Theo van Doesburg, Grundbegriffe der neuen gestaltenden Kunst (1925)

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Below is an article written in memoriam of De Stijl founder Theo van Doesburg upon his death in 1931. It discusses his pivotal intervention in the life of the Bauhaus, where Dexel was a student. In between there are reproduced all 72 pages from his Grundbegriffe der neuen gestaltenden Kunst (1925), published as part of the Bauhausbücher series.
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Theo van Doesburg

Walter Dexel
Das Neue Frankfurt
Vol. 4, №. 6 (1931)

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On March 7, Theo van Doesburg died at Davos. He was a highly significant and almost a tragic figure, since the opportunity to realize his potential to the full was largely denied him — a fact that is hard to understand if one looks at some of those who are permitted to work.

He was a painter, an architect, a typographer, and from 1917 the founding editor of the magazine De Stijl, the first ever to campaign consistently for new formal design. (The cover of De Stijl remains an exemplary piece of modern typography — think of the visual changes that have overtaken our periodicals in the past decade, and you have one small illustration of Van Doesburg’s startling anticipation of present-day design principles.). He fought in the foremost ranks of the Dutch shock troops alongside Mondrian, Oud, Rietveld, Wils, Huszár, Van t’Hoff and others. What they stand for is well known. Now that he is dead, let us reflect for a moment on what we in Germany owe to Doesburg. Historical justice and the memory of an important man demand that we remember.

In 1921 Theo van Doesburg came to Weimar, with his vital energy and his clear critical mind — Weimar, where the Bauhaus had been in existence since 1919, and where a considerable number of modern artists were living, attracted by the wind of progress that used to blow — in those far-off days — through Thuringia. The credit for inviting Doesburg to Weimar goes to Adolf Meyer; straightforward, phlegmatic, and consistent, Meyer never diverged from the straight line that led from the buildings designed in cooperation with Gropius in Cologne and Alfeld to the works of his later, mature period in Frankfurt. The teaching appointment as such was not a success, since it proved impossible to bridge the gap between Doesburg’s views and those of the then dominant Bauhaus personalities. Continue reading

Bauhausbücher covers, № I-XIV (1925-1930)

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Below are the covers to the books in the Bauhausbücher series, № 1-14.

  1. Walter Gropius, Internationale Architektur. Bauhausbücher 1, München 1925
  2. Paul Klee, Pädagogisches Skizzenbuch. Bd. 2, München 1925
  3. Adolf Meyer, Ein Versuchshaus des Bauhauses in Weimar. Bd. 3, München, 1925
  4. Oskar Schlemmer, Die Bühne im Bauhaus. Bd. 4, München 1925
  5. Piet Mondrian, Neue Gestaltung. Neoplastizismus. Bd. 5, Eschwege 1925
  6. Theo van Doesburg, Grundbegriffe der neuen gestaltenden Kunst. Bd. 6, München 1925
  7. Walter Gropius, Neue Arbeiten der Bauhauswerkstaetten. Bd. 7, München 1925
  8. Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, Malerei, Fotografie, Film. Bd. 8, München 1925
  9. Wassily Kandinsky, Punkt und Linie zur Fläche: Beitrag zur Analyse der malerischen Elemente. Bd. 9, München, 1926
  10. Jan Peter Oud, Holländische Architektur, Bd. 10, München 1926
  11. Kasimir Malewitsch, Die gegenstandslose Welt, Bd. 11, München 1927
  12. Walter Gropius, Bauhausbauten Dessau. Bd. 12, München 1928
  13. Albert Gleizes, Kubismus. Bd. 13, München 1928
  14. Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Von Material zu Architektur. Bd. 14, 1929

Enjoy.

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Grigorii Barkhin, Izvestiia newspaper building in Moscow (1926-1928)

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Some have noted the formal similarities between the original conception of Grigorii Barkhin’s Izvestiia newspaper building in Moscow and Walter Gropius’ proposed Chicago Tribune tower in Chicago. Barkhin himself attested to the latter’s influence on his own project. The initial plan for the building would have featured a base covering about a quarter of a city block, supporting a tall high-rise section that jutted suddenly skyward from it.

Owen Hatherley parsed their relationship several years back on his Kino Fist blog:

The Soviet skyscraper designs of the 1920s were strippings and rationalisations of the USA’s huge, atavistic fantasy-palaces. Aware of the mystificatory absurdity of a Woolworth Building, the extension of the Gothic up into the sky, the USSR’s early architects took their cue from the factories behind the facade. In one particularly memorable instance, this centred on the 1922 competition for the Chicago Tribune skyscraper. Bauhaus director Walter Gropius proposed a tower based on the printworks at the back, extending their modules into a futurist vision of cool, precise technology. It was ridiculed, of course, in favour of flying buttresses and Gothicky ornament. So in another act of plunder, the Soviet architects Grigori and Mikhail Barkhin proposed to build a slightly modified version of Gropius’ Chicago in Moscow for the Izvestia newspaper — and got it built, albeit drastically reduced.

We’ll return to this reduction later.

Walter Gropius and Adolf Meyer: Competition Entry for "Chicago Tribune" Tower (1922). Model, dynamic perspective.

Walter Gropius and Adolf Meyer: Competition submission for
Chicago Tribune tower (1922). Model, dynamic perspective.

Grigorii Barkhin, original plan for Izvestiia newspaper building (1926)

Grigorii Barkhin, original plan for Izvestiia building (1926)

A more proximate source of inspiration for Barkhin’s design (drafted 1926) was likely the Vesnin brothers’ Palace of Industry competition entry from 1923, which came a year after Gropius’ 1922 piece. One immediately notices the even greater similarities between them.

Here again there was some influence of Gropius’ project on the Vesnins’. (Both ultimately went unrealized). Indeed, there would later be some controversy when the rationalist architect Nikolai Dokuchaev accused his constructivist colleagues at VKhUTEMAS, the Vesnins, of copying the tower by Gropius. Dokuchaev further insinuated that there was some ideological contamination as a result, with some of the capitalist ideology of the Chicago Tribune proposal seeping into the structurally similar Palace of Labor. Moisei Ginzburg, by then chief theoretician of the OSA group, eventually intervened by pointing out the completely different functional contexts of the two buildings, while admitting their superficial resemblance.

The Vesnin brothers' unrealized proposal for the Palace of Labor (1923)

The Vesnin brothers’ unrealized proposal for the Palace of Labor (1923)

To be sure, the actual productive role of Barkhin’s Izvestia building was close to Gropius’ Chicago Tribune tower than was the Vesnins’ Palace of Labor, given that the first two were explicitly intended as publishing centers. Gropius’ tower would have likely served more as an office building for the writing staff than an actual printing plant, however. At least, that’s the role that Raymond Hood’s winning entry ended up playing. Barkhin’s building performed both tasks. Regardless, some overlap may be admitted.

Concerning the reduction mentioned earlier: due to material supply shortages, Barkhin and his younger brother, Mikhail, were forced to scrap the uppermost elevation. Instead, the base would be preserved as a continuous block, with rectilinear glazed façades as well as a series of distinctive circular windows over the right side of the entrance. The building still stands today, overlooking Pushkin Square in Moscow, though it now houses a Kentucky Fried Chicken store and King Sushi restaurant. Many of the photos included below are from the perspective of the park.

Enjoy! Click any of the images to enlarge, and scroll through the gallery.

Grigorii and Mikhail Barkhin. Dom Izvestiia, 1926-1927. Perspective view. Ink, watercolor, & white ink on paper.F-Moscou-Maison du Journal IsvestiaСтроительство типографского корпуса %22Известий%22Мы думаем, что снимок сделан в 1946 году  (направление съемки − север)Большой Путинковский переулок,5barhin2 Continue reading

Object lessons from the Bauhaus

Joan Ockman
Art in America
Dec. 1, 2009
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Bauhaus is the name of an artistic inspiration.

— Asger Jorn, letter to Max Bill, January 1954
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Bauhaus is not the name of an artistic inspiration, but the meaning of a movement that represents a well-defined doctrine.

— Max Bill, letter to Asger Jorn, January 1954
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If Bauhaus is not the name of an artistic inspiration, it is the name of a doctrine without inspiration — that is to say, dead.

— Asger Jorn, letter to Max Bill, February 1954
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What was the Bauhaus really? The question has been raised repeatedly ever since Nazi agents raided the school in April 1933, precipitating its closure by the faculty a few months later. On the 90th anniversary of its founding, and the 20th of the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, a major exhibition organized by three institutions in Germany,1 and now another at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, have relaunched the debate. The answer proffered in MoMA’s “Bauhaus 1919-1933: Workshops for Modernity,” assembled by Barry Bergdoll, curator of architecture and design, and Leah Dickerman, curator in the department of painting and sculpture, is that the Bauhaus was, above all, a new form of art education: a radically innovative and progressive school for artists and designers in the modern epoch. This is hardly revelatory, but it’s a valuable frame for rethinking the Bauhaus’ lessons for today. The exhibition and accompanying catalogue advance the argument that under each of its successive architect-directors — Walter Gropius (1919-28), Hannes Meyer (1928-30) and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1930-33) — and in three locations — Weimar (1919-25), Dessau (1925-32) and Berlin (1932-33) — the Bauhaus brought together a diverse group of international artists, designers and architects in “a kind of cultural think tank for the times.”2

But if the Bauhaus may be said to have been the ultimate decantation chamber for early 20th-century modernity, it didn’t just emerge from Gropius’ head after World War I as a full-fledged idea. Nor did its afterlife in the various institutions and schools that carried forward its legacy over the remainder of the century play out neatly. The curators have made the decision not only to leave out its often messy pre- and post-history, but also to circumscribe most of the surrounding context, focusing narrowly on the school’s 14-year existence and its leading pedagogical figures and students. (The catalogue does a better job of situating the school’s development as well as some of its exemplary objects in relation to the cultural background, with many fine essays.) As Bauhaus scholars have amply documented, the roots of the school’s design reformism lay in the British Arts and Crafts Movement (especially as filtered into Germany in the first decade of the century by the architect, author and cultural ambassador Hermann Muthesius), the European Werkstätten and Werkbund movements, and the school’s immediate predecessor in Weimar, Henry van de Velde’s Kunstgewerbeschule, whose building also housed the Bauhaus during its initial phase. Pedagogically, the school’s anti-academic, experiential philosophy of learning, variously imparted by its different masters, also had well-established antecedents in 19th-century and early 20th-century progressive education movements, including those of Europeans Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, Friedrich Froebel, Maria Montessori, and Georg Kerchensteiner, as well as John Dewey in the United States. Arguably, what was unprecedented at the Bauhaus was neither the effort to forge a new unity between the fine and applied arts, nor even, subsequently, between esthetic practice and commercial production, but rather the school’s extraordinary gathering of creative talents in the service of these objectives. That it sustained this project for nearly a decade and a half with a total of 33 faculty and 1,250 students over the course of its life, all the while being threatened by reactionary political forces and destabilizing economic ones, is all the more remarkable. Even if the school’s efforts to bring its designs to the marketplace had checkered success, the widespread diffusion of its intellectual and pedagogical program remains a phenomenon. Apropos of the show’s title, it is worth emphasizing that the workshop per se is hardly a modern form of organization. It harks back to the medieval craft guilds or Bauhütten — brotherhoods of masons and other tradesmen that existed all over Europe from Gothic times, typically bound together by arcane social rituals and unified spiritually around architecture, or more precisely Baukunst, a monumental synthesis of the building arts. The instructors in the Bauhaus workshops, initially split up into formal and practical training, were known as masters rather than professors; students progressed from Lehrlinge (apprentices or trainees) to Gesellen (journeymen) to Jungmeister (young masters).

The transmission of knowledge on the model of the guild workshop also parallels the hieratic relationship between master and acolyte in a religious sect. That the Bauhaus was steeped in both these atmospheres—of craft and cult—in the immediate aftermath of World War I is richly conveyed in the exhibition, which opens with Lyonel Feininger’s famous woodcut made to accompany the school’s founding program. The crystalline image of a Gothic cathedral is charged with the same romantic-utopian afflatus that inspired the revolutionary socialism of several other cultural-political groups formed in the early months of the Weimar Republic, including the Workers Council for Art, the November Group and the circle of architectural fantasists brought together by Bruno Taut and known as the Glass Chain. Handcrafted products by the school’s bookbinding and pottery workshops, including a series of superb vessels by the future monk Theodor Bogler, as well as curious totems like a coffin designed by Lothar Schreyer and Marcel Breuer’s long-lost “African” Chair — a student project created in collaboration with Gunta Stölzl in the weaving workshop — likewise reflect an early Bauhaus whose metaphysical-material concerns were remote from the machine. Similarly, the Sommerfeld House, a log dwelling for a rich timber merchant and Bauhaus patron, realized in 1920-21 by Gropius with his partner Adolf Meyer, belongs to this late Expressionist mood. Represented in the exhibition by a series of original photographs and a colored drawing, the house was based on a system of wood prefabrication, and its construction was solemnized by a ritualistic topping-out ceremony (regrettably documented only by the invitation produced in the Bauhaus printing workshop). Inside, it was fitted with elaborately carved wall decorations, stained-glass windows and furnishings crafted by Joost Schmidt, Josef Albers, Breuer and other Bauhaus students in a Gesamtkunstwerk collaboration among all the workshops. The first of a series of “worksites,” the house inaugurated the on-site approach to teaching architecture that prevailed until the subject was finally integrated into the curriculum under department head Hannes Meyer in 1927. Along with his Märzgefallenen-Denkmal (Monument to the March Dead), 1921-22 — a cantilevered concrete “thunderbolt,” displayed in an early plaster model — the Sommerfeld House reveals a wholly different Gropius from the one associated with both the sachlich Fagus Factory of 1914, which made his early reputation as a functionalist architect, and the Bauhaus building to come in 1925-26 in Dessau.

The most visually arresting image from this period is an abstract painting by Johannes Itten titled Aufstieg und Ruhepunkt (Ascent and Resting Point), 1919. The canvas unexpectedly evokes the Parisian Orphism of the Delaunays or František Kupka, attesting to more complex cross-pollination across the modernist map than conventional narratives (and this show) suggest. The charismatic Itten, whose sacerdotal persona and haptic teaching methods made him the school’s most distinctive figure in these years, also inaugurated the famous Vorkurs in 1919. Subsequently modified under his successors, the half-year-long preliminary course was the portal to the workshops and would serve for most of the next decade as a fundamental initiation rite for every student entering the school. Continue reading

Bauhaus color

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Here are some hard-to-find color renderings by Bauhaus students (Herbert Bayer, Farkas Molnár, Joost Schmidt, Peter Keler), with text by Tadeusz Peiper.
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At the Bauhaus

Tadeusz Peiper
(1927)

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Bauhaus, the one in Dessau. So, off to Dessau. Three hours by passenger train from Berlin. We’re already there by 5 p.m. Even the feet on the stairs in the hallway of the station make it clear we’re in the provinces. But not in the Prussian provinces. Prussian towns differ only in the size of their population, not in their essence. There is almost no trace of Berlin left here. We are in the capital of the duchy of Anhalt. Small one- and two-story houses, almost like those in the Szweska district of Cracow or in the Elektoralna district in Warsaw. Around the city tall red smokestacks shoot up. We are in one of central Germany’s coal-mining centers.

A café. Frankfurters. Malevich has three cups of tea. Call Kandinsky, not home. Stop in front of every lighted store window. Sighs of longing from Malevich at overcoats, tablecloths, and suitcases. We pretend to purchase a bed. Call Kandinsky, still not home. Back into the street. Damned rain.

No time to lose. Call Gropius, the director of the Bauhaus. We go into a cafe. I call. He’s home! He is very pleased, offers us to let us spend the night at his home, drives up to the cafe in the director’s car. A noble face, veiled in fatigue, hardened by truth.

We are at his place. Entry hall. A wall that consists of a thin, sandy cloth curtain behind which stands — as we will see the following day — the dining room, which is directly connected to the kitchen, with a sliding window between the two. Continue reading

Architecture and political commitment

by Claude Schnaidt

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Image: Claude Schnaidt standing in the
middle at ULM during the 1960s

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The following lecture by Claude Schnaidt provides an interesting glimpse into his Marxist approach to the question of architecture and politics’ interrelation. It shows that peculiar mixture of nascent New Leftism rooted in Old Left intellectual inspirations that was characteristic of his thought. “Commitment” was not Schnaidt’s invention. Sartre introduced the idea of a politically “committed” literature to the older idea of literature as an autonomous practice or end-in-itself. Good supplementary material might include Theodor Adorno’s essay critiquing “commitment” in Sartre and Brecht.

Lecture at the Academy of Fine Arts

Hamburg (March 2, 1967)

In the days when the pioneers of modern architecture were still young they thought like William Morris that architecture should be an “art of the people for the people.” Instead of pandering to the tastes of the privileged few, they wanted to satisfy the requirements of the community. They wanted to build dwellings matched to human needs, to erect a Cité radieuse. But they had reckoned without the commercial instincts of the bourgeoisie who lost no time in arrogating their theories to themselves and pressing them into their service for the purpose of money­making. Utility quickly became synonymous with profitability. Anti-academic forms became the new decor of the ruling class. The rational dwelling was transformed into the minimum dwelling, the Cité radieuse into the urban conglomeration, and austerity of line into poverty of form. The architects of the trade unions, cooperatives and socialist municipalities were enlisted in the service of the whisky distillers, detergent manufacturers, bankers and the Vatican. Modern architecture, which wanted to play its part in the liberation of mankind by creating an new environment to live in, was transformed into a giant enterprise for the degradation of the human habitat. Modern architecture which proclaimed the end of formalism became itself a pastime for those who like to toy with forms. Modern architecture which began by aspiring to set man free so that he could enjoy the good things of life ended up by enslaving and alienating him. Admittedly there is something very odd about this transformation of a great movement into its opposite. What has happened? Was this development inevitable? What can be done to reverse it?

Ever since the first industrial revolution it has been the job of the architect not to build for a privileged few but to satisfy the needs of a constantly growing population. The problems of the architect and the city-planner have become social problems, i.e. problems which are propounded to society by society. This fact is no longer disputed. Yet there are very few who are ready to look squarely at a consequence that flows from it, viz. that no one can bring influence to bear on social and economic realities without becoming politically involved. Those 19th century thinkers like Owen, Cabet, Fourier, and Morris, the fathers of modern city-planning, were very much alive to this fact. Their proposals as urbanists were inseparable from an all-out criticism of capitalist society.

Soviet construction workers marching with models of modernist housing units mounted on poles, 1931

Soviet construction workers marching with models of
modernist housing units mounted on poles, 1931

When World War I came to an end one hundred years later, this committed view of city-planning was much less current than before. Nevertheless it was revitalized by the revolutionary wave that swept over Europe. The Russian Revolution engendered high hopes of an entirely new order in which everything was set fair for the creation of the city of the future. In Germany people hoped that once the monarchy had been swept away the time had come for drastic social reforms which would provide the population with the houses and cities of a new age. It was felt everywhere that the international settlement of political, economic and social problems and a change in social attitudes would mark the beginning of a new era. And people were determined that a material framework should be created for this new society. The dream was short-lived. The economic crisis brought a rude awakening. Then order was restored. But it was not the order people had dreamed about; it was the order imposed by capitalism, which was beginning to find its feet again. And then came Adolf Hitler with his own version of the “new order.” With him the dream became a nightmare that ended in World War II. There followed the cold war and finally neo-capitalism [Neokapitalismus] with its consumer society, another nightmare but this time fully air-conditioned. Continue reading

Hannes Meyer, Marxist and modernist (1889-1954)

by Claude Schnaidt

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Image: Cover to Claude Schnaidt’s
biographical essay Hannes Meyer (1964)
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Hannes Meyer died ten years ago. The publication of his work is both too early and too late. Too late because there is reason to believe that the course of modern architectural history has been changed, although it is hard to say how much, by ignorance of this work. Certain misconceptions concerning the movements and events with which he was associated might have been avoided if his work had been accessible at an earlier date. These debatable interpretations of the recent past are partly responsible for the present confusion in the minds of a whole generation of architects. Today architecture is venturing along dangerous paths from which it might have held back if the real intentions of preceding generations had been better understood. People talk, for example, of the misdeeds of functionalism and prepare to write it off without really knowing what it was. Too late, again, because the lapse of time has made Hannes Meyer a legendary figure. His is the legend of an accursed architect which must now be divested of its fictitious elements to uncover the real man concealed beneath. But this book on Hannes Meyer is also too early. The passions stirred up by the man and his work are still a long way from being quelled. There are still too many people with a stake in misrepresenting the truth. Yet, in order to establish the historical truth, we still lack many of the elements that time alone can supply.

Why, it will be asked, has the work of Hannes Meyer been misunderstood for so long? There are a number of reasons. First of all, Meyer himself was too engrossed in his daily tasks to be troubled with the preparation of a book on his works. It is also likely that such an intention was alien to his cast of mind; he was too much imbued with the idea of collective work to want to parade his own originality. And if in the last years of his life he did think of turning his enforced leisure to account by preparing a book, ill health prevented him from putting this plan into effect. Moreover, the very character of his work is ill fitted for publication. A substantial portion of it is made up of organizational measures or of research, analyses and reports prepared by a team and stored away in many instances in archives in Germany, the USSR or Mexico. But if Meyer is little or imperfectly known, this is due more particularly to the conspiracy of silence organized by all those who felt threatened by his revolutionary opinions and zest. There is also the indifference due to a failure to understand ideas transcending the conventional. If Meyer had spoken a little more often about art and a little less about politics, if he had merely indulged in reassuring generalities instead of impugning an economic system, if he had built luxury villas instead of co-operative housing estates, he would probably have been entitled to more honors than he has received. Meyer did not share the overweening ambition of his contemporaries. He did not believe that society could be changed merely by changing its architecture and its town-planning. He opposed this idealist dream and made a deliberate attempt to adapt his work to the living reality of the world. That is why there is something disconcerting about Meyer’s work at first sight: it is based on very strict principles but assumes a great variety of forms of expression.

Hannes Meyer, Dokumente zur Frühzeit: Architektur- und Gestaltungsversuche, 1919 - 1927.

Hannes Meyer, Dokumente zur Frühzeit:
Architektur und Gestaltungsversuche, 1919-27

Whether belated or, in certain respects, premature, it may be hoped that the publication of Hannes Meyer’s work will shed light on some matters of topical interest, more particularly the debate on the status and role of the architect in an industrial civilization, the controversy raging around functionalism, the reassessment of the heritage of the Bauhaus, and the crisis in the teaching of architecture. On all these outstanding questions Meyer, either implicitly or explicitly, took up a position which was original and singularly clear-sighted. Generally speaking, however, it is the general situation of architecture which underlines the topicality of Meyer’s work. Modern architects are no longer able to cope with the demands which they have helped to create. The aims and methods of architecture are due for a radical reappraisal and for this a return to the sources seems increasingly necessary. Continue reading

On Anatole Kopp

Representing Soviet modernism

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Image: Cover to the English translation of
Anatole Kopp’s Town and Revolution (1967)
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As promised, this post will briefly consider the main theoretical contentions and scholarly contributions of the French-Russian architectural historian Anatole Kopp. My own remarks will be limited to an examination of Kopp’s work on Soviet avant-garde architecture beginning in the 1950s and 1960s. From there, it will seek to ascertain any political implications that result from his dramatic presentation of the modern movement’s adventures in the USSR.

Kopp’s photos of Soviet avant-garde architecture

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With some justice the historiographical claim could be made that, by rediscovering Soviet architectural modernism from the interwar period, Kopp effectively introduced the subject to a whole generation of architects following the Second World War. Scattered accounts remained, of course, from a few celebrated exponents of the “international style” (a phrase that Kopp, like Giedion, never fully accepted). But these had largely been buried beneath these architects’ subsequent achievements, and remained in any case either a source of embarrassment or embitterment that most of them — Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, Ernst May, Hannes Meyer, Mart Stam, Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky, André Lurçat, Arthur Korn, etc. — preferred to forget.

Henri Lefebvre, 1971

Hegelian Marxist theorist Henri Lefebvre, 1971

Henri Lefebvre, later one of Kopp’s primary collaborators, drew upon Kopp’s reading of the era while spelling out just how groundbreaking his narrative of the Soviet avant-garde was in the 1960s in The Urban Revolution:

Between 1920 and 1930, Russia experienced a tremendous spurt of creative activity. Quite amazingly, Russian society, turned upside down through revolution, managed to produce superstructures (out of the depths) of astonishing novelty. This occurred in just about every field of endeavor, including politics, architecture, and urbanism. These super­structures were far in advance of the existing structures (social relations) and base (productive forces). The existing base and superstructures would have had to follow, make up for their delay, and reach the level of the superstructures that had come into existence through the process of revolutionary creativity. This was a key problem for Lenin during his last years. Today, however, it has become painfully obvious that those structures and the “base” did a poor job of catching up. The superstructures produced by revolutionary genius collapsed on top of a base (peasant, backward) that had been badly or inadequately modified. Isn’t this the great drama of our era? Architectural and urbanist thought cannot arise from thought or theory alone (urbanistic, sociological, economic). It came into being during this total phenomenon known as revolution. The creations of the revolutionary period in the Soviet Union quickly disappeared; they were destroyed and then forgotten. So why did it take forty years, why did we have to wait until today (an age that some claim is characterized by speed, acceleration, vertigo) and the work of Anatole Kopp to acknowledge the achievements of architectural and urban thought and practice in the Soviet Union? (The Urban Revolution, pg. 184).

Kopp’s studies were a revelation not only to Western readers, however, but to many of his comrades in the East as well. Indeed, his archival visits to the USSR roughly overlapped with pioneering investigations in the field by Soviet historians like Selim Khan-Magomedov and Oleg Shvidkovskii. The Soviet modernists’ legacy was unknown even in its country of origin, having been politically suppressed for decades. (Though I’d have to double-check, I seem to recall he even worked in tandem with Khan-Magomedov at one point). Unlike his colleagues/contemporaries, who kept more or less neutral in their appraisal of modern architecture, Kopp assigned it a positively revolutionary value. There is something to this approach, to be sure, though the reasons behind this fact perhaps eluded the historian himself. In the introduction to his seminal treatise, Town and Revolution, he explained some of the motivations for his research. Anticipating potential criticisms, Kopp wrote:

It may be objected that if these buildings and projects, all now more than thirty years old, are technically and formally obsolete, why bother to return to them? Because they constitute an important page of world architectural history and because a knowledge of the history of modem architecture makes it easier to understand and appreciate the architecture of today. Because much current [1966] experimentation and research is merely a continuation of efforts begun during the twenties (when it is not simple plagiarism) and because a knowledge of what was done then could assist modem architecture in escaping from the vicious circle in which it now seems trapped. Because the research undertaken at that time related not only to forms and techniques but also to :first principles and because most of the so-called social programs of today have their origin in that remote period and arc a con­ sequence of precisely the economic, political, and social context that existed then. In my opinion, these reasons are amply sufficient to justify a new look at the Soviet architecture of the twenties. They are, however, only secondary considerations.

The principal reason for undertaking such a study lies elsewhere. For the avant-garde of the Soviet architects of the twenties, architecture was a means, a lever to be employed in achieving the highest goal that man can set himself. For them architecture was, above all, a tool for “transforming mankind.” The world had been turned upside down, a new society was being built on the basis of new productive relations between individuals. Soon it would give birth to a new man freed of the prejudices and·habits of the past. This new society, this new man, could not develop in the old human dens fashioned in the image of a discredited social order. A special environment and appropriate structures were indispensable. But this environment was not conceived merely as a reflection, or material “translation,” of the new society; it had to-be-created Immediately, since only by living in it would man as he was become man as he was to be. Thus was established a dialectical conception of the role of the human environment: a reflection of the new society, it was at the same time the mold in which that society was to be cast. To some extent, the new environment, the new architecture, was viewed as a device designed for correcting, transforming, and improving man. In the language of the time architecture was a “social condenser” within which indispensable mutations were to be produced. (Town and Revolution, pg. 12).

In such passages the logic of Kopp’s argument unfolds magnificently. Here he laid out the case for modern architecture as facilitating, expediting, and even generating social change on its own. Kopp’s own formal training as an architect had come, of course, in the United States, under the supervision of exiled Bauhaus masters such as Walter Gropius and Josef Albers. Returning to France after the war, as Falbel discusses below, Kopp joined the French Communist Party and soon fell into the same circles as the prominent Hegelian Marxist Henri Lefebvre and other leading lights such as Claude Schnaidt. Kopp also came into contact with the well-known French intellectual Paul Virilio, who reminded his interviewer in Crepuscular Dawn that he’d “worked with Anatole Kopp, who published Town and Revolution.” (Virilio goes on to flatter himself in the course of the interview by insisting that it was he, and not Lefebvre, who’d first coined the idea of an “urban revolution”). Continue reading

Anatole Kopp (1915-1990): the Engaged Architect and the Concept of Modern Architecture

by Anat Falbel
University of Campinas, Brazil
anatfalbel@uol.com.br

The bulk of the biographical data amassed below comes from an essay by a Brazilian professor, Anat Falbel, so much so that it has been appended in full. It’s rather awkwardly translated, in parts, so I’ve taken the liberty of purging some bits where he equivocates about which word to use. Beyond that, it’s a serviceable enough piece — rather weak in its gloss on Kopp’s politics despite its attention to his party membership, but filled with helpful facts and information throughout.

On engagement

The Petit Robert dictionary defines engagement as “the act or attitude of an intellectual or artist who, aware of his condition as a member of society and of the world of his time, renounces his position as a mere spectator and puts his thinking or his art to the service of a cause.” While he was still a high school pupil, at a time when the ideological debate in France was polarized between right and left, Anatole Kopp become engaged with the French Communist Party (FCP). For the son of Russian Jewish immigrants who was raised between cultural boundaries that permeated and nourished each other, and who faced the chauvinistic and xenophobic France of his youth, the October Revolution signified a new universality, a society free of social as well as national differences, suggesting affinities between Jewish messianic aspiration and a social utopia interpreted as on ethical enterprise.

Record of Anatole Kopp's birth information

Record of Anatole Kopp’s birth information

Kopp’s engagement and awareness of his role as a militant and Modern architect is illustrated in the excerpt below, taken from the 1952 letter he sent to the French Architectural Board that had been refusing his membership since 1947 because of his militant activities. The passage indicates the emergence of on early idea of a modern monument:

…As for as I am concerned, it is the social aspect of architecture that played a crucial role in the choice of studies I have mode. I believe that the path leading to architecture through the Villejuif School, the proletarian towns in Vienna and the great Dam of Dniepr is just as worthy as the way through the Parthenon, the Farnese Palace or the Louvre Colunatta.

…it is widely known that we cannot transform society through architecture or urban planning. To believe in that would be confounding cause and effect…

This study seeks to understand Kopp’s historical work based on his career as an architect and his role as an engaged intellectual. It recognizes his personal struggle with one of the problematic aspects of the militant’s engagement: the need to recognize the primacy of the revolutionary process and the hegemony of the political entity it personified, namely the Communist Party, a primacy that proved increasingly unsustainable in the late 1950s. Continue reading

Theater at the Bauhaus (1925)

Oskar Schlemmer

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Image: Walter Gropius, design for the
“total theater” at the Bauhaus (1926)

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From a lecture-demonstration at the Bauhaus by Oskar Schlem­mer to the Circle of Friends of the Bauhaus (March 16, 1927).

Before speaking about theater proper at the Bauhaus, we should first take a brief look at the way in which it came about, consider the justification for its existence, and observe its path and its goals. In short, we should review its primary endeavor, which is to approach all our material from a basic and elementary standpoint. It is because of this endeavor that the stage here has became an organic link in the total chain of Bauhaus activity.

It is natural that the aims of the Bauhaus — to seek the union of the artistic-ideal with the craftsmanlike-practical by thoroughly investigating the creative elements, and to understand in all its ramifications the essence of der Bau, creative construction — have valid application to the field of the theater. For, like the concept of Bau itself, the stage is an orchestral complex which comes about only through the cooperation of many different forces. It is the union of the most heterogeneous assortment of creative elements. Not the least of its functions is to serve the metaphysical needs of man by constructing a world of illusion and by creating the transcen­dental on the basis of the rational.

Cover to a more recent edition of Oskar Schlemmer's writings on the theater

Cover to a more recent edition of Oskar
Schlemmer’s writings on the theater

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From the first day of its existence, the Bauhaus sensed the impulse for creative theater; for from that first day the play instinct [der Spieltrieb] was present. The play instinct, which Schiller in his wonderful and endur­ ing Briefe über die ästhetische Erziehung des Menschen [Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man, (1795)] calls the source of man’s real creative values, is the un-self-conscious and naIve pleasure in shaping and pro­ ducing, without asking questions about use or uselessness, sense or non­ sense, good or bad. This pleasure through creation was especially strong at the beginning (not to say the infancy) of the Bauhaus
…….in Weimar
and was expressed in our exuberant parties, in improvisations, and in the imaginative masks and costumes which we made.

We might say that during the course of its development, this state of naïveté, which is the womb of the play instinct, is generally followed by a period of reflection, doubt, and criticism, something that in turn can easily bring about the destruction of the original state, unless a second and, as it were, skeptical kind of naIvete tempers this critical phase. Today we have become much more aware of ourselves. A sense for standards and con­stants has arisen out of the unconscious and the chaotic. This, together with concepts such as norm, type, and synthesis, points the way to creative form [Gestaltung].

Costumes

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It was due only to intense skepticism, for example, that in 1922 Lothar Schreyer’s plan to form a Bauhaus theater failed; at the time there was practically no climate for strong philosophical points of view (Weltan­schauungstendenzen), none at least which could be found in the sacral garb of Expressionism. On the other hand, there was a distinct feeling for satire and parody. It was probably a legacy of the Dadaists to ridicule automatically everything that smacked of solemnity or ethical precepts. And so the grotesque flourished again. It found its nourishment in travesty and in mocking the antiquated forms of the contemporary theater. Though its tendency was fundamentally negative, its evident recognition of the origin, conditions, and laws of theatrical play was a positive feature.

The dance, however, stayed alive throughout this period. During the course of our growth it changed from the crude country dancing of our “youth hostelers” [Rüpeltanz der Wandervögel] to the full-dress fox trot. The same thing happened in music: our concertina metamorphosed into our jazz band (A. Weininger). Group dancing found its image reflected on the stage in the dance of the individual. And from this developed our formalized use of color [das Farbig-Formale], and the Mechanical Ballet (K. Schmidt, Bogler, Teltscher). Experimentation with colored light and shadows became the “Reflectory Light Play” (Schwertfeger and L. Hirschfeld­ Mack). A marionette theater was begun.

While we had no stage of our own in Weimar and had to give our productions on a sort of dubious suburban podium there, since the move
…….to Dessau
we have been in the enviable position of having a “house-stage” of our own in the new Bauhaus building. Although it was originally meant to be a platform for lectures as well as a stage for performances on a limited scale, it is nevertheless well equipped for a serious approach to stage problems.

Architecture

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For us these problems and their solution lie in fundamentals, in elementary matters, in discovering literally the primary meaning of Stage. We are concerned with what makes things typical, with type, with number and measure, with basic law. • • • I scarcely need to say that these concerns have been active, if not necessarily dominant, during all periods of great art; but they could be active only when preconditioned by a state of hypersensitive alertness and tension, that is, when functioning as the regulators of a real feeling of involvement with the world and life. Of many memorable statements which have been made about number, measure, and law in art, I cite only one sentence from Philipp Otto Runge: “It is precisely in the case of those works of art which most truly arise from the imagination and the mystique of our soul, unhampered by externals and unburdened by history, that the strictest regularity is necessary.” Continue reading