Dessau’s school and teacher housing complex was designed by Walter Gropius, the founder and first director of the Bauhaus School (1919–1928). Also documented by Šlapal are additional examples of Dessau’s experimental architecture – The Steel House by Georg Muche and Richard Paulick; the Törten housing estate designed by Walter Gropius and Hannes Meyer (who became the school’s second director in 1928–1930); and the Kornhaus, designed by Carl Fieger, featuring a dance hall area overlooking the river Elbe. Dutch architect Mart Stam’s Prague villa (“Dům Palička”) is famous for being the only completed work by a foreign architect to feature within the Czech capital’s functionalist Baba Housing Estate (“Osada Baba”). Meanwhile, Brno’s Vila Tugendhat (by German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe) has become one of the Czech Republic’s most important architectural monuments.
“Filip Šlapal: Bauhaus”
6 March – 13 April, 2019
Galerie Jaroslava Fragnera
Betlémské nám. 169/5A, Praha-Staré Město
Filip Šlapal’s contemporary photographs offer observers the chance to see the world through the eyes of an experienced historian of architecture, and thus follow the variegated experimental construction efforts of the 1920s – buildings constructed from concrete, bricks, steel and glass. Such buildings can be viewed through a lens of appreciation of the Bauhaus aesthetic, and a revelling in the timeless beauty of functionalistic architecture. At the same time, we can view the photographs as a documentary record of ongoing preparations for 2019’s celebrations marking the centenary of the Bauhaus movement – capturing, for example, halls of residence in Dessau during their restoration.
Bauhaus, which set as its main aim the integration of a higher learning academy (a university-level art school) and a school of fine arts (crafts), was founded a century ago in the city of Weimar. It’s existence – not coincidentally – survived the exact same length of time as the Weimar Republic itself. Both were fatally imperilled by the rise of the decidedly anti-modernist Nazi movement. During its entire existence, the Bauhaus faced political opposition within German society. The “father” of the Bauhaus, namely its long-serving director Walter Gropius, made strenuous efforts, going as far back as 1916, to preserve the school as an apolitical institution. Amidst the post-WWI backdrop of high inflation, he fought for financial backing, and pushed back against constant efforts to undermine the school’s very existence. In 1925, the Bauhaus suffered its first closure as a result of the host city withdrawing financial support.
The school then relocated to the town of Dessau. Of all the possible candidates offering to allow the Bauhaus to continue to operate, Dessau offered not just the most amenable political environment, but also an industrial character and the promise of local collaboration with school workshops – and this is precisely what occurred. Gropius’ successor Hannes Meyer made no secret of his Marxist political leanings, and encouraged the same line of thought in his students. Naturally, this added fuel to the fire within the turbulent environment of the Weimar Republic.
The tensions between such leftist ideas and a shift of the school’s orientation (an emphasis on standardisation, cheap industrial production, accessible housing and low-cost furnishing of apartments) on the one hand, and a commercial mindset on the other (patents, commissions and contracts with companies) resulted in frequent attacks on the institution by both far-right and far-left critics. The Bauhaus’ third director Mies van der Rohe (1930–1933) subsequently returned the institution to an apolitical orientation. But in 1932, the school was closed down and forced to move again, this time to Berlin, switching to the status of a private institution in the process. But even this was not enough to save the Bauhaus – the school was definitively shut down by the Nazis in April, 1933 – its cosmopolitan character and abstract art entirely at odds with the spirit of National Socialism. For an institution which had been led during its entire existence by internationally recognised architects and artists, the swift and forceful curtailment of academic freedoms resulted in a vocal backlash (the Nazi-organised Degenerate Art Exhibition, or “Entartete Kunst”, would not be held until late 1937), and also helped to permanently consolidate the memory of the Bauhaus, both in Germany and around the world.
The Bauhaus style is, in fact, a misnomer, nor was anything of the kind supposed to emerge. Rather, director Walter Gropius sought for the school to support and cultivate individual creativity. Despite this, today, the notion of a “Bauhaus style” is commonly understood to represent a common set of characteristics – even encompassing fonts, furniture, textiles, shapes, materials, and colours, as well as the designs of buildings themselves. In terms of location, timeframe, and the output of its individual artists, the period of the Bauhaus’ existence encompasses a number of artistic movements: expressionism, neoplasticism, New Objectivity, and functionalism, to name but a few. Apart from the influences of individual personalities, basic existential questions, thematic orientations, and also the effect of commissions from outside sources, the Bauhaus school was also influenced by a far steadier natural process of evolution in terms of seeking out effective and pioneering new forms of education.
The various directors and teachers serving at the Bauhaus each advocated differing educational methodologies; as teachers came and went, the Bauhaus experienced shifts in studied subject areas, the length of studies, and the overall conditions for students (from a bare-bones approach, including inadequately outfitted workshops during the early years in Weimar, through to the Dessau era of the Gropius-designed luxury complex of glass facade workshop buildings, and halls of residence featuring photogenic facades with balconies, including housing for professors, to the financial successes of the directorship of Hannes Meyer, enabling the rise of scholarships, right through to the rental of a disused factory in Berlin’s suburbs representing the final futile efforts to save the school). A clear legacy of the large number of prominent figures associated with the Bauhaus is a thread connecting numerous key projects, directions, buildings, and events that have solidified themselves within the wider history of architecture.
Filip Šlapal’s photographs capture both the Tugendhat and Palička villas. Tugendhat villa was designed by Mies van der Rohe, who initially rejected an offer to become the director of the Bauhaus in 1928, only to accept two years later. During this period, the famous “siblings”, namely the Barcelona Pavilion in Spain and Tugendhat villa in Czechoslovakia were built, serving as icons of functionalism and manifestations of the concept of free-flowing space. Mart Stam, one of the Bauhaus’ lecturing architects, served as the designer of a personal villa for architect Jiří Palička and his wife, textile designer Emilie Paličková, in Prague’s Baba Housing Estate (this estate was designed under the overall guidance of architect Pavel Janák from 1928–1932).
Figures such as Mart Stam, Walter Gropius, and also the latter’s years-long collaborator German architect Adolf Meyer, also enable the linking of the Bauhaus with the New Frankfurt housing programme (1925–1930), which sought to tackle the contemporary issue of urban planning and an acute shortage of housing via the construction of a series of unique estates (similarly to Dessau’s Törten housing estate), including the outfitting of so-called “Frankfurt Kitchens”. The new methods of construction (creating panels on-site etc.), as well as features such as the aforementioned pioneering of fitted kitchens, are presented via film footage in an accompanying part of the exhibition.
Additional video materials also document, for example, the costumes, choreography and scenery of Oskar Schlemmer, a painter, sculptor, designer and choreographer associated with the Bauhaus school’s stage design workshop. Accompanying lectures feature art historians focusing on individual figures from the Bauhaus, as well as Czech and Slovak student protégés of the Bauhaus’ pioneering educational concepts. The influence and impact of the Bauhaus is not merely of note as a phenomenon of art history and academia, but also serves as a prism for contemporary reflections on architecture – especially given that Bauhaus-era designs are currently enjoying renewed appreciation for their aesthetic and functional qualities – a hundred years later, the spirit of the Bauhaus movement clearly lives on…