Burying the Bauhaus
Jesko Fezer, Christian Hiller, Anh-Linh Ngo, Philipp Oswalt, Jan Wenzel
In the 1920s, people talked about the New World, the New Man, and the New City, in order to take on the present from the vantage point of an imagined future. Today it is no longer about inventing a new world. We need a different approach from the classical avant-garde’s espousal of renewal and the new. Modern industrial society impacts nearly every aspect of our lives; this necessitates a fundamental critique, or rather radicalization, of modernity, and gives rise to a view of design as a way to re-form the present. Today we are called upon to shape the transition from an expansive to an inclusive form of modernization. Capitalism’s ability to transform itself and to absorb counter-positions both favors this transformation and delimits it. We demand to see the “big picture,” yet we have lost the positivist belief in a unified, comprehensive understanding of world. Irreconcilable contradictions and the fundamental shortfall of our knowledge require us to act in the shadow of uncertainties and the unknown.
What is needed is a critical assessment: Which ideas, methods, and concepts of the historical Bauhaus can be productively taken up and continued? Which should be rejected? By no means has everything that the Bauhaus produced proved its worth. Many contradictions between its claims, practice, and effects have become apparent, and sometimes the intentions themselves must be called into question. Even the idea of developing and propagating design as a tool of social emancipation must be scrutinized. The expansion of design into all areas of life—from landscapes, streets, and cities to workplaces, the home, and deeper into people and their relationships, into nanostructures and genomes—is our reality today. Thus design has become instrumental in the aestheticization and subjectivization of power structures. In the omnipresent abundance of design, the absence of design might be a liberating moment. The critique of design is a prerequisite for rethinking its emancipatory potential. In this respect, it remains indispensable to carry out a critical analysis of history and to examine the interactions between design and society more closely. What we want is a lively, controversial debate about the Bauhaus.
On July 20, 1933, Mies van der Rohe, together with the masters and students of the Bauhaus in Berlin, closed down the school in an act of self-assertion. That was over 85 years ago. But the greater our distance from the happy, historical moment of the Bauhaus, the greater our expectations and longing for its presence and relevance today. The Bauhaus has become a fetish, a general consensus from right to left. It has become a black box into which everyone projects lofty values without obligation. But what have decades of “updating” the notion of the Bauhaus actually achieved? Was it the starting point for major impulses of the recent past? Where does it lead us, if we understand and utilize every historical heritage as a resource for the present? Is the Bauhaus idea really still alive, or has it long since become an omnipresent and overused specter? In addressing the Bauhaus in 2019, it is more important to focus on the historical distance we have to it, to examine what distinguishes the present from the past. For this reason, following our critical assessment of Bauhaus ideas during its centennial, we are now drawing a line—and bidding it farewell, in the form of a funeral, or rather a “redeeming requiem,” as the musician and theater director Schorsch Kamerun puts it. It is time that we pay our respects to the historic Bauhaus and take our leave from it, so we can face the challenges of the present with fresh eyes and an open mind. The only possible way to bring the Bauhaus into the present presupposes its end.