I almost wholeheartedly loved Walter Gropius on the Scope of Total Architecture. One of the key figures of Bauhaus, he still writes this as his preface, reminding us of the ideals behind the best of this new architecture:
CREATION AND love of beauty are elemental for the experience of happiness. A time which does not recognize this basic truth does not become articulate in the visual sense; its image remains blurred, its manifestations fail to delight.
Since my early youth I have been acutely aware of the chaotic
ugliness of our modem man-made environment when compared to the unity and beauty of old, preindustrial towns. In the course of my life I became more and more convinced that the usual practice of architects to relieve the dominating disjointed pattern here and there by a beautiful building is most inadequate and that we must find, instead, a new set of values, based on such constituent factors as would generate an integrated expression of the thought and feeling of our time.
How such a unity might be attained to become the visible pattern for a true democracy-that is the topic of this book. It is based, essentially, on articles and lectures written-with a few exceptions-during my years in Harvard University as chairman of the Department of Architecture (1937-1952). (7)
So much in common here with so many others I have read:
ENTERING A new chapter of my life that–contrary to the normal expectation of life after seventy–looks to me just as turbulent and perilous as the period preceding it, I realize that I am a figure covered with labels, maybe to the point of obscurity. Names like “Bauhaus Style,” “International Style,” “Functional Style” have almost succeeded in hiding the human core behind it all, and I am eager, therefore, to put a few cracks into this dummy that busy people have slipped around me. (11)
So many cracks! I am so glad to have read this.
Part 1: Education of Architects and Designers
He is and architect and planner, but in many ways and above all a teacher. There is so much here about supporting the following generations to think, imagine, create for themselves. It is lovely, open-minded, focused always on self-improvement through collective endeavor. I also love the way he italicises sentences — much like Ruskin’s aphorisms but not pulled to one side. I have highlighted them because the formatting loses them just a little.
MY intention is not to introduce a, so to speak, cut and dried “Modern Style” from Europe, but rather to introduce a method of approach which allows one to tackle a problem according to its peculiar conditions. I want a young architect to be able to find his way in whatever circumstances; I want him independently to create true, genuine forms out of the technical, economic and social conditions in which he finds himself instead of imposing a learned formula onto surroundings which may call for an entirely different solution. It is not so much a ready-made dogma that I want to teach, but an attitude toward the problems of our generation which is unbiased, original and elastic. (17)
This is a little more of what I was expecting:
Only perfect harmony in its technical functions as well as in its proportions can result in beauty. That makes our task so manifold and complex. (18)
But this relates more to understanding architecture as not simply of aesthetic value but its role in our everyday lives. The way he writes shades sometimes into the uncomfortable pronouncements of the expert upon how lives should be lived, but there is enough sensibility of people’s need to have ownership and control over their environments that could win out over such a top-down assumption of privilege. I am not sure they always did of course, but they might have.
More than ever before is it in the hands of us architects to help our contemporaries to lead a natural and sensible life instead of paying a heavy tribute to the false gods of make-believe. We can respond to this demand only if we are not afraid to approach our work from the broadest possible angle. Good architecture should be a projection of life itself and that implies an intimate knowledge of biological, social, technical and artistic problems. (18)
My Conception of the Bauhaus Idea
After that violent eruption, every thinking man felt the necessity for an intellectual change of front. Each in his own particular sphere of activity aspired to help in bridging the disastrous gulf between reality and idealism. It was then that the immensity of the mission of the architect of my own generation first dawned on me. I saw that, first of all, a new scope for architecture had to be outlined, which I could not hope to realize, however, by my own architectural contributions alone, but which would have to be achieved by training and preparing a new generation of architects in close contact with modern means of production in a pilot school which must succeed in acquiring authoritative significance…
I tried to put the emphasis of my work on integration and co-ordination, inclusiveness, not exclusiveness, for I felt that the art of building is contingent upon the co-ordinated teamwork of a band of active collaborators whose co-operation symbolizes the co-operative organism of what we call society. (19)
I can’t help but feel that this is the genius of Gropius, not so much in what he designed but in the open vision he developed and invited others to own, the creation of collaborative spaces that respected all aspects of creative work, the support of an ideal that working together we are always better than working alone. This thread runs throughout his writings, as does the necessity of reconciling the new industrial reality with a high quality of art and life in a way that someone like Ruskin never could.
Thus the Bauhaus was inaugurated in 1919 with the specific object of realizing a modern architectonic art… It deliberately concentrated primarily on what has now become a work of imperative urgency–averting mankind’s enslavement by the machine by saving the mass-product and the home from mechanical anarchy and by restoring them to purpose, sense and life. This means evolving goods and buildings specifically designed for industrial production. (20)
And so we have interdependence rather than individualism:
What the Bauhaus preached in practice was the common citizenship of all forms of creative work, and their logical interdependence on one another in the modern world. (20)
Our conception of the basic unity of all design in relation to life was in diametric opposition to that of “art for art’s sake” and the much more dangerous philosophy it sprang from, business as an end in itself. …
Here again the emphasis on an openness of vision:
The object of the Bauhaus was not to propagate any “style,” system or dogma, but simply to exert a revitalising influence on design. A “Bauhaus Style” would have been a confession of failure and a return to that devitalizing inertia, that stagnating academism which I had called it into being to combat…
God knows we have too much of the stagnating academism. He opposed this as much as he did the early specialisation to the ignorance of other forms of art and knowledge:
The Bauhaus aimed at the training of people possessing artistic talents as designers in industry and handicrafts, as sculptors, painters and architects. A complete co-ordinated training of all handicrafts, in technique and in form, with the object of teamwork in building, served as the basis. (23)
It embraces this idea of industrialisation as a force that can free us from labour rather than enslave us further. When exactly did we lose that?
The standardization of the practical machinery of life implies no robotization of the individual but, on the contrary, the unburdening of his existence from much unnecessary dead weight so as to leave him freer to develop on a higher plane. (20) … Ruskin and Morris were the first to set their faces against the tide, but their opposition against the machine could not stem the waters. It was only much later that the perplexed mind of those interested in the development of form realized that art and production can be reunited only by accepting the machine and subjugating it to the mind. (21)
and this, refining and repurposing their critique for modern times:
The difference between industry and handicraft is due far less to the different nature of the tools employed in each, than to subdivision of labor in the one and undivided control by a single workman in the other. (22)
His solution? Perhaps not immediately obvious, I am not sure even now perhaps with the benefit of hindsight given all the complexities of capital and consumerism.
DEVELOPMENT OF STANDARD TYPES. The creation of standard types for everyday goods is a social necessity. The standard product is by no means an invention of our own era. It is only the methods of producing it which have changed. It still implies the highest level of civilization, the seeking out of the best, the separation of the essential and superpersonal from the personal and accidental It is today more necessary than ever to understand the underlying significance of the conception “standard”–that is to say, as a cultural title of honor–and firmly to combat the shallow catchword propaganda which simply raises every industrial mass product to that high rank. (26)
Last point here, the importance he set on practice, on experience, on book learning and classroom teaching less than half an education. I love how the material space of the Bauhaus came to be.
In particular, the erection of our own institute buildings, in which the whole Bauhaus and its workshops co-operated, represented an ideal task. (27)
Is there a science of Design?
This looks at design psychologically, understanding how we experience reality and illusion, how children’s perceptions change, the impacts of our subconscious. All the new insights swirling about at the time that now perhaps feel a little dated — but so will our theories in the same span of time. I would like to think architects continue to grapple with them. Gropius again turns to a kind of standardisation:
If design is to be a specific language of communication for the expression of subconscious sensations, then It must have its own elementary codes of scale, form and color. It needs its own grammar of composition to integrate these elementary codes into messages which, expressed through the senses, link man to man even closer than do words. The more this visual language of communication is spread, the better will be the common understanding. This is the task of education: to teach what influences the psyche of man in terms of light, scale, space, form and color. (33)
I am unsure what quite I think of this. What resonates more clearly is the insight into a need for change and motion, the enjoyment of creative tensions.
THE NEED FOR CHANGE. This shift in the basic concept of our world from static space to continuously changing relations engages our mental and emotional faculties of perception…Art must satisfy this perpetual urge to swing from contrast to contrast; the spark, generated by tension of opposites, creates the peculiar vitality of a work of art. For it is a fact that a human being needs frequently changing impressions in order to keep his receptive abilities alert. (40)
He writes a bit later:
We have also learned that the human being needs frequently
changing impressions in order to keep his receptive abilities alert. To produce such a stimulus for him contemporary artists and architects try to create the illusion of motion. (69)
Part Two: The Contemporary Architect
Appraisal of the Development of Modern Architecture
I think the present situation can be summed up as follows: a breach has been made with the past which enables us to envisage a new aspect of architecture corresponding to the technical civilization of the age we live in; the morphology of dead styles has been destroyed and we are returning to honesty of thought and feeling; the general public, which was formerly indifferent to everything to do with building, has been shaken out of its torpor; personal interest in architecture as something that concerns every one of us in our daily lives has been aroused in wide circles; and the lines of future development have become clearly manifest throughout Europe. (59)
I am not sure this still feels true, but I love how it rings.
Archeology or Architecture for Contemporary buildings?
This reminds me quite a bit of Lefebvre, and I love this stretching towards how the co-constitution of society and material built environment might work.
ARCHITECTURE is said to be a true mirror of the life and social behavior of a period. If that is true, we should be able to read from its present features the driving forces of our own time. There is conflicting evidence, however. …
Surely there will always be conflicting evidence, surely this conflict must reflect the various social conflicts as much as capital and its dominant aesthetic and social ideals.
Good original architecture depends just as much on an understanding public as on its creators. (66)
I’m still thinking through that.
The Architect Within Our Industrial Society
His is a broad vision far beyond architecture conceived as a single structure, as his writing on housing issues and planning show. He has strong critique of capitalism:
The satisfaction of the human psyche resulting from beauty is just as important for a full, civilized life, or even more so, than the fulfillment of our material comfort requirements.
We sense that our own period has lost that unity, that the sickness of our present chaotic environment, its often pitiful ugliness and disorder have resulted from our failure to put basic human needs above economical and industrial requirements. (71)
As already noted, a strong preference for the collective above the individual, and a very different vision of leadership based on this:
to collaborate without losing their identity. This is to me an urgent task lying before the new generation, not only in the field of architecture but in all our endeavors to create an integrated society. (78)
The conditio sine qua non of true teamwork is voluntariness;
it cannot be established by command. It calls for an unprejudiced state of mind and for the firm belief that togetherness of thought and action is a prerequisite for the growth of human culture. Individual talent will assert itself quickly in such a group and will profit for its part from the cross-fertilization of minds in the give and take of daily contact. True leadership can emerge when all members have a chance to become leaders by performance, not by appointment. Leadership does not depend on innate talent only, but very much on one’s intensity of conviction and devotion to serve. Serving and leading seem to be interdependent. (79)
Synchronizing all individual efforts the team can raise its integrated work to higher potentials than is represented by the sum of the work of just so many individuals. (80)
Architect–Servant or Leader?
So what has Bauhaus achieved in his view?
If we look back to see what has been achieved during the last thirty or forty years we find that the artistic gentleman-architect who turned out charming Tudor mansions with all modern conveniences has almost vanished. This type of applied archeology is disappearing fast. It is melting in the fire of our conviction that the architect should conceive buildings not as monuments but as receptacles for the flow of life which they have to serve, and that his conception must be flexible enough to create a background fit to absorb the dynamic features of our modern life. (84)
If only this had not been quite so true, resulting in today’s starchitect working in service of capital:
This cult of the ego has delayed the general acceptance of the sound trends in modern architecture. Remnants of this mentality must be eliminated before the true spirit of the architectural revolution can take root among the people everywhere and produce a common form expression of our time after almost half a century of trial and error. This will presuppose a determined attitude of the new architect to direct his efforts toward finding the type, the best common denominator instead of toward the provocative stunt. (85)
It feels like we now live in ever more global cities of provocative stunts and banal ‘luxury’ residential sameness precisely because ‘we’ (developers, planners, people with money) have failed to put ‘basic human needs above economical and industrial requirements‘. Principally economic as financialisation sweeps all before it. It has resulted in a cold and sterile style that draws on Bauhaus, but has none of its soul, vision or open adaptability to facilitate life rather than capital.
Anyway, a few more posts on this to come — much better than the old post on another of my dad’s old books that I read some time ago now.
Gropius, Walter ( 1966 ) Scope of Total Architecture. New York: Collier Books.