Bauhaus 1919-1933: Workshops for Modernity

| Jan 19, 2010
by Nathan Walker

On January 11th, Providence Station was officially ranked in my mind as among the coldest places in southern New England, due mostly to the fact that its platforms are designed like an industrial wind tunnel, which not only compresses the gentlest breeze into a gale-force punch in the eye, but also encourages stiff numbness of the social variety among its human inhabitants. But I did not much care, because I was embarking on a journey to New York, where I would be included in a SAH Study Tour of exactly the sort my Ph.D. research requires: a guided presentation of the MoMA’s exhibition Bauhaus 1919-1933: Workshops for Modernity. I was so thrilled about my destination, and so grateful for the graduate student Fellowship that was making it possible, that no amount of skinning wind or number of “Rhode Island Smiles” could faze me.

Taking the Amtrak to New Haven and there switching to the Metro-North commuter rail is not only the cheapest way to ride the rails from Providence to NYC, is also means that one arrives in style, greeting the city in the lustrous Grand Central Terminal, rather than scurrying through the sordid Penn Station.

I emerged from the frenetic netherworld in the early evening, and promptly strolled to the Flatiron District before heading over and up to 230 Fifth, a rooftop bar that affords one a view of the upper Manhattan skyline at an unbeatable price: free!

There I camped out under a heat lamp to review my notes on a couple of the MoMA exhibition’s catalog essays, which had been kindly provided by SAH so that everyone could read up and make the most of the Study Tour. After soaking up the view (and a beer), I packed up and headed to the hotel for an early night. It was, after all, very cold–and I did not come to New York to play.

After a morning review session over coffee at a friendly breakfast joint down the street from my hotel, I rode the No. 6 subway up to the 51st Street Station. This left me a number of blocks east of the MoMA, of course, but it seemed like a fine idea to take the scenic route on foot, hitting a few Bauhaus-relevant New York landmarks before stepping into the exhibition.

I strolled passed the 1952 Lever House and, more importantly where the day was concerned, former Bauhaus director Mies van der Rohe’s 1958 Seagram Building. In some ways, I suppose, this enormous structure represents the terminal point on a historical axis that runs through its architect’s rather dramatic life, much of which would be delineated, or at least touched upon, in the Bauhaus exhibition down the street. Visiting this historic building on the morning of the Study Tour put a strong whiff of destiny in the air.

I followed my nose a few blocks west, and it took me to another landmark skyscraper, this one by Mies van der Rohe’s very own protégé, Philip Johnson. Of course, Mr. Johnson was a central figure at the MoMA, and was instrumental in linking the institutional DNA of the MoMA and the Bauhaus–so his ghost would also be joining me on the Study Tour. I glanced up and did my very best to photograph the immense form of his 1984 AT&T Building (now the Sony Building), ironically one of the most dramatic opening salvos of the Post-modern movement. The structure seems literally to be wearing a funny hat to spite the stern, self-serious Seagram Building a few blocks over (which, of course, Johnson had played a role in developing long before he flew the orthodox Modernist coop).

Finally, after a few more conscientious wanderings, I arrived at the MoMA, which looked quite dignified in the morning light, save for the UTZ Quality Foods truck parked suspiciously outside (it appears that even the city’s intellectual elite cannot cleave themselves from Cheese Crunchies®, or resist the siren’s song of Pork Cracklins®–though I do not judge!). If this was a surveillance station, those responsible could not have picked a less likely vehicle.

Upon entering the MoMA, I was at first puzzled as to which group was mine–but a few well-placed inquiries proved fruitful, and in no time I was properly situated.

It was a thrill indeed to commence the Study Tour. Ever since falling in love with Barry Bergdoll’s 19th-Century Architecture survey book while earning my MA at the Savannah College of Art and Design, I have wanted to meet him, and now I was face-to-face with not only him, but a number of distinguished scholars with whom I would enjoy sharing an elevator, let alone an entire day of inquiry and discussion.

This particular tour was not only a rare privilege because it was led by the curators of the Bauhaus exhibition, but also because it transpired on a day during which the museum is closed to the public. Such peace and quiet–so eerily remarkable in the always-popular MoMA–ensured that everyone could be heard all of the time, and was more than accommodating to the moments of quiet observation and contemplation that we were encouraged to seek out along the tour.

We were offered a statement of introduction at the threshold, which not only addressed the art historical material in question, but also offered some comments as to the methodologies used to construct and frame the exhibition.

Afterwards, Bergdoll led us into the first room of the exhibit itself, where Leah Dickerman–his fellow curator and lead contributor to the excellent, voluminous catalog–spoke to us. Unfortunately, I was not allowed to take photographs of the exhibit itself, due to the image rights retained by lending institutions.

There are many stories told by this exhibition. Even the enormous catalog cannot do justice to all the strands and traces, all the lives and relationships, ideas and sympathies, that made and unmade and remade the Bauhaus through its many years as one of the most important pedagogical institutions of the 20th century. Of course, different interests draw different highlights out of the material. I was personally delighted to see so much of Paul Klee’s work set in the context of the classroom, cast in a new light provided by the work of his students in addition to and aside from that of his already famous colleagues. I was also amazed by the large and diverse number of architectural drawings of a particularly ecclesiastical nature that suggested a number of the different Bauhaus-fostered theories of modernity were seen, at least in part, as new religious structures. Seeing the “Romantic” or “African” chair was also incredible–this piece’s importance as the “primitive” starting point for a famous diagram illustrating a Bauhaus-exclusive evolution of the chair speaks volumes about some of the stranger (and perhaps less palatable) theories regarding phases of workshop “progress” and their cultural equivalencies around the world.

It was certainly a comprehensive, all-star show: Breuer was there, and Moholy-Nagy, and Meyer, and the Gropius family. But one of the aspects that I most enjoyed was the presence of the students. So often, the Bauhaus comes across not as a school, but rather as a super-group or dream-team of Modernist designers. There is no question that its roster reads like a Who’s Who of mid-20th century Modernism. But I tend to favor the argument that it was as a school that the institution has had its deepest and most enduring effects on our planet. For this reason it may be somewhat ironic that the Bauhaus failed to produce a crop of graduates that could rival its professors in terms of the quality of their work (which, of course, may say something about the quality of their professors’ educations, which were largely not conducted at the Bauhaus). Rather than a crack student body, the school produced a potent body of pedagogical methods and philosophies that have been adopted, to a greater and/or lesser degree, by thousands of institutions of higher learning all over the world. In the end the Bauhaus was, perhaps, an exemplary school for teachers, first and foremost. But at least this exhibition dragged the students, eternal interns though they may be, out onto the stage, and presented them less like anonymous sounding boards for the genius of their tutors and more like real people who were part of a complex, nuanced community that changed over time. This was one of the most refreshing aspects of the exhibition, and it was reinforced in the Study Tour.

We were spoken to briefly by Jerry Neuner, the exhibition designer, and given a presentation of historical context by Juliet Kinchin.

Then we were taken to the archives, where we were not only presented with a special view of the MoMA’s courtyard by dimming twilight, but also a special collection of drawings from the Mies van der Rohe collection, thoughtfully pulled from the shelves and presented by Barry Bergdoll and Dietrich Neumann. As if the private, personal tour of the exhibition was not intimate enough, we finished the day by pouring over a series of small-scale drawings and discussing their context in the history of Mies as an architect and, indeed, as a real human being. His affection for nature is, for example, much more evident in some of his softer drawings than at, say, the Seagram Building.

Finally, glasses of wine and more chatting rounded the evening off upstairs in the library. The MoMA staff could not have been more courteous and kind. Our group was excellent, and our Study Tour guides were literally the best one could ask for (one cannot ask for much more than the curators when setting off on a special exhibition tour). After the evening wound down, I sprinted to Grand Central to catch a train to New Haven, so that I could catch a train to Providence.

The wait was not too terribly long in the middle, and I always enjoy the great hall in Cass Gilbert’s 1920 Union Station, even in the quiet hours of the New Haven night. And anyway, as the Fellowship recipient for this fantastic SAH Study Tour, I had much to think about, and much for which to be grateful.

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