The existence of myths depends on repetition: they have to be told again and again. And what better occasion to retell the myth of the Bauhaus as the essence of twentieth-century modern architecture than in 2009, the ninetieth anniversary of its founding. Myriad exhibitions and publications on the Bauhaus flourished——and the Deutsches Architektur-Museum in Frankfurt showed a very special one. Curated by New York photographer Gordon Watkinson in association with the Berlin-based Foto+Synthesis, advised by Bauhaus-Museum director Michael Siebenbrodt and architectural critic Falk Jaeger, it also provoked several of misunderstandings.
First, it was not an exhibition about architecture as much as architectural photography. Large, beautiful, well composed, and carefully selected black-and-white photographs told something about the craft and aesthetics of architectural photography, but not about the buildings shown. Nearly all presented details in frontal view, quite often with a central viewpoint and symmetrically arranged. This resulted in wonderful images, but tended to reduce the buildings to two-dimensional graphics. Selected floor plans helped somewhat in our understanding of the buildings, but more often they distracted from the aesthetic qualities of the photographs and obscured the visual clarity of the exhibition.
Second, this was not an exhibition on the Bauhaus itself, but on contemporary architecture, or more precisely on a specific strand of contemporary architecture that links back to the Bauhaus. We learned little about original concepts, intentions, and means of Bauhaus buildings, and nothing about their historic context, but we learned much about the ways architects, critics, and photographers interpret Bauhaus buildings today and relate them to contemporary architecture. The past of the Bauhaus was used in a very specific way to make a statement for the twenty-first century: twelve "iconic" Bauhaus buildings, including the Bauhaus building itself (Walter Gropius) and the Union School (Hannes Meyer), were paired with twelve buildings from the last ten years, including the Umweltbundesamt (Sauerbruch Hutton) and the Zurich International School (Galli & Rudolf Architekten) to establish an "ongoing legacy." But is it actually the "mythic power" of the historic buildings that "influences" the architecture of our times? Or is not this historic architecture used by agents of our time to explain and ennoble contemporary buildings? This goal was made even more evident by a small detail: the glossy, new material that constituted most of the exhibition suggested that Bauhaus architecture is timelessly modern; but historic pieces of Bauhaus furniture provided a nostalgic note, hinting that the architecture, too, was actually historic.
Third, this was not an exhibition about an ongoing legacy, but about revival. No unbroken link was shown between the Bauhaus buildings of the 1920s and the selected buildings of the twenty-first century, no tradition was constructed: there was a gap of eighty years with no attempt made to fill it. Thus the historiographic logic of this exhibition followed exactly the models of earlier architectural revivals, be it the revival of antiquity in the Renaissance (with the quite substantial gap of more than one thousand years), or the revival of "Around 1800" that characterized traditionalist architecture in Germany around 1900 (a gap of only one hundred years, close to the ninety years which separate us from the foundation of the Bauhaus). This evident structure is surprising, for certainly none of today's architects who see themselves within the Bauhaus tradition would characterize themselves as revivalists: they all claim to find innovative solutions for new contemporary problems. Even this claim was shown in the exhibition as a revival of Bauhaus claims and thus lost its sense. But in revealing the revivalist structure of today's avant-gardism, the exhibition unintentionally raised a fundamental question: why might it be wrong to revive historic experiences——why should we not learn from history?
Fourth, this was not an exhibition on the functional and social background of architecture, but on its aesthetic, or more precisely visual, qualities. This misunderstanding was not obvious: by its very nature, any exhibition on architectural photography focuses on visual qualities. However, before seeing any of the photographs, the visitor was confronted by introductory wall texts that claimed the Bauhaus did not seek a style, but was a social and functionalist movement. If it was the intention of the curators to show the social ambitions and the practical purposes of Bauhaus architecture, then certainly the selection of unifying and aestheticizing architectural photography as the medium of presentation was counter-productive. What remained in the visitor's memory was the uniform visual experience of Watkinson's photographs, which aesthetically constructed the very Bauhaus style that was denied by the verbal explanation. Yet from its very beginning, was not the Bauhaus an elitist group of artists who cared mostly for artistic reform? Is it necessary to deny these primarily aesthetic ambitions to save the Bauhaus morally? Would it not be beneficial if a socially ambitious architecture resulted in an aesthetic harmony that could be characterized as "style"?
Despite these possible misunderstandings, the exhibition offered a stunning experience of contemporary architectural photography and stimulated some surprising insights. The selection of the twelve contemporary buildings was carefully made; none was designed by the inevitable Pritzker-Prize star architects, all were buildings of high quality, and each was related to a specific Bauhaus building. It is this thematic structure that formed the most convincing part of this exhibition, which united examples from the early twentieth century and those of the early twenty-first, emphasizing lasting challenges. This was organized under headings such as "The Ideal of Floating Space" (German Pavilion, 1929, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, paired with Skywood House, 2000, Graham Philips, Figures 1, 2); "How to Dwell in the Future" (House Am Horn, 1923, Georg Muche, paired with House of the Present, 2005, Allman Sattler Wappner Architekten), "Variety in Apartment Buildings" (apartment building, Weissenhof, 1927, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, paired with the apartment building Guldbergsgade, 2002, Ingvartsen Arkitekter), and "working in aesthetic perfection" (director's room, 1923, Walter Gropius, paired with a lawyer's office, 2004, Petzinka Pink Architekten).
But this exhibition opened a path that many of the Bauhaus architects and many of today's neo––avant-gardist architects wanted to keep closed: the path of learning from history, of repeating good and valuable solutions, of critical revival. Why, if this path is reopened, should we restrict ourselves to learning only from the Bauhaus, which fails to offer convincing answers to many of the questions raised in this exhibition? In Germany alone, other strands of modern architecture might be more useful. For example, in seeking sustainability, Bauhaus buildings are perhaps the last to turn to; traditionalists such as Tessenow and Schmitthenner had earlier reflected on the ecological performance of buildings. In terms of architectural expression, is it not from architects like Hans Poelzig or Peter Behrens that we could learn? If urban architecture is the task, could not Erich Mendelsohn or Werner Hegemann teach us more than the Bauhaus? And why should we restrict our learning experience to modern architecture? Thus this exhibition, which aimed to tell us about the uniqueness and actuality of the Bauhaus, instead suggested the concept of critical revival——a concept that may finally put an end to the Bauhaus myth.
Gordon Watkinson, Bauhaus Zwanzig——21. Ideen füür ein neues Jahrhundert (English edition: Bauhaus Twenty––21. An Ongoing Legacy), Basel, Boston, Berlin: Birkhääuser, 2009, 231 pp., 141 b/w illus., and 56 plans. $89.95, € 59.90, ISBN 9783034600668