The Beauty of Progress

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  • 1 Gropius, Letter to Wulf Herzogenrath, Cambridge, Mass., 30 October 1968; in Reginald Isaacs. Walte (...)

1On 20 APRIL 1919 Walter Gropius received his appointment as director in the Weimar Court Chamberlain's Office. In 1969 he recalled: 'I arrived at the name instinctively. I did not want to use the term Bauhütte which had exclusively medieval connotations. I wanted a new, paradoxical name, something more far-reaching. The German word bauen has a very wide-ranging meaning: among other things, one builds character.1

2Gropius was born on 18 May 1883 into a family coming from a long line of German Intellectuals. Both his father and his grandfather were architects, the latter a friend of the prestigious architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel. His grandfather's brother, Martin Gropius, designed the Berlin Museum of Applied Art, and became director of the Berlin School of Applied Art in 1867.

  • 2 Ise Gropius, 'Walter Gropius'; in Bauten und Projekte 1906 bis /969, Kunstgewerbemuseum Zürich, 19 (...)

3In the early years of the century Walter Gropius followed with keen interest the revolution taking place in technology and architecture, the beginnings of mass production and the rapid rationalization of its processes. While quite young, he became convinced that standardization and serial production would enter the domain of architecture as well. According to his second wife, Ise Gropius, he had arrived at this conclusion as a student in 1906, when an enlightened Pomeranian landowner, one of his uncle Erich Gropius's neighbours, commissioned him to build inexpensive housing for the employees on his estate. According to Ise Gropius, 'This is probably from where we may trace the germ of the idea that the construction of dwellings must be based on industrial mass production.2

  • 3 Wilhelm Braun-Feldweg. Ipar és forma (Industry and Form). Corvina, Budapest, 1978, p. 42.
  • 4 Ibid.
  • 5 Nikolaus Pevsner, Pioneers of Modem Design, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth. 1974, p. 35.

4Actually this idea had been in the air. Advances in machine production brought about a new state of affairs in the manufacture of objects as well as in architecture. The challenge of the machine was taken up by creative individuals of every description, and German architects, painters, sculptors, art historians, manufacturers and educators responded in a wave of overwhelming momentum, confidence and optimism, supported by the mighty resources of German society and industry. 'In retrospect it seems as if all the spiritual and artistic power of the age had been waiting to join forces, obeying one and the same impulse,' writes Braun-Feldweg.3 This joining of forces occurred in 1907 with the establishment of the Deutscher Werkbund. The organizers and leading figures of the association, Peter Behrens, Theodor Fischer, Hermann Muthesius, Bruno Paul, Richard Riemerschmid, Henry van de Velde and numerous others, including politicians, designated as their objective 'the ennoblement of handiwork through the union of art, industry and handcraft'.4 The Werkbund amassed the leading personages of German art and architecture, and their unified front, together with the consolidated radicalism of their innovative strivings, endowed this association with considerable significance in public life. Most important was their insistence on quality, the aspect of production most threatened by mechanization. They declared their Intention of 'selecting the best representatives of art, industry, crafts, and trades, of combining all efforts towards high quality in industrial work, and of forming a rallying-point for all those who are able and willing to work for high qualify.'5

  • 6 Ibid.

5Quality meant 'not only excellent durable work and the use of flawless, genuine materials, but also the attainment of an organic whole rendered sachlich, noble and, if you will, artistic by such means.'6 They deemed it important to give the matter the widest publicity, considering it a public issue of the gravest consequence, and realizing that the majority of society was unaware of the true significance of these questions. They grasped every opportunity to further their objective, relying on the triumph of the deepest human values to overcome and tame machines, and thereby maintain the human face of the human environment. In the words of Braun-Feldweg:

  • 7 Braun-Feldweg, op. cit., pp. 42 and 44.

Their speeches, writings and acts indicate a passionate pedagogic involvement ... It is impossible to convey the breadth and intensity of the Werkbund's approach to innumerable problems of modem life, to the formal appearance of objects, and how it regarded these as basic Issues of national identity. Whether it is 'the street as an artistic phenomenon' (August Endell); 'the structure of vehicles' (Ernst Neumann, painter and outstanding automobile body designer); Gropius pondering the 'style-creating power of industrial structures' ('These works of industry and technology must give rise to new forms'); or Peter Behrens speaking about 'the use of time and space and its effect on modem design developments' - we are constantly impressed by these men of action fully engaged in the whirl of everyday life, and their full awareness of it. All of the questions that still interest us have been raised by them in theory or practice during the years 1908-14, among calmer circumstances than those prevailing in the 1920s.7

6Given this kind of intellectual-professional environment, the programme developed by the Werkbund might have led to the young Gropius's growing conviction that only the collaboration of artists of the highest calibre could assure the aesthetic quality of standardized forms designed for mass production. This is where he may have derived his unshakeable conviction that human intuition must not be left out of machine-made products.

  • 8 Gropius, 'Die Entwicklung modemer Industriebaukunst'; in Probst and Schädlich (eds), op. cit.. p. (...)

7In 1907, when the Werkbund was established, Gropius was 24 years old and working at the architectural offices of Peter Behrens, who was perhaps the most highly regarded architect of the day. Thus the movement that claimed Behrens, chiefly a designer of Industrial plants, and other architects who mattered for Gropius, constituted the first - and possibly the most profound - professional and philosophical commitment in his life. In the 1913 Werkbund Yearbook he wrote: 'The invention of new, expressive forms demands a strong artistic ... personality. Only the most brilliant (genialsten) Ideas are good enough for multiplication by industry and worthy of benefiting not just the individual but the public as a whole.'8

  • 9 Pevsner, op. cit., p. 30.
  • 10 Franciscono, op. cit., Appendix C. pp. 265-6. Handwritten letter by Walter Gropius to Kart Ernst O (...)
  • 11 Ibid., p. 271. Probably August Endell's comment on the Werkbund Congress.

8However, this notion was not able to bridge the extensive theoretical and practical uncertainties it glossed over. The involvement of the artist in machine production was not going to be so idyllically clear-cut; this was the very issue that would produce the first, and basic, rift in the Werkbund's unity. At the 1914 Werkbund Congress in Cologne it was obvious that there were two camps facing each other. One of these shared Mutheslus's views: 'Architecture and the entire sphere of activity of the Werkbund tend towards standardization. It is only by standardization that they can recover that universal importance which they possessed in ages of harmonious civilization. Only by standardization ... as a salutary concentration of forces can a generally accepted and reliable taste be introduced.' Meanwhile Henry van de Velde, representing the opposition, passionately declaimed: 'As long as there are artists in the Werkbund ... they will protest against any proposed canon and standardization. The artist is essentially and intimately a passionate individualist, a spontaneous creator. Never will he, of his own free will, submit to a discipline forcing upon him a norm, a canon.'9 Gropius's fellow architect, Endell, and some 25-30 other Werkbund members whom Gropius refers to as the 'opposition',10 were ready to sharpen the conflict: either Muthesius should resign, or else they would. They resented the relegation of the artist's role to the background, and even 'the use of the soulless term "standardization" created the most violent opposition. This intimidating word, with its Greek root and Franco-German ending (Typisierung). does not really enlighten us about how and when it ought to be used.'11

9The Werkbund debate was the clash of the same forces that collided in subsequent conflicts at the Bauhaus: the polarization of artistic individuality versus the increasing depersonalization of mass production became defined as one of the fundamental conflicts of the age. In prophetically summarizing the essentials of the debate, August Endell was actually forecasting an outline of the eventual developments at the Bauhaus. In conclusion to the 1914 debate he wrote:

  • 12 Ibid., p. 274.

The Werkbund is faced with an important decision to choose its aim: quality and standardization, or the serious involvement of beauty and the artist as equal partners in industry. The Werkbund will have a viable future only if it decides in favour of the latter. If it chooses the murky and ambiguous terms quality and standardization, the Werkbund will expose itself to the danger of sinking to the level of a mere organ of the ethical-cultural advertising so popular these days. Not even those manufacturers with business reasons for the artist's collaboration would agree to this, for they see that, although the artist is barely tolerated in the Werkbund, he is most suitably qualified for advertisements of that sort.12

  • 13 Pevsner, op. cit., p. 29.

10As we shall see, many of Gropius's later decisions, seemingly completely irrational at the time, originated from this position statement of the Werkbund leadership: never, under any circumstances, would they grant absolute priority to the machine, or recognize it as an end in itself. This viewpoint was all the more heroic in that all practical considerations, as well as the rationalism so inseparable from machine production, point in the opposite direction. In 1914, on the eve of the war, the Intellectual leaders of the Werkbund demonstrated that even though they - being competent technicians - were fully aware of the positive aspects and natural history of mechanical production, they held it most important for the future that the human factor should not be relegated to the background. It was a basic issue of survival affecting all of human culture that technology should In no way pose a threat to the freedom of human inventiveness and imagination. The situation was already approaching a crisis; in the words of Theodor Fischer: 'Industry has lost sight of its aim of producing work of the highest quality and does not feel Itself to be a serving member of our community but the ruler of the age.'13

  • 14 See Introduction, note 1.

11Gropius's earliest writings attest to the special attention he devoted to this problem. Already in 1910 he was preoccupied with the thought of 'the prosperous union of art and technology',14 and it seems that in his writings - with the help of his extraordinary diplomatic gifts, and regardless of the inner logic of his arguments - he attempted to bridge and resolve the contradictions that first polarized within the Werkbund.

  • 15 Karl-Heinz Hüter, Das Bouhaus in Weimar, Akademie Verlag, Berlin, 1976, p. 11.
  • 16 Henry van de Velde, Letter 11 April 1915 to Walter Gropius, Bauhaus Archiv, Gropius Collection; In (...)

12By virtue of his personality and aptitudes, his social and public position, Gropius seemed predestined for a leading role. He was resolute, clear-sighted in pinpointing problems and resilient in debate, had an excellent intuitive grasp of a situation, and displayed a fundamentally farsighted optimism and extraordinary organizing ability. He was able to remain detached from every conflict, and maintained a coolly correct attitude even in situations that involved him personally. (Perhaps this is why Klee later called him 'The Silver Prince'.) He needed a base of operations under his autonomous direction. This is also how he was perceived by Henry van de Velde, director of the Weimar Grand Ducal School of Arts and Crafts, who, as a Belgian citizen, had to resign after the war broke out. In 1915 he recommended Gropius, along with Hermann Obrist and August Endell, as his successor. The ruler of Weimar, the Grand Duke of Saxony, had been urging since 1913 that the otherwise unexceptionable van de Velde be replaced by a German director working 'in the spirit of the new nationalism', someone who would follow the more desirable neo-Biedermeier and neo-classicist trends which were deemed more autochthonously German than the cosmopolitan Sezession style.15 Van de Velde, who had no knowledge of the Grand Duke's personal tastes, was mainly motivated by Gropius's innate qualifications for leadership (although he must have been familiar with the Fagus Shoe Factory, and the factory building designed for the 1914 Cologne Werkbund Exhibition), as can be seen from the question he asked in his letter informing Gropius about his nomination: 'Where and in what periodicals can I find publications of your works?'16

13Gropius recognized the extraordinary opportunity presented by van de Velde's offer. He immediately travelled to Weimar, where the Grand Duke received him, but negotiations had to be suspended because of the war. Gropius was called up for active service, and the building of the School of Arts and Crafts was converted into a military hospital.

  • 17 Gropius, 'Vorschläge zur Gründung einer Lehranstalt als künstlerische Beratungsstelle für Industri (...)

14Nonetheless, from the battlefield in 1916 he sent a memorandum entitled 'Proposals for the Establishment of an Institute Offering Artistic Direction to Industry, Applied Art and Crafts' to the Grand Ducal Ministry of State.17 In this writing he outlined the ideas he had developed in response to the prewar Werkbund debates: his proposal was aimed at the ways and means of reconciling the mutually conflicting interests of large-scale industry and commerce on the one hand, and artistic and craft activity on the other. He conceived of a new kind of institution, a coordinating way-station of sorts, which would ensure that the articles to be manufactured combined the advantages of mass production with a high level of aesthetic value, by providing a common ground where the quantitative criteria of technological production could encounter that elusive qualitative extra that we like to call the artist's personality.

  • 18 Ibid., p. 202.
  • 19 Ibid.

15Although this text was composed in its entirety on the battlefield, Groplus failed to take into account the fact of the war itself; he assumed an industry of undiminished power, a balanced society and unabated technological progress. Meanwhile it was precisely the upheaval caused by the war that occasioned the passage of these 'Proposals' into the Grand Duke's hands. This was an age racked by the fever pitch of technological revolution, the fervour of 'Americanization', while marking time, vegetating, in the throes of the war in a state of heightened malleability. The age was receptive to considering any innovative system. As a matter of fact, given the Irrationality of the war, almost any concept, no matter how fantastic, would have received a serious hearing; Gropius's ideas had the advantage of being quite sensible. 'The old-fashioned craftsman combined in his person the technician, the merchant and the artist. If we now omit the artist from this triad, then the machine-made product will be nothing but an inferior substitute of the handcrafted item. But commercial circles are well aware of the surplus value contributed to industry by the artist's spiritual labour.'18 In reformulating the position taken by Ended and the other Werkbund leaders, Gropius was demonstrating that he was, in the strictest sense, a more level-headed and circumspect successor to van de Velde. The participation of the artist in production was seen as the ultimate guarantee of the product's quality. 'Today all of industry must take seriously the task of considering artistic values. The manufacturer has to be careful to avoid the stigma of his products appearing to be mere substitutes, and should endow them with the noble aspects of handcrafted goods, while keeping the advantages of machine production … Only the artist is capable of breathing a soul into the inert machine-made object; it is the artist's creative power that survives in the object as live leavening.'19 This viewpoint, held by the Werkbund and Gropius, evinced a classical sense of ethics that would be within Gropius's lifetime mercilessly invalidated by economic considerations, so that the humanistic restraint of technological progress, the limitation of profits ort account of human factors, would remain a Utopia, the purest Utopia of the Bauhaus. That which Gropius labelled the 'stigma of ersatz substitutes' would, not much later, reappear billed as triumphant innovations, splendid cost-diminishing or profit-increasing factors, while quality as an ethical concept was laid to rest once and for all.

16Gropius and his like-minded fellow members of the Werkbund carried on and even enhanced the Sezessionist longing for a new style that would apply to all of material culture, and that would characterize a whole period. Gropius and his colleagues considered industrial production itself to be a potential cultural outlet, and strove to bring about the manufacture of products that were repositories of aesthetic content, to the point where even a ventilator, a cooking utensil or an automobile would represent German culture to the extent that a painting or a poem does.

  • 20 Ibid.

17At the same time in his 'Proposals' Gropius also indicated that he intended to pay attention to the requirements of industry. He wrote, for instance, that the greatest care must be taken in selecting the applicants for admission to the new institute 'so that tangible results may be shown as soon as possible'.20 In spite of the fact that he was talking about a school which, because of Its very nature, must make long-term plans, he made sure to refer to the basic expectation of the investors: I.e., the speediest return for their investment. This ambivalence of professional, pedagogic and economic values would haunt the Bauhaus for the duration of its existence.

18Although it is most difficult, If not impossible, to separate the external/historical from the interior/subjective human factors and the roles that they played in the fate of the Bauhaus, the history of this institution suggests that the dream of a humanistic technological culture received its death blow from both directions. External factors - the ongoing political strife - never allowed the Bauhaus a moment of respite to become a freely creative educational institution unfettered by budgetary worries, with the luxury of the right to commit an occasional mistake. Such independence remained a dream to the end; even the prospect of purchasing it at a financial cost glimmered on the horizon only at rare moments. Whereas on the subjective side, the involvement of the artist in the humanization of technology was hindered by the rudimentary, immature state of theory and practice, and the vacuum existing between the personal artistic make-up of the Bauhaus masters and the designated common goal.

  • 21 Gropius, 'Monumentale Kunst und Industriebau', Lecture, 11 April 1911, at Volkwang Museum, The Hag (...)

19Gropius himself saw the future unequivocally in terms of the gains to be made in the design and manufacture of standardized mass-produced items. His prewar writings all point in this direction. A glance at the titles is enough: A Travelling Exhibition of Modern Factory Architecture (1911), Monumental Art and Industrial Architecture (1911), Are Aesthetic Criteria Reconcilable with Practical and Commercial Viewpoints in the Construction of Industrial Buildings? (1912), The Development of Modern Industrial Architecture (1913), and The Style-creating Power of Industrial Architectural Forms (1914). Throughout all of these writings he persisted in his belief that the design of factory-made products and the creative work of the individuated, independent artist can be brought to a common denominator. He assumed that the artist would seek participation in such a collective enterprise. Meanwhile one has the feeling that Gropius, when he refers to the artist's involvement in production, fudges the meaning of the word to denote what already at the turn of century was designated by the term designer - Gestalter. For he would have the artist involved In the process of mechanized production just as it was, broken Into several phases, whereas the work of the artist Is Indivisible and constitutes an undivided whole. Elsewhere, in his more Utopian writings, he outlines a state of affairs, existing in a post-mutation society, where the meaning of the word artist would be clarified only in the context of the future,21 at a time when the newfangled methods of production would have become universal, and the newfangled artist-mutant would be just another link in the process.

  • 22 Lászió Moholy-Nagy, Malerei. fotografie, film, Bauhausbücher no. 8,1927.
  • 23 Gropius. 'Die Entwicklung'; in Probst and Schädlich (eds), op. cit., p. 55.
  • 24 Gropius. 'Der Stilbildende Wert', ibid., p. 59.

20When he says artist, Gropius never intends the commonly accepted usage as painter, sculptor or graphic artist, but rather some undefined future descendant of these, as if (and here he is close to László Moholy-Nagy's reasoning of a few years later)22 the arts of painting, sculpture and graphics were superannuated activities relegated to the past by machine-produced articles. The only part of the artist he would retain is that certain elixir of personal uniqueness and intuition. When he writes, 'The new, enthusiastic, formal expression requires intensive artistic powers, artistic personality',23 he is obviously thinking of designers: 'Automobile and railroad car, steamship and sailboat, dirigible and airplane ... in their pure forms clearly discernible at a glance both conceal and sum up the complexity of their technical organization. In them, technological and artistic form have matured into an organic whole.'24 For Gropius, the arts essentially meant this new aesthetic, and most likely the Werkbund's use of the term was very similar. It is unlikely that when van de Velde resisted so emotionally the exclusion of the artist from industrial design, he had Intended to clear the way for Klee or Kandinsky's autonomous, metaphysical art - towards the design of electric tea kettles.

21The elemental - and, we may as well say, historical - differences between the spheres of technological and autonomous art can be best seen precisely in those Instances that promised a realization of their synthesis. In the years following the October revolution, Wassily Kandinsky, Kasimir Malevich, Gustav Klucis and other abstract, Suprematist artists provided decorative motifs for the products of a Petersburg porcelain factory, chiefly teacups and saucers. These objects are valuable documents of an era, and vividly testify to their creators' willingness to participate in the aesthetic transformation of everyday objects, in the creation, according to their lights, of a new aesthetic value for the new man. Meanwhile, with the exception of a few architectonic vessels by Malevich, their decorative motifs float as alien elements, like decals of painterly compositions on the traditional tableware. Had Gropius commissioned these artists to participate in the work of the porcelain factory, no doubt he would have had them design new forms out of new materials to fulfil new functions, but it is by no means certain that the artists would have accepted a task requiring technical know-how beyond their command.

  • 25 Winfried Nerdinger, Walter Gropius. Bauhaus Archiv, Busch-Reisinger Museum, Gebr. Mann Verlag, Ber (...)

22At the same time Gropius never even entertained the thought that there could still be artists unaffected by technological progress. He firmly believed there was no higher artistic task, no work more exalted, timely or appropriate for the artist, than bringing aesthetic quality to mass production, a blessing for everyone. This would mean Americanism domesticated and tamed, transfused with a new soul, filtered through the sieve of European culture. In his photo collection at the time Gropius cherished an image of American wheat silos, contructed along perfectly functionalist lines.25 This was progress indeed: architectural design of a high qualify, perfectly rational, free of 'artistic' frills, and therefore aesthetically appealing. Such design, moreover, stood for ethical values, since it served a functional purpose for the benefit of the community. On this avenue of progress Gropius glimpsed endless vistas of prosperity for all of society.


1 Gropius, Letter to Wulf Herzogenrath, Cambridge, Mass., 30 October 1968; in Reginald Isaacs. Walter Gropius, Gebr. Mann Verlag, Berlin, 1983, vol. 1, p. 460.

2 Ise Gropius, 'Walter Gropius'; in Bauten und Projekte 1906 bis /969, Kunstgewerbemuseum Zürich, 1971, p. 9.

3 Wilhelm Braun-Feldweg. Ipar és forma (Industry and Form). Corvina, Budapest, 1978, p. 42.

4 Ibid.

5 Nikolaus Pevsner, Pioneers of Modem Design, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth. 1974, p. 35.

6 Ibid.

7 Braun-Feldweg, op. cit., pp. 42 and 44.

8 Gropius, 'Die Entwicklung modemer Industriebaukunst'; in Probst and Schädlich (eds), op. cit.. p. 55. Cf. Peter Behrens, 'Kunst und Technik'; In Elektrotechnische Zeitschrift 31, no. 22, June 1916, pp. 552-5: 'Nothing great which has been created In life has ever resulted from conscientious professionalism; on the contrary, It has been due to the enterprise of great and powerful personalities.' Quoted by Marcel Franciscono, Walter Gropius and the Creation of the Bauhaus in Weimar. University of Illinois Press, Champaign, 1971, pp. 72-3.

9 Pevsner, op. cit., p. 30.

10 Franciscono, op. cit., Appendix C. pp. 265-6. Handwritten letter by Walter Gropius to Kart Ernst Osthaus, Timmendorfer Strand, 12 July 1914.

11 Ibid., p. 271. Probably August Endell's comment on the Werkbund Congress.

12 Ibid., p. 274.

13 Pevsner, op. cit., p. 29.

14 See Introduction, note 1.

15 Karl-Heinz Hüter, Das Bouhaus in Weimar, Akademie Verlag, Berlin, 1976, p. 11.

16 Henry van de Velde, Letter 11 April 1915 to Walter Gropius, Bauhaus Archiv, Gropius Collection; In Hans Maria Wingler, The Bauhaus: Weimar. Dessau, Berlin, Chicago. MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1969, p. 21.

17 Gropius, 'Vorschläge zur Gründung einer Lehranstalt als künstlerische Beratungsstelle für Industrie, Gewerbe und Handwerk', January 1916, Weimar, State Archive; in Hüter, op. cit., p. 201.

18 Ibid., p. 202.

19 Ibid.

20 Ibid.

21 Gropius, 'Monumentale Kunst und Industriebau', Lecture, 11 April 1911, at Volkwang Museum, The Hague; In Probst and Schädlich (eds), op. cit., p. 28.

22 Lászió Moholy-Nagy, Malerei. fotografie, film, Bauhausbücher no. 8,1927.

23 Gropius. 'Die Entwicklung'; in Probst and Schädlich (eds), op. cit., p. 55.

24 Gropius. 'Der Stilbildende Wert', ibid., p. 59.

25 Winfried Nerdinger, Walter Gropius. Bauhaus Archiv, Busch-Reisinger Museum, Gebr. Mann Verlag, Berlin, 1985, p. 9.

© Central European University Press, 1995

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