The Bauhaus, or the Road to the 21st Century
Dietmar Eberle
A proper investigation of the original context of the Bauhaus helps us understand not only this significant movement, but also the applicability of its principles in our world today, and its influence on the duties of architects and designers, writes Dietmar Eberle.

With Michelle Corrodi

Building 2226, Lustenau, Austria, by Baumschlager Eberle Architekten. Image: Eduard Hueber, archphoto © Baumschlager Eberle Architekten

Similar to the situation at the outset of the 20th century, we are again living in a period of profound change, in which uncertainty is a sign of the times.

It was the Bauhaus that achieved a conceptual synthesis of the cultural impulses and influences of the early 20th century. In our current conception of architecture, the Bauhaus was the most significant school, the one that transformed and developed the ideas of Modernism in the German-speaking countries. As a consequence, it is fitting to raise the question of the current applicability of these ideas, and to consider if—and to what extent—the approaches developed at that time have proven apt to this day, and whether we can still benefit from them. However, a well-founded evaluation of these achievements is conditional on not simply accepting the Bauhaus as an isolated, or even as a formal and aesthetic phenomenon, but on situating it in its social context. Ignorance of that context, and of issues such as the industrialization and social emancipation so crucial to the period, would cause a failure to understand the Bauhaus.

I do not consider it useful to investigate the positions of the individual Bauhaus directors in great detail—they all embraced the concept of functionalism. I consider it far more important to clearly identify the principal belief of the period, the belief in modern life. The Bauhaus became a global cultural phenomenon because it brought into focus ideas that had only been discussed as utopian in other contexts, and applied them in practice. With regard to my own thoughts on the Bauhaus, I feel compelled to mention that their reception must necessarily be based on contemporary views and interpretations. In the following, I will briefly illuminate the situation in the 1920s and then address specific issues raised during that period. I hope to identify strategies that the Bauhaus pursued with respect to these issues, and to reflect on them against the backdrop of my own work in building design. Finally, I will venture to provide a personal evaluation of the significance of the Bauhaus in view of our present situation.

The experience of war and revolution, the shift in power to the benefit of the Social Democrats, but also the great progress in production achieved by a new organization of labour, marked the social and intellectual climate of the Weimar Republic. After political collapse, there was an overwhelming spirit of new beginnings, and with it came hope for radical change. Subsequently, the workers’ movement, in the process of emancipation, banked on rationalization in order to improve living conditions for the masses, making an essential contribution to the rise of the division of labour and a more objective industrial culture. The political situation, the claims to equality voiced by the new class of workers, and revolutionized manufacturing methods, also logically determined the orientation of the Bauhaus. The young school, which drew a considerable share of its energies from its affinity to the communist movement, investigated two crucial issues of its time: how can the quantitative needs of society be addressed, and to what extent can the existing conflict between art and technology be overcome?

Building 2226, Lustenau, Austria, by Baumschlager Eberle Architekten. Image: Eduard Hueber, archphoto © Baumschlager Eberle Architekten

Architecture as a societal mandate

Regarding the first issue, hopes were high that industrial production would provide the solution to all quantitative problems in society. These hopes were based on the conviction that the mass production of cheap commodities would make it possible to raise the living standards of the vast majority of the population. In addition, efforts were aimed at linking the imperative of rational design and construction with the social utopia of a society of equal individuals. The investigation of social duties and means of subsistence, as well as the liberation of architecture from its academic environment, became major themes in architecture. A new conception emerged—a conception that addressed everyday life and the phenomena of the times instead of traditions or continuity. The expectation was not to meet artistic standards, but to address actual societal needs, and equal needs were to be satisfied with equal answers. In this respect, the users became the central point of interest, and this, with Modernism, was when they were first taken seriously as those making use of a building.1

Even if the idea of a societal obligation revolutionized architectural design, we should not fail to realize that at the time, those affected by planning were not directly involved in it in any way. They were merely taken into account as a universal category within a universal concept of society. Classical Modernism was prescriptive throughout—life was expected to be subordinate to architecture. My approach to design, in contrast, is based on dialogue. I seek to ensure that the concerns of all those involved are voiced, and that problems are discussed in depth. I concur with the tenets of Modernism in that I consider architecture to be anchored in everyday life, and that, in my opinion, it should complement life in the most encompassing way.

I do not consider architecture to be an individual form of expression, but a social event that leaves its mark on the public sphere. I view architecture as a collective effort, or as a service—personal creativity does not absolve architects of their responsibility to society. A design has to meet certain basic conditions and, not least, has to do with budgets and timelines. However, it is the stated conviction of our office that the qualities of architecture should be made accessible to the experience and understanding of the average consumer. The experience of Modernism demonstrates that excessive abstraction in design has a disconcerting effect on non-architects. In terms of societal requirements, then, we have experienced an essential shift. Despite its affinity to classical Modernism, contemporary architecture tries to avoid being charged with political and social content. As a sort of “super-form,” it instead seeks to adjust to changing user requirements as flexibly as possible.2 This is an important aspect that I will address again later.

Design as a form of organization

The second issue, overcoming the dichotomy between art and technology, was also situated in the context of industrial production. However, it targeted the design process. From the early 1920s on, the Bauhaus engaged in a direct exploration of technology. The aim of artistic effort was concrete, impartial exploration of the “subject matter.” There was the notion of a sort of “industrial reason” that could be applied to any design task, no matter whether it concerned a household appliance or a residential building. The idea behind this was to establish architecture as a scientific discipline in which form would not emerge from individual interpretation, but “objectively” result from the specifications of precisely calculable conditions. “Design is organization” was the adage of the period. To that end, the analysis of material circumstances was an essential instrument for arriving at the “right” solution. At the same time, the concept of “utility” took center stage—the criterion of proportionality determined the search for the most effective means to be used in order to carry out a given task with the least possible expense and effort.

Contemporary architectural design relies on the sort of conceptual strategies introduced by Classical Modernism.3 The rational organization of the design process amounts to a methodical discipline that architects impose upon themselves in order to get creativity under control. Nevertheless, it is my conviction that architecture should be counted among the arts and not the sciences, due to the process of creating architecture and the way architects work. Consequently, there can be no objectivity, either, as architecture is imagined and made by people. As architects, principals, and regulators, they and their subjective perceptions determine the architectural process. Yet while art claims for itself the position of a counter-world, it is an essential task of architecture to create usable worlds. For that reason, the question of utility has always played a crucial role in my work.

Contrary to Modernism, however, the question is no longer how an economically minimized area can be used as efficiently as possible, but instead how buildings can be optimized in order to allow for diverse uses. Architecture, as the art of construction, also implies transcending utility in the cultural realm. Above and beyond the very practical requirements of a building, it unfolds a space for a cultural positioning of architecture and an individual vision. The art of construction implies striving for the state-of-the-art of your time and being, fully aware of long-lasting continuity. For that reason, the task today is to do away with the anachronistic dogmas of Modernism—architecture is always a part of history, and reflects an intellectual model embodied in ­architectural form.

Dietmar Eberle, © Baumschlager Eberle Architekten

Sustainability of knowledge?

In my reflections on the Bauhaus, I have arrived at the conclusion that it is probably its visible aspects that least determine its significance. After all, superficial and unconsidered reception in the post-war period has landed us with massive deficits in quality that we are struggling with today. Instead, its achievement was the fact that the Bauhaus was capable of supplying solutions to the quantitative problems of its time, and thus made an essential contribution to the emergence of a highly developed society in the 20th century. We should not forget that concepts such as mass production, standardization, and standards, as unpopular as they are today, meant great social progress at the time, and were essential to improving living conditions. Success is also based on mass application. However, looking to the future, the issues that Western societies must address today are no longer the same as those of times of growth. While the influence of avant-garde architecture coincided with conditions of scarcity in society, we now face the challenge of reacting quickly and flexibly to changing demands. Today, “function” is the most short-lived characteristic of a building, and as a consequence, there is no point in considering it the basis of design. In this respect—as we are now dealing with questions of quality and maintaining existing comfort—Bauhaus concepts provide only inadequate points of interest.

One answer to the question of the contemporary applicability of the Bauhaus can be found at another level entirely: in my opinion, the pioneering effect of the Bauhaus was the radicalism it exhibited in eliminating the distinctions between individual disciplines. The methodology of integrating diverse knowledge (whether from technology, science, or art) and the resulting definition of a general strategy cannot be praised loudly enough. Given the growth of knowledge in all fields and the continually increasing division of labour, the method that will allow us to make further strides will not be ­specialization, but generalization as practised by the Bauhaus.4

In the architectural profession, a profound process of change must take place. As designers of the built environment, architects will increasingly be involved in the overarching issues of the preservation of resources and, with growing urgency, be called upon to think globally, in terms of urbanism and landscapes, but also in economic, political, and cultural terms. Education is key in this respect—teaching trans-disciplinary skills and the appropriate tools to grasp these issues in all their complexity.

  1. Nikolaus Kuhnert, Philipp Oswalt, “Die Sinnlichkeit des Gebrauchs: lm Gesprach mit Michael Müller”, in Arch+, nos. 100, 101, October 1989, pp. 94-99; p. 94.
  2. Werner Sewing: “Die reflexive Moderne – eine Besinnung auf die erste Moderne? (Teil 2)”, in Deutsche Bauzeitung. 12/2003, pp. 28-29; p. 28.
  3. Bruno Reichlin, “Den Entwurfsprozess steuern – eine fixe Idee der Moderne?”, in Daidalos, 71/1999, p. 6- 21, here p. 6-9.
  4. Due to specialization and division of labour, knowledge of a product or a service as common property emigrates from everyday knowledge.

Dietmar Eberle is an Austrian architect, professor and the co-founder of the “Vorarlberger Baukünstler”. From 1985 to 2010 he worked with Carlo Baumschlager. He directs the internationally acclaimed company of Baumschlager Eberle Architekten, with eleven offices in Europe and in Asia.

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Dietmar Eberle is an Austrian architect, professor and the co-founder of the “Vorarlberger Baukünstler”. From 1985 to 2010 he worked with Carlo Baumschlager. He directs the internationally acclaimed company of Baumschlager Eberle Architekten, with eleven offices in Europe and in Asia.

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