Posts Tagged ‘Berlin’

Modell Bauhaus

October 13, 2009

Review of ‘Modell Bauhaus’, a major Bauhaus retrospective held in Berlin July-October 2009, published in Blueprint Magazine, October 2009:

Given the importance of the Bauhaus as a founding institution for 20th century modernism, it’s surprising that so few retrospectives have been held, and certainly nothing approaching the scale and ambition of Modell Bauhaus. The exhibition sets its sights high: a reappraisal of the Bauhaus legacy that both acknowledges and critiques the brand it has become, bringing together over 1,000 objects from the New York’s MoMA and the three major german Bauhaus collections: the Bauhaus Archive Berlin, the Bauhaus Foundation Dessau and the Weimar Classical Foundation. 

The timing is apposite; 2009 is the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Bauhaus, and also the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, a division which kept so much of this collection apart in the post-war period.  Coincidentally, 2009 is also the 80th birthday of the New York MoMA, which became a home for many members of the Bauhaus after they fled the Third Reich, holding the first Bauhaus retrospective there in 1938.

With so much material, Modell Bauhaus could easily have been overwhelming, viewed only as an endless display of objects removed from their context.  To counter this, the curators have been keen to emphasize that the Bauhaus was not a static design office turning out branded products, but rather a continually evolving and changing project.  Its brief 14-year life saw three directors (Walter Gropius, Hannes Meyer and Mies van der Rohe), and three consecutive homes (Weimar, Dessau and finally Berlin), due in part to constant attack from the reactionary right.   It was also not always harmonious.  Gropius began early on to turn away from the Bauhaus’s founding idea – a modern equivalent of a group of medieval craftsmen – towards an alliance of art with technology, disappointing many of its co-founders.  The ever-apolitical Mies utterly rejected Mayer’s communist leanings.

The eighteen rooms are chronologically arranged, with each room focusing on a different aspect of the Bauhaus’s design output and its changing nature.  The rooms also follow a gradually changing colour scheme representing each year with a different hue, the order based on Bauhaus teacher Johannes Itten’s Colour Sphere system. The design, by Berlin-based chezweitz & roseapple, is almost faultless, apart from the slightly cluttered and strangely 1970s feel of the final room, which features various examples of Mies’ tubular steel furniture,  confusingly set against rather too many mirrors and dark wooden panelling.  Occasionally, you can’t help feeling that you’re in a branch of Habitat, with tableware and lamps displayed in minimalist surroundings, although this says more about the long-term influence of the Bauhaus’s designs than any failure in the exhibition’s approach. 

There was always a tension between mass production and elitism at the Bauhaus; its slogan under Hannes Meyer was “The needs of the people, not the dictates of luxury”, and it is ironic that a strictly limited edition Mart Stam S43 chair is being produced as an exhibition tie-in. This paradox is acknowledged as part of the show with Christine Hill’s tongue-in-check contemporary installation, DIY-Bauhaus, where visitors are given advice on how to bring Bauhaus style into their homes.

The exhibition really comes alive though when it focuses less on the domestic design objects  and more on the Bauhaus’s overlapping work in advertising, sculpture, theatre and architecture reminding you what an incredible scope of activities the Bauhaus encompassed in striving for total art. Moholy-Nagy’s Light-Space Modulator is placed in a translucent cube within a darkened room, with coloured lighting playing fantastical shadows over the cube’s surface from within.  Nearby, video screens play re-stagings of Bauhaus theatre and dance pieces, one of which features a robotic figure performing an early but unmistakable moonwalk.  A new model of Mies’ famously unbuilt (and equally unbuildable) glass skyscraper for Berlin’s Friedrichstrasse is a stark contrast to the rather lacklustre new building going up on the same site today. 

The term ‘Modell’ in the title is translated as ‘conceptual model’ – signifying both the Bauhaus’s intention to create model designs, but also to establish itself as a model for other institutions.  With such ambition to present a new perspective on the Bauhaus, it’s disappointing that explanatory text is so limited – generally each room has a single board of text with individual objects labelled with only name and designer.  There’s also a risk that Modell Bauhaus could imply a neatness and continuity which its curators are striving to avoid, but despite this the show is not to be missed.  Given that the last major Bauhaus retrospective was in Stuttgart in 1968, and that the forthcoming New York version will be in much reduced form, the sheer scale and completeness of Modell Bauhaus is unlikely to be repeated for many years. ‘More is more’, as Mies wouldn’t have said.

Berlin’s 1987 IBA

October 13, 2009

Comment piece for October 2009 issue of Blueprint magazine (not published online), on how there’s much to learn from the former West Berlin’s IBA housing projects of the 1980s:

By the 1980s, Britain was in the process of withdrawal from state funded housing, atomizing the design of domestic architecture and leaving no real models, good or bad, for housing design on a large scale.  But while we were busy disposing of our public housing stock, over in West Berlin they’d gone back to the drawing board. The city had had its fair share of grim sub-Corbusian housing projects, which finally ran out of funding and public patience in the (then) backwater of Kreuzberg – a poor district, but also the heart of the city’s alternative and squatter scenes.   Luckily, the situation coincided with the planning of an international housing exhibition – the IBA (International Bauaustellung) 1987, which  morphed at an early stage from the planned ‘International Expo’ approach (put some new buildings in a park, photograph them, forget them) into something more ambitious.  The IBA became an attempt to repair an entire failing city quarter.

From the beginning of the 1980s up to the point when the Berlin Wall fell, the exhibition was responsible for over 5,000 new residential units, largely integrated into Berlin’s 19th century urban form of five-storey high density buildings around a network of internal courtyards and communal spaces.  A high proportion of the designs were procured through international competitions, resulting in work by Álvaro Siza, Mario Botta, Peter Cook, John Hejduk, Aldo Rossi, Frei Otto, Arato Isozaki, James Stirling and many others.  Zaha Hadid did her first building here; blocks by Rem Koolhaas and Peter Eisenmann face each other across a street.  The use of so many apparently disparate architects leads to some interesting contrasts not found elsewhere on this scale, and not at all in the monolithic planning which preceded it.  The Altbau (old building) element of the exhibition became a case study in sensitive urban renewal, rescuing and refurbishing around 7,000 apartments as well as providing schools, community centres and extensive landscaping, with projects often resident-led.

Curious then that the IBA is so rarely studied, or heard of, at least in the UK.  Perhaps it’s an issue of style; many of the designs are just too postmodern – that unacceptable face of the 80s – for contemporary tastes.  The IBA includes masterplans and several buildings by Rob Krier, brother of Poundbury designer Léon Krier, both of whom were known as postmodernists at the time, but have more recently been rebranded as ‘new traditionalists’.  Both are strongly linked to the New Urbanism movement, whose concerns about the urban environment and often appear sound, but is let down by an insistence on taking historicism to a slightly creepy level; visions of new towns dominated oddly Roman and other neoclassicist buildings, often designed by Rob Krier himself.

IBA buildings present a curious medley of postmodernism and other emerging styles such as deconstructivism (the Hadid block being one of the more recognizable).  Some buildings feature wholly unremarkable, almost bland, street facades.  But take a wander through the entrances to some of these blocks and you find yourself in communal gardens or overgrown Italianate courtyards, with some incorporating cafes, playgrounds and schools.  There are genuine elements of sustainability, from before a time when the pointless strapping of wind turbines and photovoltaics onto buildings became fashionable; in one large courtyard space you find yourself on a series of bridges over fields of reedbeds – the surrounding blocks recycle all their waste water.

Although a majority of the housing is public, there’s a complex mix of tenure, with the IBA stretching from the wealthy embassy district, eastwards toward the poorer areas of predominantly social housing.  Most of the housing seems to be genuinely liked by its residents, who are sometimes bemused by visiting architecture students and critics questioning them on matters of theory or style.  It helps that the buildings on the whole seem have weathered well, despite Berlin’s tradition of graffiti on every surface (Álvaro Siza’s pristine white walls were the most notable early casualty).

The wall that divided Berlin for over 28 years was gone by the time the final IBA projects were being completed.  Much has been written about how many of the key players in the IBA took the policies forward into what became known as the ‘Critical Reconstruction’ of the scarred city.  Yet curiously, looking back it appears that the reconstruction of the 1990s fell  mainly into the traps of either bland corporate towers (Potzdamerplatz) or obsessive historicist restrictions (Pariserplatz).  Lessons from Berlin’s IBA have been learnt elsewhere in Germany (a new IBA is currently underway in Hamburg), but the real legacy is perhaps proof that urban regeneration can be achieved on this scale, with architecture in a leading role.  It is ironic that back in Kreuzberg itself, the work of rescuing of failed neighbourhoods by the IBA laid the foundations for their increasing gentrification.