The white shoebox series …
The historical impact has manifested itself in two different ways. For one thing, there’s the reverence and mystical atmosphere that has risen up around the Bauhaus masters. We now know that this cult of genius was orchestrated by Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus and its very first director. At the same time, the Bauhaus was readily adopted as a rhetorical metaphor in post-war Germany that provided architectural points of reference following the disaster of the Third Reich and the architectural style typified by the designs of Albert Speer. Naturally, Modernism was seen as a solution. However, the resulting approach was a purely pragmatic one. The subtle, artistic quality was lost, with everything being reduced to mere rationality and functionality. This resulted in the architectural style dubbed Functionalism in the 1960s and 70s which, as a form of pragmatism that completely disregarded the human soul and spatial contrasts, was rightly a subject of contention.
Nevertheless, the Bauhaus aesthetic is still relevant today ...
Oh, without a doubt. For one thing, the Bauhaus was an aesthetic expression of Modernism, which is still perceived as relevant today. For us, the Bauhaus aesthetic is a contemporary design force. That is fascinating. The chair, the table, typography, the principle of form finding – all of these things are so widely diffused through so many different areas of our lives today, for example in the iPhone, in the digital world, even through to Kieser. The Bauhaus aesthetic still has the ability to be authentic, although it is clear that the social ideals of the Bauhaus – creating services or styles or solutions for a mass audience – no longer hold this meaning for us. For a start, the designs of the Bauhaus were targeted towards a social class that no longer exists and, added to this, our society has become increasingly individualistic. Although we want a kitchen that is as beautiful and clean-cut as a Bauhaus kitchen, we do not want our neighbours to have the same one. Something has changed. Everyone today has their own Bauhaus.
You have held the position of Professor of Design and Building Construction at the Anhalt University of Applied Sciences at Bauhaus Dessau since 1994. What do you believe is important when it comes to teaching?
I believe it is important to approach architectural matters holistically, following the example set by the Bauhaus. That is to say, the willingness to engage one’s curiosity in understanding and appreciating both manual and digital techniques. For example, as was customary at the Bauhaus, we rely on preparatory courses: exercises where students fold paper to help gain an appreciation of the art of sculpture. And for me, it is about one’s willingness to use the history of the Bauhaus as inspiration to question the norm. Needless to say, at the same time we need to find our own authentic design, without simply reproducing a new Bauhaus for today’s agenda. Location is a constant challenge, an incentive and an opportunity for dialogue that must be explored through one’s own work. This is the first obstacle to overcome. Architecture has a lot to do with education and knowledge. The presence of the Bauhaus buildings raises questions as to the role of the avant-garde, both then and now.
What is the essence of your work?
Our architectural style is born out of urban planning concerns. What this means is that we develop a building for and in one specific place. We are the opposite of series production, so to speak. This is what distinguishes us from the Bauhaus architects. I believe that series production has quite obvious limitations. For one thing, there are so many existing buildings that series construction is simply not possible.
Once the cities were rebuilt, Modernism provided the template for series-produced objects or standardised solutions. In the 1970s and 80s, focus shifted once again to the concept of a city as a far more fragile system steeped in history, which demands more than just functionality or rationality. This introduced terms such as location, space and typology to the conversation and allowed the narrative qualities of architecture to be rediscovered. Now, I would say that these are the parameters of contemporary design. A building whose architectural quality generates an increase in value in the surrounding area is far more sustainable than something merely born of the economy.
Your office was behind the expansion project for the Anhalt University of Applied Sciences. That project included a cafeteria, an auditorium complex, the surveyors’ building and the artists’ studio house.I imagine that projects such as that one are quite challenging in such an historic location.
That it was. The main question was, in architectural terms, how can a building exist alongside the Bauhaus? Our first caveat was that it could not resemble the Bauhaus in any way. What was important for me was to create a dialogue with the location and its history and cultural background. We designed buildings that really focus the attention onto concrete as a classically modern material, but in a completely different way. For example, we developed a prefabricated exposed concrete facade with a quite unique grammar, contrasting with that of the Bauhaus facade, with its supports, ribbon windows and white appearance.
In what aspects does this grammar become apparent?
It results from the prefabricated, exposed design and is an evolution of series construction that takes the form of panels, which are either open or closed. These panels are arranged in three contour lines, so as to create varying light conditions in the two-storey rooms behind them. This means that the rooms have widely different characteristics when it comes to their windows, with low windows, fanlights or fully glazed surfaces. We developed the facade design based on the room’s function, which is outwardly reflected in the grammar of the facade through the seemingly playful variation of open and closed panels. Although we have developed a stand-alone idea, it is not entirely unrelated to the Bauhaus concepts of light and spatial effect. It also has connotations to the concept of series construction through the design of the so-called ‘panels’. The location, which is host to a number of buildings formerly used by the Russian military, is also reflected in the colouring – hence the green of the prefabricated parts. The buildings are now 18 years old, and are comparatively timeless. That is what the Bauhaus aesthetic also achieved: the creation of timelessness.