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The Bauhaus centenary gives cause for celebration but also for critical research. Ines Weizman lectures at the Bauhaus University in Weimar. This year she is conference director of the XIV International Bauhaus Colloquium and is currently completing the publication “Dust & Data. Traces of the Bauhaus across 100 years”. In her interview with FSB she speaks about the contradictions informing the world’s most famous art school.
The Bauhaus was set up in Weimar a century ago this year. The centenary year has only just got going but in Germany we are already being inundated with publications, exhibition announcements and events. You lecture in Weimar and live in London. Is the centenary year getting any attention at all across the Channel?
Ines Weizman: You say inundated, but I think it is really rather special for a school of thought to receive such treatment internationally. We are experiencing a veritable renaissance. Archives have been opened up, new documents found, texts translated and yes, any number of books published.
It is, after all, also a question of reflecting upon the migratory history of people and ideas and asking oneself what has happened in the meantime, in a century of living with the Bauhaus. Maybe the Bauhaus theme was exhausted somewhat in London with a major exhibition back in 2012 at the Barbican that really attracted a lot of public interest. An exhibition on Anni Albers currently running at Tate Modern is receiving a rapturous response in part, certainly, because Albers epitomises the giant leap from Weimar to Black Mountain College.
London was also a staging post for exiles who had to leave Germany in 1933.
Ines Weizman: Exactly. Several key Bauhaus exponents stopped off here in London. Comparatively little is known in Great Britain about just how big an impact the Bauhaus made on the history of design and architecture there. People in Britain still have some difficulty with this today, and it is not always easy, moreover, to determine exactly what impact the exiles actually did make. A little-known fact is that Walter Gropius was invited to continue the Bauhaus in London in 1935. But nothing became of the idea because the Bauhaus was perceived as being too weird and un-English. Though the likes of Gropius or Marcel Breuer did, of course, design Modernist buildings for London, many other architects exiled or simply coming from Germany were force to adapt to British hybrid forms of red-brick and traditional Modernism.
What’s the picture in Weimar? One does slightly get the feeling that the classical heritage eclipses everything else there.
Ines Weizman: The Bauhaus really is evident at every turn, and the people of Weimar are very familiar with it. Heike Hanada’s new Bauhaus Museum is, of course, exciting. This new-build venture so close to the Gauforum will lend shape to a museum district devoted to the topography of Modernism. And that may dispel the naivety that still holds sway with regard to Modernism. On the one hand, we have the beauty of Modernism, its enlightening, inquisitive, avantgarde facets – but there are also the darker sides involving abstraction, duplication and a faceless society. This site will document both the sense of a fresh departure and the horrors associated with the city’s history. When you leave the museum, you are directly confronted with a quite different Modernist reality.
The Bauhaus is one of those historical phenomena everything was thought to be already known about. For you as a researcher, what are the decisive factors when addressing the Bauhaus?
Ines Weizman: Everyone has something to say about the Bauhaus, but from wildly differing standpoints. The Bauhaus leads us through a hundred years of history – and it’s a bumpy ride. It does not just cover the period from 1919-33 but also the institution’s subsequent impact. It is possible, on the one hand, to give detailed attention to those originally involved in Weimar, Dessau and Berlin, but there are also stories to be told about the movement’s exponents who went out into the world, took the Bauhaus with them and negotiated the various political systems. Some were persecuted, whilst others managed to put their ideas into practice. In some cases, the Bauhaus was allowed to manifest itself, in others it was not suffered gladly – and at times it was dangerous having anything at all to do with it either artistically or as a scholar. 1976 was an extremely important turning point in this respect, the year the Bauhaus building in Dessau was renovated. That was a signal in the then GDR that it was once again possible to openly address oneself to the Bauhaus.
Nevertheless, no one was ever quite sure which aspects of the Bauhaus it was permissible to appreciate. Attention in the GDR was, for instance, focused on residential construction and industrial pre-fabrication. The avantgarde element was of less interest. And on no account was too much to be made of Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe, who were active in the USA after the war. It was likewise long impossible to openly discuss Hannes Meyer, the second Bauhaus director, a man whose activities in the Soviet Union and Mexico were taboo on both sides of the Iron Curtain.
What significance does the Bauhaus have for a company like FSB today?
Ines Weizman: To return to the subject of Hannes Meyer, this is someone who does not feature in most narratives on the Bauhaus. Maybe that’s also – figuratively speaking – on account of his never having designed a door handle. Perhaps it’s also because he was receptive to major social issues of the age such as housing-estate construction or the problem of ensuring good quality for the masses. A company such as FSB might also be able to think along such lines.
The three directors Gropius, Meyer and van der Rohe repeatedly share the limelight. Meyer has been the subject of scholarly reappraisal recently. Two of the three door levers FSB has issued as redesigns in its “Bauhaus Trilogy” were originated by Bauhaus directors. The world-famous Gropius handle is striking for the way it marries a right-angled bar of square cross-section to a rolling cylindrical grip. Mies opted for an organic shape and a characteristic “forefinger furrow”. How would a lever handle by Hannes Meyer have looked?
Ines Weizman: We are familiar with Meyer’s frugal interiors, notably his Co-op interior published in 1926: an utterly frugal space appointed with a gramophone, camp bed and shelves on which nothing can be accommodated. I think Meyer might have made a lever handle out of a single casting so as to facilitate mass production. Or maybe he would have simply designed a knob, a straightforward rotatable knob that speaks for itself. It wouldn’t have been very convenient to use – in keeping with the Co-op interior. Maybe he would have questioned the need for any means of keeping doors closed. (laughs)