Remembering the Bauhaus at 100

The photographer Stefan Berg has tried to capture the constituent parts of the Bauhaus Building in Dessau, Germany. Here Berg photographs the main entrance staircase, balustrade and handrail.

In 1919 in Germany, the old order of the Kaiser and the imperial court, had been burned away in the fire of the First World War. There was room for new ideas and new ways of doing and being.

Into this turmoil came Walter Gropius. He created a school of design called the Bauhaus in the city of Weimar in 1919. It became a school of art and design in 1928 in the industrial city of Dessau. Importantly, the idea at the heart of the Bauhaus rippled out into the world over the 20th century.

Building façade with Bauhaus lettering on the workshop wing, Bauhaus (Dessau), Photo: Stefan Berg. The lettering follows a type design by Herbert Bayer.

Starting on Oct. 22, an exhibition in the Alma Duncan Salon of the Ottawa Art Gallery will celebrate the Bauhaus and its impact on the wider world. The exhibition, curated by Ottawa based artist and curator, Cindy Stelmackowich, is being hosted by the German Embassy until Oct. 27. It will feature three major components.

• The first includes photographs by the German artist Stefan Berg, who photographed the facades and interiors of the Bauhaus building in Dessau, Germany now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It houses the Bauhaus Dessau Foundation.

• The retailer EQ3 is showcasing furnishings that reflect the powerful design language of the Bauhaus. The pieces include upholstered items, lighting, tables and accessories. Each has a particular connection to Bauhaus design. The Chiara chair, for example, was created by the German designer Mykilos whose founders are graduates of Bauhaus University.

• Finally, using Virtual Reality technology, there is tour of the Bauhaus building in Dessau. The experience will take the viewer into the building as it existed in the 1920s.

After the Nazi regime was voted into office in the early 1930s, many members of the Bauhaus community left Germany and headed — finally — to the United States.

This is a ceiling on the Bauhaus Building’s ground floor with tubular lighting system (design Max Krajewski). Photo: Stefan Berg

These artists and designers took their ideas of teaching and of art and design with them to New York and Boston where they settled and began to work on advancing their ideas in North America, said Oliver Botar, who is a professor of art history  at the University of Manitoba’s School of Art.

Botar will talk about Bauhaus’s impact on Canada in a talk during the opening vernissage of the exhibition on Oct. 22 at 6 p.m.

Botar specializes in 20th century modernism including the Bauhaus with a specific focus on the Hungarian artist Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, who was one of the most famous Bauhaus professors in Germany and who established the New Bauhaus in Chicago in 1938. Moholy-Nagy became an influential teacher in the U.S. and attracted a number of Canadian scholars, who travelled to Chicago to study with him. They then returned home to change the face of Canada in the 1950s and ’60s.

Moholy-Nagy is one of the important figures in Bauhaus in Canada even though he never set foot in the country, Botar said.

In Canada, there were a very few connections with the Bauhaus. There were three students of the school who settled in Canada. But in the U.S., many major Bauhaus professors and school directors, including Gropius himself and Mies van der Rohe. They became very influential working in schools such as Harvard and the Illinois Institute of Technology.

Main entrance staircase, landing leading to the first floor, detail of a pivotable window made of steel. Photo: Stefan Berg

The influential architect, John C. Parkin, was one Canadian who travelled to Harvard to study with Gropius and Marcel Breuer. Parkin returned to Toronto and effectively started modernist architecture in the city by the lake. Breuer did build two buildings in Canada including a cottage near Lake of the Woods, in Ontario and an industrial building in Oakville, Ontario.

Mies van der Rohe also built three major buildings in Canada, Botar said. At the forceful urging of his daughter Phyllis Lambert, Samuel Bronfman commissioned van der Rohe to build the Seagram Building on Park Avenue in New York City. It became an icon of 20th century architecture.

Lambert also pushed for van der Rohe to build the TD Centre on Bay Street in Toronto. It’s considered his last masterpiece, Botar said. Over in Montreal, Lambert was involved in van der Rohe being hired for projects, including the Westmount Square and buildings on Nun’s Island.

This photograph shows the studio building “Prellerhaus” staircase with a colour design detail of the wall and ceiling designed by Hinnerk Scheper. Photo: Stefan Berg

But was there a Bauhaus style? Botar said the Bauhaus people rejected that.

“They always insisted there wasn’t one Bauhaus style. But I think there is,” he said.

“The most important Bauhaus idea is actually pedagogical. It comes out of the late 19th and early 20th century pedagogical reform movements in Europe and especially in Germany.

“The essential idea is that you learn by doing. Rather than having students copy the Old Masters and make sketches of ancient Greek sculptures, what Gropius wanted to do by borrowing these ideas was to return to the basics.”

That meant giving the students the tools and telling them to start from scratch and experiment with materials “and make stuff,” Botar said. In the second year, students were asked to choose a workshop such as ceramics, metal working, carpentry, textiles or wall mural painting where Wassily Kandinsky taught. Eventually architecture was introduced as well.

Oliver Botar. Photo: Karen Asher

“What was genius on Gropius’ part was that he didn’t just hire creatives, he hired some of the best artists of the time, like Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Oskar Schlemmer and Lyonel Feininger,” Botar said.

The Bauhaus influence on architecture happened after the move to Dessau. In the new building, Gropius was able to include features of modernism such as the glass curtain wall, ribbon windows, flat roofs and white walls. That style of simple forms and functional layouts moved around the world, Botar said.

In town: Bauhaus 100 – (re)imagined is in the Alma Duncan Salon of the Ottawa Art Gallery from Oct. 22 to Oct. 27. 

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.