A boiling cauldron of modernism bubbles once more: Matthew Barac reports on the Bauhaus’s yearly, urbanism-focused course
The historical impact of Bauhaus pedagogy on the teaching and learning of design cannot be overstated. Starting out in Weimar in 1919 as an avant-garde academy of arts and crafts led by Walter Gropius, the school progressively transformed, over its 14-year lifespan, into a lived experiment in the fusion of technology and culture – an endeavour fuelled by the optimism of the emerging Modern Movement.
By the time Mies van der Rohe shut its doors under pressure from the Nazi regime, having retreated to Berlin from the Dessau complex masterminded by Gropius a decade earlier, the Bauhaus had lost much of its vitality and many of the ‘masters’ associated with its heyday. And yet the iconic Dessau buildings remained, first restored in the 1970s and occupied by an institution and archive which progressively reinvented itself until transforming, in 1994, into the Bauhaus Dessau Foundation.
Today’s Bauhaus, a mix of historical artefact, research centre and cultural resource, takes on the pedagogical dimension of its legacy by offering a yearly programme of study – the ‘Bauhaus Kolleg’ – to an international, interdisciplinary mélange of young professionals. Consciously building on concepts of learning formulated by its parent institution nearly a century ago, the Kolleg is committed to the principle of active engagement with pressing issues of the moment. This guides a thematic focus on what is arguably today’s key built environment challenge: the phenomenon of urbanisation.
Echoes of the original Bauhaus resonate through conceptual as well as practical aspects of the institution’s pedagogy. Learning by doing, an emphasis on research and method, problem (rather than solution) orientated attitudes, an adaptable, process-driven curriculum ‘and, not least’ according to Regina Bittner, who directs the Kolleg, ‘intervening in everyday, real-life situations.’
But rather than charting how Bauhaus lessons have propagated into almost every architecture curriculum today, Bittner draws a parallel between current debate about the status of design and what she calls the ‘shift in knowledge culture’ mapped out by her forebears. László Moholy-Nagy was preoccupied with recording a world of motion and light that could not be captured without technical instruments; Hannes Meyer insisted on organising architectural processes according to scientific criteria.
They were responding to new ideas about the meaning of science and technology in an age of rapid modernisation, inserting design into the narrative of epochal transformation. For Bittner, ‘this modern concept of design distanced itself from the commonly propounded view of artistic work as a “stroke of genius” beyond question.’ It created a discourse at the Bauhaus which she and her colleagues continue to promulgate: ‘Design itself is a specific sort of knowledge. We understand architecture as a collective means of producing knowledge and as a motor for social change.’
Each year, Kolleg participants address a different urban topic in projects that typically involve analytical research as well as engagement and intervention. A recent cohort considered the attenuated urbanity constituted by new conditions of exchange between Eastern Europe and the enlarged EU. Increased traffic across the German/Polish border on the E30 artery has transformed what was formerly a minor route into a global-scale transit corridor. German architect Nina Gribat worked with Danish filmmaker Linda Hilfling Nielson to investigate the impact on local cultures and forms of inhabitation. Encouraging long-term residents and new arrivals to share their accounts of change, Nielson became a storyteller, while Gribat sought to spatialise the latent mobility of the E30 ‘service cities’ as hubs which anchor and activate social relations in a geography that is still emerging.
In 2010-11, the ‘Bata Cities’ project explored two satellite settlements of the Czech shoe-manufacturer Bata – early examples of the globalisation of urbanism, architecture and place. In an effort to become international market leader, the company initiated ‘corporate towns’ all around the world, each one designed as an ideal community based on the model of Zlin. The Kolleg chose two such towns – Batanagar in India and East Tilbury in the UK. Both demonstrate the evolution of corporate towns into post-industrial assets, offering insights about the production of urbanity in the context of a global economy, and showing how regional identities have appropriated or rejected what Bata had to offer.
Whereas the first semester of Bata Cities comprised an investigation of the case studies, the second followed a curatorial approach, culminating in a major exhibition (currently on show in Basel, until mid-October). The urbanist’s role moved from that of detective, carrying out site studies using mapping and analytical methods, to curator, where the emphasis was on presenting evidence and interpreting information in a manner mindful of the needs and interests of a diverse audience.
The Bar Motel Buwita in Rzepin, Poland
This article is part of a series examining the state of architectural education across the world. More discussions of academies and schools from other nations can be found in Pedagogy.