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Toward a new Bauhaus: How a century-old design movement could help save the planet

The Bauhaus, a wildly influential design movement in 20th-century Europe, has new relevance in the 21st century: as a model for fighting climate change.

Toward a new Bauhaus: How a century-old design movement could help save the planet
[Images: Stefani_Ecknig/iStock, Indrajit Guha/iStock]
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The European Union has an ambitious new goal of becoming an economy with net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Announced by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen during her State of the European Union speech in mid-September, the goal would be part of a European Green Deal to transform the economy, decoupling economic growth from resource use and turning the immense challenges presented by climate change into opportunities.

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To help get there, von der Leyen has looked to the past, citing the century-old model of the Bauhaus. A design school that brought internationalism, interdisciplinary collaboration, and industrialization to bear on the design questions of Europe between two world wars, the Bauhaus had a short but potent 14-year run that launched a global design movement. The Bauhaus was created in Weimar, Germany, in 1919, and, despite moving two separate times and eventually falling to the rabid pressure of the Nazis in 1933, it emphasized function-driven design and well-rounded craftsmanship, which have influenced architects and artists ever since. The school’s name is nearly synonymous with modernism.

In her speech, von der Leyen called for the creation of a new version of the school with the hope of having a similar and long-lasting impact on the primary challenge of today: climate change. “Every movement has its own look and feel,” she said. “And we need to give our systemic change its own distinct aesthetic—to match style with sustainability. This is why we will set up a new European Bauhaus—a co-creation space where architects, artists, students, engineers, designers work together to make that happen.”

But style may be less important than how such a co-creation space operates. Bauhaus experts say that what a new Bauhaus should bring to the fight against climate change is not necessarily a distinct aesthetic but the creative, interdisciplinary approach to problem-solving that was proven so effective by the original Bauhaus. Here are a few ways a new Bauhaus can live up to the standards of its predecessor.

Stay grounded in design

One of the key strengths of the original Bauhaus was the group of minds that created it—design visionaries like architect and founding director Walter Gropius and early instructors like painter Paul Klee and artist Lyonel Feininger. Gropius saw a need for a school that mixed art, craft, industry, and technology and recruited open-minded practitioners from various fields to train a new kind of tradesperson.

The proposal for a new Bauhaus may be too top-down, says Max Welch Guerra, a spatial planning professor at what’s now known as Bauhaus University in Weimar. To replicate the original Bauhaus’s success, grassroots creativity is key. “This speech is the expression of a new tendency in European politics, not only Germany, to have a more important role of the state,” he says. “There cannot simply be the foundation of a European Bauhaus only because they offer a lot of money. It can only be the result of an intensive discussion of peers, scholars, practitioners—not only architects and designers but artists and others.”

Respond to the moment

Welch says the Bauhaus approach to design drew so many adherents both in Germany and around the world after its forced closure and dispersal because it was always looking to the future of how technology and industry would change the world. “They understood what were the potentials of the phase of industrialization of that time, and they understood better how to change the type of education of new designers and architects,” he says. By seeing the rise of factories and mass production, the early Bauhaus began to factor that new reality into how it explored design, from furniture to teapots to textiles. The most powerful force affecting the world today is climate change, Welch says, “and a new Bauhaus would have to respect this and to organize a new type of production of space and of cities.”

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Focus on materials

The original Bauhaus had a deep focus on and appreciation for materials, says Annemarie Jaeggi, director of the Bauhaus-Archiv/Museum für Gestaltung in Berlin. “Students were educated in the knowledge of materials very thoroughly—for reasons of craftsmanship and design as well as economy. As the Bauhaus existed between two world wars, materials such as wood, glass, metal, even paper were scarce and precious. Waste was frowned upon,” Jaeggi writes via email. This kind of attention will be crucial for addressing the climate impacts of both consumer goods and the built world. “Valuing the resources we so often take for granted because they’re cheap and seemingly abundant, and making full use of them as a consequence, is fundamental to a sustainable way of designing, building, and living.”

Experiment

“Even though the Bauhaus still stands out as an example for innovation and many of its ideas are still relevant today, we can’t just copy its structure or methods, of course,” Jaeggi says. “But what we can take as inspiration from the historical Bauhaus is its spirit of experimentation, its openness to new ideas, and its persistence.” The fact that today, more than a century after its founding and almost 90 years after it was formally closed, the Bauhaus has inspired generations of designers and thinkers is testament to its underlying philosophy. It’s sometimes oversimplified as a specific aesthetic of clean lines and elegant forms. But its guiding principles of designing for functionality and responding to the needs of society are its more important legacies, and what can inspire designers taking on future challenges.

“The three directors Walter Gropius, Hannes Meyer, and Mies van der Rohe all had very different aims and ambitions for the school. And maybe that is why it was so successful, because it was open to change and experimentation. The teachers did not only encourage the students to experiment, they truly experimented themselves. Nothing was fixed,” Jaeggi says. “This is the kind of ethos I would also envisage for a ‘new Bauhaus.’ This is easily said, but not so easy to truly put into practice.”