The rediscovery of color at the bauhaus

80 years ago, the bauhaus planned by walter gropius was opened in dessau

For a long time the "icon of modernity" one of the most controversial buildings in the world. Now that the renovation has been completed, the myth of a sober and austere architecture is a thing of the past – the bauhaus was and is once again a colorful building.

In contrast to the gray single-family houses with red gables, in the midst of which the white crossbars stand, the bauhaus, which was opened in 1926, still has a revolutionary effect today. The house is composed of simple geometric basic forms. A university building that looks like a factory, with rooms flooded with light, freed from all the heaviness of representative architecture around 1900, the building embodies the lightness and transparency of modern designs like no other.

the rediscovery of color at the bauhaus

(the "icon of modernism" in 2005, view of the north wing (back), workshop wing, refectory and studio house photo: martin bruck 2005, bauhaus dessau foundation

Starting from a basic square shape, walter gropius, who planned the bauhaus as an architect and was its first director, combines several unadorned female-painted cubes with flat roofs into a complex. Gropius dissolves the facade of the workshop wing into a glass front, breaks up the surface with steel struts into many small lying rectangles that bend around a corner without a support. Interior and exterior space enter into an interrelationship through numerous additional windows throughout the building. A functional building, feminine and simple, sparse and yet already… But 80 years after the inauguration of the bauhaus, the history of this "icon of modernism" must be rewritten. For the gropius building was anything but a matter-of-fact and soberly designed house. Quite the opposite of the image of "weiben modernism" an image that was perpetuated for decades, not least because of the black-and-white photographs, the former hochschule fur gestaltung was in large part a decidedly colorful building.

the rediscovery of color at the bauhaus

The "icon of modernism", view of the main entrance and transparent corner of the workshop wing photo: kirsten baumann 2005, bauhaus dessau foundation

In 2006, there is almost no trace left of the spartan and sometimes sobering atmosphere in the corridors and rooms that prevailed in the north wing just a year ago. A bright orange along the staircase has recently been used to signal the ascent and descent, until one encounters further blue, lemon yellow or vermilion painted walls and elements that mark the floors and departments of the building.

School of vision of modernity

Even in gropius’ initial plans, color was an important component of the building’s overall conception. The colorizations on the one hand emphasize the architecture and at the same time overcome it by creating new color spaces. At the same time, they serve as orientation. With the rediscovery of color, the myth of gropius’ radical new design that left tradition behind must also be corrected. Today, the bauhaus again shows the historical heterogeneity of a modern architecture, says its current director omar akbar, which does not hide the continuities and breaks with the culture of the 19th century. Century culture with red doors, gray windows and ornamentally colored wall surfaces.

Interior view of the "icon of modernity" photo: doreen ritzau 2006, bauhaus dessau foundation

The basic goal for the construction of the bauhaus was the synthesis of all artistic creation into a unity, the unification of all artistic and technical disciplines into a new art of building as its indivisible components, into an art of building that serves living life.

Walter gropius 1930

In the exhibition accompanying the reopening, such contrasting models as the dresden art academy (built around 1900) and the berlin bauakademie designed a good 50 years earlier by karl-friedrich schinkel illustrate how gropius breaks with tradition on the one hand (with historicism such as that in dresden, for example) and at the same time remains bound to it. The dessau architect took up the serial design of the facade and windows from the prussian architect schinkel, for example. And in the design of the floor plan he used the principle of the golden section and thus brought the rooms into a harmonious relationship. In doing so, he developed a new quality of architectural experience, which can only be experienced when walking through or around the building. Everywhere you walk through open spaces, which allow unusual views between the outside and the inside. From the sidewalk in front of the building, one gets the impression of being in the workshops, into which the trees seem to grow out of the crystal-clear glass front.

What may no longer be an unusual experience, at least for today’s viewers, has triggered numerous controversies since 1926. And already the new building of the bauhaus, founded in weimar in 1919, was the consequence of the closure at the place of foundation forced by the national conservative government of thuringia. The continuing conservative criticism of the progressive ideas of the university and of the building as too technocratic and un-german finally led to the repeated closure of the building.

The rediscovery of color at the bauhaus

Glass facade of the workshop wing photo: hans-wulf kunze 2005, bauhaus dessau foundation

Both critics and adherents of modernism appropriated gropius’s design for their arguments from very different ideological positions. The exhibition documents this dispute in detail, supplemented by two volumes of the bauhaus edition, which reveal further new aspects of the foundation of modernism.

While the bauhaus was forced to close again in dessau in 1932, an exhibition by the museum of modern art hailed the gropius-bau as an outstanding example of the newly proclaimed "international style" quite contrary to the architect’s attitude towards such categorizations. Already two years earlier, gropius had opposed a generalization and, as one would say today, a "branding" of dessau architecture and art as a binding form of representation: "the goal of the bauhaus is precisely not a style, not a system, dogma or canon, not a recipe and not a fashion! It will be alive as long as it does not cling to form, but rather seeks the fluidity of life itself behind the changeable form!"

Criticism of the modern architecture does not rub off to this day. Some metaphors of displeasure with its construction principles from the 1950s seem to persist stubbornly to this day and are always heard when it comes to building with concrete, steel and glass. Cold, forbidding and hateful anyway, were the accusations levelled during the post-war debate in the frg about the bauhaus "bauhaus debate" which pilloried the supposedly blindly purposeful modernism.

Restored staircase of the north wing photo: martin bruck 2006, bauhaus dessau foundation

Today, more than ever, the building seems to defy easy classification, having been transformed after several renovations and reconstructions. And it is not only with the new color scheme that the impression of a strict uniformity of a building designed exclusively according to functional requirements is lost, as most people probably have it in mind as an image of a modern house. At times, one even gets the impression of a "postmodern patchwork, after several generations of conservators have worked on and in the white cubes.

During the renovation, which has now been completed, it was decided to conserve these different layers of the building in parts, but to reconstruct them in other places. In this way, the condition of 1976, when the post-war damage was repaired and the gdr rediscovered, cared for and highly respected the bauhaus as a monument after it had been branded as a formalist building in the 1950s, was to remain visible alongside the reconstruction of the design from 1926. Even if such a practice is controversial:

In the case of the bauhaus building, we consciously decided on a both/and approach – on the one hand, we wanted to restore the aesthetic experience of the construction period, and on the other hand, we wanted to preserve partial documents of the historical dialectic of destruction and reconstruction in the 20th century. Century are shown.

Omar akbar

Meanwhile the "icon of modernity", included on unesco’s world heritage list in 1996, it has become even more rudely popular, attracting tourists even to dessau who would avoid the otherwise decidedly hateful city, visiting at most for the nearby sprawling worlitz garden kingdom in transit. And with the anniversary exhibition, the museumization of the bauhaus is now in full swing, with chapters on the renovation work, the architecture and its impact, and the documentation of the controversies surrounding the bauhaus that have already been mentioned.

In order to display the building as an exhibit in itself, the exhibition organizers have come up with a special trick to convey the principles of modern architecture to the visitors. They imaginarily double the house and turn the duplicate by five degrees to the ground plan of the original. Parts of this copy, as a structural intervention, mark original aspects of the bauhaus, which visitors encountered throughout the house during their tour.

Model for contemporary building

And what does the bauhaus concern us today beyond its status as an icon of modernism, as an image reproduced millions of times over?? Dessau has long since ceased to train architects and designers. The bauhaus foundation, as the successor institution, is concerned not only with the preservation and research of the bauhaus heritage, but also with the future of urban life worldwide. Regionally on the ground itself with the international building exhibition 2010, which is to find solutions for the urban redevelopment of the east (including the oak trees instead of prefabricated buildings).

How clarity, practicality and purposefulness of the "icon of modernism" influence contemporary building, the dessau show tells nothing about the history of the controversies surrounding the bauhaus. In the meantime, architects are varying the cubes, of which the bauhaus is also composed, not only with white but also with colorful facades and the most diverse variations. Friedrich tuczek and gunnar tausch’s extension to the bremen youth hostel is an example of how color can be combined with practicality and functionality. Instead of using a white or gray cube or a lot of glass and steel, which are part of the modernist repertoire, they constructed a colored cuboid. The bright yellow tones spread a joyful mood, which is certainly inviting to the young guests.

And still the "modernism" a model for contemporary construction. An example of this is the work of kazuyo sejima and ryue nishizawa, founders of the japanese office sanaa (which caused a sensation in germany with its building of the zollverein school in essen, whose windows break up the outer walls like the holes in a swiss cheese). They even take on the challenge of expanding a gropius building with the berlin bauhaus archive and adding a new building to it. The japanese feel a high degree of similarity between their work and that of the bauhaus architects. "Both try to fulfill their purpose with simple means", they say.

Restored staircase of the north wing photo: doreen ritzau 2006, bauhaus dessau foundation

Like the masters of modernism, sanaa’s buildings captivate with the clarity of their forms and open their houses from the inside to the outside and vice versa through the use of transparent materials. And it is not only in museum construction that the bauhaus model lives on. The plans for the kantweg company’s own homes also speak for a certain popularity. Their cubes look like perfect copies of the dessau masters’ houses in which the dessau university teachers lived. And olaf bahner, spokesman for the association of german architects, even declared in the hamburger abendblatt that there is a return of bauhaus culture. "Although buildings are no longer being constructed as they were in 1920, the style and philosophy are being revived through cubic forms and roughly flat windows." this is linked to the desire to concentrate on the essentials.

For mathias sauerbruch, the differences between the bauhaus and today’s generation of architects are largely due to changes in the general context of the time, but not to a fundamentally different approach. Today’s attitude to progress and technology is far more critical than it was in the 1920s. In the book accompanying the exhibition, the architect points out that his firm, sauerbruch hutton, consciously works in the tradition of modernism, for which the combination of rationality and sensuality as well as the integration of the entire spectrum of aesthetic means of expression, as can still be seen today at the bauhaus, is exemplary.

Soon, with the rediscovery of the building’s colorfulness, the bauhaus will gain popularity once again, this time as a colorful icon of modernism, not so spartan in its design, but full of sensuality.

Exhibition until 11.3.2007, daily 10-18 o’clock. A reading book "icon of the modern age – the bauhaus building in dessau" complements the exhibition. It deals in three chapters with – "architecture", "image" and "monument"- aspects of the exhibition and costs 24.80 euros. Impressive and richly illustrated, a second volume documents and discusses, "archaology of modernity. Restoration bauhaus dessau" the reconstruction (29,80 euro). Both volumes are published in the edition bauhaus by jovis-verlag.

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