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Rich pickings: luxury at the Bauhaus

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Despite the lofty egalitarian ideals often attributed to its proponents, luxurious materials were not anathema to the Bauhaus

Architects have a taste for spare, ‘functional’ spaces and objects – a rejection, we would like to think, of conspicuous consumption, and thus a mark of solidarity with those who cannot afford it. It is in fact far more often a badge of considerable distinction that enhances our effectiveness in working for clients who can afford to pay for our services and who almost always themselves have something to sell. Robin Schuldenfrei’s smart and suggestive book Luxury and Modernism: Architecture and the Object in Germany 1900-1933 runs against the grain of what we would like to believe about our own aesthetic preferences, so often enshrined in our social formation, including in the professional education of architects. It is an uncomfortable truth that is also partly responsible for the persistence of two myths about the Bauhaus that endure a century after the school’s founding.  

One regards its political orientation: from the beginning, many of the school’s supporters agreed with its opponents that it was communist, socialist or, at the least, inherently democratic. However, the appearance in 1993 of a collection of essays in German edited by Winfried Nerdinger on Bauhaus Modernism under National Socialism demonstrated that many of those who taught and studied at the school, including two directors, Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe – who later built successful careers in the United States – at least attempted to accommodate the regime.  

‘Gropius fully realised the utility of marketing the Neues Bauen as embodying the empowerment of the masses’

A second, closely related myth is that the newness of the architecture and design produced at the school and, after its closure, by former faculty and students, was not simply a matter of form, but also intended to serve the working class. This was certainly true during the two years that the Bauhaus was led by Hannes Meyer. His main achievement in this period was a school for a trade union and he later led a brigade of architects in the Soviet Union. Many who studied at the school before and after Meyer’s time also shared this goal. 

However, in Luxury and Modernism, Schuldenfrei convincingly demonstrates that this was not a position consistently shared by Gropius or Mies – although Gropius was shrewd enough to obfuscate the fact. Both Gropius and Mies, as well as their contemporary Erich Mendelsohn, were often unsurprisingly at their best when they had access to luxurious materials. Exquisitely detailed surfaces, as much as spatial and technological experimentation, were integral to the image of the new and its success among intellectuals and what we would now call ‘influencers’ anxious to demonstrate that they were up to date. 

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Luxury modernism robin schuldenfrei architectural review 004

A 1954 ad shows Mies’s Barcelona chair implemented in service of king capitalist Coca-Cola. Image courtesy of The Advertising Archives

Technology itself was also a luxury: Schuldenfrei jumps back to the years just before the First World War to address Peter Behrens’ work for AEG. Electricity, she reminds us, was far beyond the reach of the working class; older forms of illumination remained much cheaper. Although the electric fans and tea kettles Behrens designed look, to us, like everyday appliances, the kettles cost at least 20 times the daily wage of many employees at Berlin’s leading department store. The Haus am Horn, the demonstration house erected as part of the Bauhaus exhibitions staged in Weimar in 1923, was similarly problematic: not only was its mass production constrained by expensive fabrication methods and materials, in Schuldenfrei’s words, ‘it failed also in the more general sense in that, despite the school’s ideological and social project, it remained an inaccessible luxury object appropriate only for the period’s wealthy’.

Paradoxically, the Neues Bauen of the 1920s and early ’30s, as Germans termed what was popularised by Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson as the International Style, conflated three different phenomena. First, Mendelsohn’s dynamic functionalism, an urbane and fashionable – but largely commercial – Modernism. Second, the housing estates designed by Ernst May in Frankfurt and Bruno Taut in Berlin, which were for relatively affluent trade union and white-collar workers. And third, the handful of structures canonised by the end of the 1940s as aesthetic triumphs – including Mies’s Villa Tugendhat and much of the Weissenhof Siedlung, constructed under Mies’s supervision in Stuttgart, which presumed the presence of servants for whom live-in quarters were often provided, while Mies’s Barcelona Pavilion was erected to receive the King and Queen of Spain.

Mendelsohn and Mies were social climbers from modest backgrounds; both eased the transition into a professional milieu by marrying up, although Mies eventually separated from his wife and partnered with Lilly Reich, an extremely sophisticated designer in her own right. Mendelsohn successfully oscillated between elegance and Sachlichkeit, a German term that has been variously translated as ‘objectivity’ or ‘sobriety’. As well as the Herpich Furriers on Berlin’s premier shopping street and the equally sleek Petersdorff store in Breslau, he designed three down-market department stores for Salman Schocken.  

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Luxury modernism robin schuldenfrei architectural review 002

Window display structures, 1928. From Schaufensterkunst und Technik, a supplement to Die Konfektion trade journal

In the years in which he collaborated with Reich, Mies was less successful at working both sides of the street. Comparing the commissions on which Schuldenfrei focuses – the Esters and Lange houses in Krefeld, Villa Tugendhat in Brno and, of course, the Barcelona Pavilion – with the relative frugality of 860-880 Lake Shore Drive and his buildings for the Illinois Institute of Technology, suggests that it was only in Chicago that Mies learned to build for the middle classes, reverting once again to real luxury when the Bronfman family entrusted him with the commission for the Seagram Building, completed in 1958.  

Gropius gained much of the authority with which he ran the Bauhaus by having a much more distinguished pedigree as a scion of a family of architects, civil servants, army officers, politicians and landed gentry. He fully realised the utility of marketing the Neues Bauen as embodying the empowerment of the masses. His Weimar-era oeuvre included pragmatic housing estates in Berlin, Dessau and Karlsruhe. However, when publishing the Director’s House for the Bauhaus in Dessau (of which he and his wife were the first inhabitants), he had Lucia Moholy’s photograph of the double sink in the bathroom retouched, so the marble fixture would appear to be merely porcelain. 

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Luxury modernism robin schuldenfrei architectural review 003

AEG electric tea kettles displayed in Peter Behrens’ stores, 1909, would have cost some 20 times the daily wage for most store workers

The story Schuldenfrei uncovers is not without precedent. Since at least the emergence of Neo-classicism as an alternative to Rococo ornamental exuberance (one thinks as well of Katsura, the self-consciously rustic Japanese villa created in 17th-century Kyoto), genteel understatement has served as potent alternative to the taste of those both with more and with less money. Despite John Ruskin and William Morris’s commitment to the dignity of labour, the Arts and Crafts movement flourished on both sides of the Atlantic in the space between the kitsch embraced by the urban working class and the ostentation favoured by the nouveau riche. In the United States, progressive middle-class women and men who could trace their ancestry back to 17th and 18th-century immigrants from Britain were particularly drawn to what they saw as uniquely moral designs with an appropriate undertone of Puritan austerity. In Germany through the first third of the 20th century, design reformers exploited the new style as an alternative to both imperial pomp and mass-produced ornament.

Modern architecture and design could offer inexpensive alternatives to historicism allied to progressive goals, such as social housing. This was key to their postwar ubiquity although, in recent decades, they have often functioned as less than subtle indicators of social and intellectual status, resolutely focused on objects and materials rather than theory, much less the movement’s own rhetoric. The story Schuldenfrei tells underscores that this is nothing new. Owners of capitalist enterprises, whether the AEG and Schocken concerns or the Esters, Lange and Tugendhat families (all of whom were involved in the textile industry) quickly embraced Neues Bauen. It was both good business and a means to create an appropriate backdrop for their comfortable, yet modern, lifestyles. Schuldenfrei’s book is likely to spur further insights into the degree to which the dissemination of Neues Bauen internationally was more closely tied to fashion than previous scholars have chosen to admit. At the same time, it may also help liberate us to create an architecture of true equality, something the Modern Movement seldom truly offered.

Luxury and Modernism

Robin Schuldenfrei

Princeton University Press, 2018

Lead image: Walter Gropius, Director’s House, bathroom basin, Dessau, 1926, published in Bauhausbauten Dessau, 1930, with Lucia Moholy’s photo retouched to conceal the use of marble

This piece is featured in the AR September issue on money – click here to purchase your copy today