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Form and Function: Ruskin, the Bauhaus and the legacies of progressive design thinking

Form and Function: Ruskin, the Bauhaus and the legacies of progressive design thinking

The historian Paul Steege suggests that the observance of anniversaries can be "useful" especially when such reflection is in the service of asking "hard questions about the present." In this light, a consideration of two anniversaries—the birth, in 1819, of the English critic, reformer and art historian John Ruskin and the founding, in 1919, of the Bauhaus art school in Weimar, Germany— offers a useful point of entry into a consideration of the distinct and linked legacies of each and the larger question about design, aesthetics, work, mass production and what functioned as the 'modernizing' project. Beyond the convention and fondness of noting history’s passage, the anniversaries of Ruskin and the radical institution envisioned by architect Walter Gropius are worth remembering because chronicling always has the potential to change the standing of things and their memory. If there are hard questions to ask about Ruskin's work and the significance of the Bauhaus, they must turn on the legacies of each in the context of contemporary society and on the collective possibilities of creativity.

John Ruskin in the 1880s. Art critic and social reformer. Photo courtesy of The Guild of St George/Museums Sheffied

John Ruskin in the 1880s. Art critic and social reformer. Photo courtesy of The Guild of St George/Museums Sheffied

Ruskin began his career as a writer on art in the 1840s and matured, rather quickly, into a forceful social critic. He was an eloquent champion of the dignity of makers and making, an advocate for the careful study of history and material evidence, and, significantly, an early, effective commentator on the deleterious consequences of industrialization. In 1860, for example, he wrote a series of essays published in The Cornhill Magazine on the political conditions attending the production of art. A decade or so later, using a pseudonym, he wrote a series of epistolary pamphlets to "the workmen and labourers of Great Britain" in which he framed his idealistic thinking about society in the context of mechanization and capitalism. His writings about gothic Venice, published as The Stones of Venice (1851–3), were an inventorying of architectural fabric and a carefully considered argument about the aesthetic and spiritual significance of the handwork of the craftsmen who constructed the medieval city. Ruskin held that the handmade structures of historic Venice had a greater nobility that the highly stylized, expertly executed and "mechanical and joyless" architecture of the epoch in which he lived and worked. His discussion represented the beginnings of the reformist thinking that came to define 19th century debates around the meanings and future of art and design, the contexts of industrialization, the mechanization of labour and the mass production of goods. This was the work that would be taken up by such thinkers and makers as William Morris, Henry van de Velde, Hermann Muthesius and Peter Behrens.

Marcel Breuer,  Wassily Chair, also known as the Model B3 chair. Designed 1925–1926

Marcel Breuer, Wassily Chair, also known as the Model B3 chair. Designed 1925–1926

It is understandable, then, that such concerns and their acceleration across subsequent decades contributed to the rationale for the establishment in 1919 of the Bauhaus, an educational institution which constituted as much a radically visionary model of art and design teaching as an experimental community of cross disciplinary learning and creativity. As the architectural historian Charles Jencks noted in an extended article in the Financial Times, the importance of the Bauhaus in the history of modernism cannot be overstated. And yet, while in its philosophy and practices the Bauhaus sought to shed the baggage of the past—with the carnage of the first world war fresh in people’s minds—the principles of the school were indebted in real ways to the humanist thinking and reformist ambitions of the 19th century. The school represented a type of coalescing of radical strands of thought that can be traced even to Ruskin. In his article Jencks identifies the overlapping agendas of the Bauhaus: the institutionalization of modernism, what Jencks calls the "sociological reality of Modernity: class freedoms, free love, fashion-madness and individual competition".— Then also modernization, plain and simple: an agenda of radical change which took the form of manifestos that sought changed behaviours toward systems of power. Ultimately, the Bauhaus made an institution of belief and confidence in the power of creativity to serve people within a technological and industrial society.

From its post-war beginnings in the liberal-minded Weimar Republic, the school served as a laboratory for rigorous studio teaching and the investigation of materials and forms. Walter Gropius, an architect of note when he assumed the leadership of the new school, championed both the unity of the arts and investigations across disciplines. Gropius set about constructing a course of study that emphasized both the understanding of the long-established practices of making across materials and the categories attending such investigations. By resituating glass, sculpture, metalwork, textiles, ceramics, painting, and woodworking the school provided the western world with ideals and curricular templates for a changed and improved design education. The foundation document Gropius authored in April 1919 argued for a return to the unity of making, or what he called the "purposeful and cooperative endeavors of all artisans." In this, at least, Ruskin would have been pleased. Gropius insisted that "architects, painters and sculptors must learn a new way of seeing and understanding the composite character of the building". Gropius's thinking about curriculum turned on a belief in the benefits of interdisciplinarity in the service of mental and material life. This was defined by the introductory first year course called the Vorkurs which was, in large part, the work of Swiss painter and colour theorist Johannes Itten. "So let us therefore create a new guild of craftsmen," Gropius wrote, "free of the divisive class pretensions that endeavoured to raise a prideful barrier between craftsmen and artists." He continued: “Let us strive for, conceive and create, the new building of the future that will unite every discipline, architecture, sculpture and painting, and which will one day rise heavenwards from the million hands of craftsmen as a clear symbol of a new belief to come."

The move in 1925 to the ideologically friendly city of Dessau—the rising political and social conservatism of Weimar having made the school's operation untenable—represented a period of incandescent energy, experimentation and innovation. Gropius designed the campus—the three-winged, flat-roofed, steel and glass building that evoked the idea of a factory for learning. He also designed free-standing modernist houses for faculty. The percolating artistic culture of the Dessau years, evidenced in the numerous photographs of students and teachers, objects and events, was similarly marked by an efflorescence of creativity (Marcel Breuer's designs for tubular metal seating come to mind). In 1927, the school was reorganized and Hannes Meyer was appointed head of the newly instituted architecture program. In 1928, Gropius resigned and Meyer took his place. This change in leadership resulted in a political shift in the school because of Meyer's open Marxism and his commitment to using the institution to advance an ideological agenda: "The Bauhaus at Dessau is not an artistic phenomenon but a social one. As creative designers, our work is conditioned by society, and society makes its mark on the whole range of our tasks." But while Meyer's leadership saw the school gain a level of financial stability, the institution's political culture was provocative. In 1930, Meyer was removed as director and replaced, on the recommendation of Gropius, by the architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. But the success of the National Socialists in the 1932 local elections sealed the fate of the school. The Dessau campus was closed and Mies moved the institution to a former factory building in Steglitz, a suburb of Berlin. During its last year of operation, the school sought to continue its work. Hitler's seizure of power in 1933 and the Nazi party's official phobic protection of ‘traditional’ German culture placed the allegedly Bolshevist Bauhaus in dire jeopardy. After numerous incidents with the Gestapo, Mies made the decision to close the institution.

Walter Gropius , Bauhaus Dessau. Opened on December 4, 1926. PHOTO STEFAN OEMISCH

Walter Gropius, Bauhaus Dessau. Opened on December 4, 1926. PHOTO STEFAN OEMISCH

The Bauhaus school left a lasting legacy about studio education and the fostering of creativity as an agent of collective and social betterment. Many of the teachers, artists and designers took up positions in Britain and the United States: Gropius at Harvard and Mies van der Rohe in Chicago, for example. In exile, the curricular model and principles of the Bauhaus were rekindled. As such, the radical and liberating vision of a twinned culture of learning and making realized in Weimar in 1919 came to serve as a profoundly important model for the global reformation of design thinking, education and studio practices. It remains so. This was a revolution begun by Ruskin in the middle of the 19th century with the initial recombination and appreciation of material and intellect. Gropius and his revolutionary colleagues brought these values into the contemporary era and today these forces continue to be driven by craftspeople and designers who balance the personal and social, the material and transcendent. Design’s predecessors would be pleased.

[1] Paul Steege, "The Value of Anniversaries," Hindsights, (2 February 2018) [https://medium.com/hindsights/the-value-of-anniversaries-bb6160e731bd]
[2] John Ruskin, "Unto this Last,” The Cornhill Magazine, ii/8, (London: 1860), pp 185–96; no. 9, pp 278–86; no. 10, pp 407–18; no. 11, pp 543–64; see also, John Ruskin, Stones of Venice, 3 Volumes, (London 1851–3).
[3] Dinah Birch, "John Ruskin: 2 Writings," in The Dictionary of Art, Volume 27 [Rome, ancient, IIII Planning to Savot], edited by Jane Turner, (London: MacMillan Publishers, 1996), 352.
[4] Charles Jencks, "Architect Charles Jencks on the Bauhaus—what is its legacy 100 years on?" Financial Times, (4 January 2019).
[5] The Bauhaus was founded as a consequence of the merging of two long-established, somewhat traditional, schools of art and craft, one of which was led by the reformist designer Henry van de Velde, where Gropius took up the leadership of the Weimar Ducal School of the arts. See Walter Gropius, “The Manifesto of the Staatliches Bauhaus,” (Weimar, 1919), 1.
[6] ibid.
[7] Rainer K. Wick, "Bauhaus," in The Dictionary of Art, Volume 3 [B to Briard], edited by Jane Turner, (London: MacMillan Publishers, 1996), 403.

The author would like to dedicate this article to the memory of Dr Sandra Alfoldy (19692019). Dr Alfoldy was a remarkable person: kind and generous, a superb scholar, teacher and colleague, and an inspiring member of the craft and design communities in Canada.

This article was published in the Spring/Summer 2019 issue of Studio Magazine

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Tarralik Duffy

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