Zach Mortice is a Chicago-based design journalist who focuses on landscape architecture and architecture.
An exhibition at the Elmhurst Art Museum shows how the Bauhaus was defined by its conflicting ideologies.
The centenary exhibition “The Whole World a Bauhaus” is touring the globe, and is now making its only U.S. stop, through April 20, at the Elmhurst Art Museum in the western suburbs of Chicago. (The Elmhurst has earned its stripes, boasting a house on its campus designed by a Bauhaus director, Mies van der Rohe.) More than 400 objects, mostly photographs, are crammed into three galleries of the small museum, and organized around eight broad and somewhat ephemeral themes (“Floating,” “Experiment,” “Encounters,” and so on).
Curated by German art historian Boris Friedewald, the show has the meticulous obsession of a deep dive into the archives. “I want to show that the diversity of the school and its products cannot be reduced to one style,” Friedewald said. But what emerges, once you come up for air, is not a retrospective on the Bauhaus but a picture of the conflicts and factions that shaped it, both within and outside the institution.
The mysticism of the early Bauhaus stands in tension with the school’s later incarnation as a temple of technological advancement. Similarly, there were competing desires to embrace bespoke handicraft and to focus on industrial production for mass markets. And the school had to navigate socialist utopian impulses within a capitalist (and very unstable) system that required the patronage of industry.
These conflicting impulses were closely linked to the political and economic situation of Weimar-era Germany, and their resolution in the wider world mirrored their resolution at the Bauhaus as well. By growing on top of these fault lines, the school developed a powerful dynamism and lasting relevance across many media. Here are a handful of exhibits in “The Whole World a Bauhaus” that provide a closer look.
Emergency currency for the German state of Thuringia, 1923
The Bauhaus was founded with the utopian mission to design a new world that would be immune to the destructive forces that produced World War I, which consumed more than 8 million lives. So in Herbert Bayer’s new currency for Thuringia, there is a near-total lack of iconography—no flags or kings to rally to in times of nationalist bloodlust, or references to history or culture or any sort. Instead, there are simple background color blocks, leaving room for the massive denominations of 1 and 2 million marks.
The extra zeros were required: Weimar-era Germany was wracked with inflation as it tried to settle debts accrued during the war and pay out reparations. In 1923, when inflation reached its peak, 4.2 trillion marks were the equivalent of one U.S. dollar. Bayer’s currency is an example of the Bauhaus trying to solve a discrete problem (the design of very large currencies) that might help stabilize and rationalize the world around it.
City model by students of Ludwig Hilberseimer, 1929-32
This photo of a city-scale model of high-rises arrayed across a relentless grid shows Bauhaus Modernism totally unmoored from human-centered design and experience. Like much of Hilberseimer’s work (such as his Vertical City drawing, a dark necropolis of right angles), his students’ model speaks to mass production and industrial efficiency.
These sorts of hyperbolic plans were easily indicted after the failure of high-rise public housing at Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis, Chicago’s Cabrini-Green, and elsewhere, although such projects could only fail the way they did with the perseverance of institutional (and overt) racism and classism. But as the early Bauhaus moved from its inward mission of tracing spirituality’s relationship to design toward the outward arrangement of materials and methods in the most rational and efficient way possible, it neglected the human spirit in sometimes degrading ways.
Protest montage, 1930
The Bauhaus was a den of sects, cults, and warring factions, each vying for supremacy. Adherents of the Swiss mystic Johannes Itten subscribed to an obscure religion called Mazdaznan that stressed vegetarianism, colonic flushing, and racism as a gateway to spiritual purity. Itten’s boss, Walter Gropius, had a more terrestrial and practical view of the Bauhaus as a school with a functional, material mandate. The Marxist Hannes Meyer (who succeeded Gropius as director) led a cadre of leftists who took to the streets after political pressure forced him out. Meyer was intensely interested in social housing and worked to establish mass-production facilities at Dessau. But the social mission of the Bauhaus was largely aspirational, “mainly an aim and an idea,” according to curator Friedewald.
Wallpaper samples, 1932
Even with Meyer at the helm as its second director, the Bauhaus was dependent on patronage from local businesses and industry. Under Meyer, it finally began to turn a profit, and wallpaper was one if its most profitable products.
“The House of the White Man,” 1922
There’s not much particularly notable (beyond its title) about Johannes Itten’s drawing of a minimalist house shaped like a stack of blocks. But Friedewald says it’s very likely the earliest example of a Bauhaus-derived flat roof, a feature that would become shorthand for “Modern” in the decades hence.
The drawing’s title—combined with the racist ideology of its creator, Itten—complicates the “reactionary Nazis vs. progressive Bauhaus” narrative that has held sway. Itten’s Mazdaznan sect saw only Aryans as having attained ultimate physical and spiritual virtue, and it developed a corresponding racial pseudo-science to prove the point, according to Bauhaus Imaginista.
By giving the Bauhaus’ signature aesthetics to a home explicitly meant for a “master race,” Itten made clear who he felt was capable of leading this revolution. The ascendant Nazis held similar racial beliefs, but they rejected Itten’s work as degenerate abstraction. After they forced the Bauhaus to close in 1933, they purged Itten’s Mazdaznan sect, decried as occultists, two years later.
Walter Gropius and the Chicago Tribune Tower, 1922
The contest to design the headquarters of the Chicago Tribune is perhaps the most famous example of an architecture competition where a losing entry was more influential than the winner (in this case, an ornate Gothic confection by Raymond Hood and John Mead Howells). Gropius’s slickly rectilinear steel-and-glass high-rise could still earn a B- in a great many cities’ skylines. And the architect’s profile in this photo—suited, bow-tied, looking coolly off into the distance—radiates technocratic competence, which would define the public perception of architecture through most of the 20th century as Modernism consolidated its power and influence.
This is the view of the Bauhaus that has largely supplanted the others: as a laboratory for the contemporary world made rational. “As we’re introducing [the Bauhaus] to general audiences, we have to take a step back and say, ‘Think of the Chicago skyline, think of IKEA,’” says John McKinnon, executive director of the Elmhurst Art Museum.
Yet the history of the Bauhaus is messier, in retrospect, than a single set of ideas uniformly adopted. And that messiness necessitated endless dialogue that kept the school alive for adherents of each faction—each eager to claim the Bauhaus long after the too-collegial narrative had been written.