DESIGN

The legacy of the house that art built

JOSEPH TREEN February 17 1986
DESIGN

The legacy of the house that art built

JOSEPH TREEN February 17 1986

The legacy of the house that art built

DESIGN

It began in the German city of Weimar in 1919 and closed in Berlin just 14 years later. But although the Bauhaus school of art and design lasted only a short time, it revolutionized the look of the 20th century. Its faculty included such towering figures as architects Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe as well as pioneering abstract painters Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky. It set new, streamlined design standards for everything from tea kettles to skyscrapers, and its influence extended to photography, music, dance and theatre. When Bauhaus teachers—including Gropius and Miesfled the Nazis during the 1930s, they brought the school’s esthetics to North America. Although the spartan forms it championed have slipped from past prominence, particularly in architecture, two current exhibitions are affirming the Bauhaus’s enduring impact.

Last week, to mark the centennial of Mies’s birth, New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) launched the most comprehensive show to date of his designs—450 of his architectural drawings, accompanied by photographs of his major buildings. Also on display are 10 building models and examples of all 15 pieces of furniture that he created. Meanwhile, for the past five months in Montreal small galleries have joined with the local convention centre and leading public institutions in a city-wide celebration of the Bauhaus that is unprecedented in North America. By the time it ends in May, Bauhaus—Montreal 1985-86 will have encompassed films, lecture series and more than 20 exhibitions. Said organizer Reinhard Klatt, director of Montreal’s Goethe Institute: “There has been tremendous interest. People real-

ize that the Bauhaus is not just a historical thing but something that we live with—all the ideas and products that it created 60 years ago are still very, very lively.”

The school’s founder, Gropius, fostered that radical approach by integrating technical and fine-art studies.

He urged his students to use modern construction materials and techniques in their work so that their creations could be mass-produced economically. One of the architect’s own designs, two sleek porcelain tea sets displayed at the Via Design 1985 show in Montreal’s Palais des Congrès, is a model of functional beauty.

Indeed, that is one reason why Montreal’s comprehensive salute to the

Bauhaus has been such a resounding popular success. It opened last October with exhibitions and a Canadian premiere performance of the Triadic Ballet, originally created in 1922 by Bauhaus visual artist Oskar Schlemmer. Although Schlemmer’s choreographic notes have been lost, it is known that the movements were based largely on his arresting costume designs of geometric forms, including cones and triangles. Reconstructing the choreography from the costumes, which were preserved, Berlin’s Akademie der Künste performed the work at the University of Quebec at Montreal. Said McGill University architecture professor Ricardo Castro: “I was mesmerized. It was not theatre but visual design.”

By November the Bauhaus festival was in full operation. Larger shows opened, including a display of furniture and household objects at the Maison de la culture in Nôtre-Dame-deGrace, a district of Montreal. It included Marcel Breuer’s elegant leather-and-steel Wassily chair and a silverrimmed fruit bowl with three black wooden balls for legs, created by Josef Albers. The bold but playful designs of Bauhaus weaving and textiles adorned the walls at the Maison de la culture in Côte-des-Neiges, and other locations displayed Bauhaus photography. The Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, which featured a survey of celebrated Bauhaus photographs, including Herbert Bayer’s Glass Eyes, which depicts rows of artificial eyes in a box. Said Castro: “Their photography provided us with a way of looking at the familiar and making it strange, or looking at strange things and making them familiar.”

The photography show closed on Jan. 5. But in the coming months a new burst of activity will bring shows featuring watercolors and drawings by Klee and Lyonel Feininger and the designs, photographs and paintings of David Feist. Said Feist, a design professor at Montreal’s Concordia University and a student at the Bauhaus from 1927 to 1930: “The Bauhaus developed a new language of vision for all the plastic and graphic arts.”

One of that generation’s undisputed leaders was Mies, the school’s third

and last director from 1930 to 1933, and its most influential champion in North America. In 1937 he emigrated to the United States, where for 20 years he served as the director of what is now the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. Examples of Mies’s buildings and furniture that were exhibited during Montreal’s Bauhaus festival are a testament to his durability. The MOMA show, covering Mies’s entire career until his death at 83 in 1969, offers more evidence of his contribution. One of the best examples is his famous Barcelona chair, with its four simple arcs of steel and its cushioned

leather seat and back. It has been in continual production since he created it in 1929 for the King of Spain, and it has influenced everything from airport seating to elegant office furnishings.

Mies’s designs have become so common that his role as a pioneer is often lost sight of. But the exhibition, chronologically laid out, helps overcome that obstacle. It also reveals the lag— sometimes of several years—between the time when he originated an idea until he implemented it. Wellknown in architectural circles for designing and writing about tall buildings as early as 1922, Mies did not actually have any built until after the Second World War. He made his greatest impact as the originator of the sleek glass-and-metal look of the modern skyscraper. Millions of Canadians live with three prominent examples of his work: the Toronto-Dominion Centre in Toronto, the threetower Westmount Square in Montreal and Highrise Apartment Building 1 on Montreal’s Nun’s Island.

One of the delights of the MOMA show is that it reveals how Mies’s simplicity was at times illusory. A minimalist who enjoyed architectural sleight of hand, his most elaborate deception, revealed in MOMA’S display of his architectural drawings, is Manhattan’s Seagram Building. Considered his greatest masterpiece, it consists of a concrete skeleton covered with green marble. But Mies added bronze beams to its exterior to give the illusion that

the metal grid is an external frame. Although he became famous for citing the borrowed aphorism “less is more,” sometimes more was more.

North America’s rediscovery of the Bauhaus will continue throughout 1986. In June, as Montreal’s tribute ends, the Illinois Institute of Technology will mount a show exploring Mies as a teacher. Meanwhile, the Art Institute of Chicago is planning an exhibition on Mies and his disciples for August. For Montreal gallery owner John Schweitzer, who hosted two Bauhaus exhibits recently, its products represent a crucial balance between craftsmanship and inspiration. Said Schweitzer: “The Bauhaus philosophy was that even if the artist was inspired, he still has to prove certain technical assets.” Like much that has emanated from the Bauhaus, that idea has endured for more than 50 turbulent years in the arts.

— JOSEPH TREEN in New York with IAN FERRIER in Montreal

IAN FERRIER