To what extent are the principles and methods of the Bauhaus relevant to designers today? Consider this question using one example from the Bauhaus and one from a contemporary designer/design group.
The Bauhaus shaped not only modern product design and architecture, but also the way we think about art education. When the school was shut down in 1933, many former students and teachers were forced to flee Germany. They took the ideas and principles that had shaped the Bauhaus with them and eventually passed them on to new generations of architects and designers across the world.
To this day, these methods and principles, in particular the openness towards new technology and the use of research in the design process are alive and visible throughout creative disciplines.
The following will explore this idea by examining the B3 “Wassily” Chair (1925) by Marcel Breuer [Fig. 1] as an example for the Bauhaus and the new German Reichstag (1999) by Foster + Associates [Fig. 2] as a contemporary example. Even though these projects are vastly different in scale and circumstance, the design process leading up to them is remarkably similar.
Use of emerging technology
The Wassily Chair was only made possible by a groundbreaking new material: Seamless steel tube. For the majority of the 19th century, steel tubes were manufactured by rolling up pieces of sheet metal and welding the two edges together. This labour-intensive method could only produce pipes within a limited range of dimensions. Also, bending these pipes would break open the weld seam, making designs like the Wassily chair impossible to implement.
It wasn’t until 1895 that the Mannesmann process (named after the German Mannesmann brothers) allowed for the production of seamless tubing by piercing and drawing out a solid block of steel. The technology became an immediate success, and soon completely replaced the old welding method (Brensing and Sommer, n.d.). Suddenly, steel tubing was available much cheaper, in a wider range of dimensions and at higher quality than ever before. Most importantly, it could be bent using relatively basic tools such as Bauhaus students would have had access to.
Marcel Breuer, who was head of the furniture workshop at the time, introduced the new material to his students. Drawing inspiration from earlier, wooden prototypes [Fig. 3] and soliciting help from a local blacksmith the workshop finished the first iteration of the B3 chair in 1925. (Vitra Design Museum, 2015)
The notion of embracing technological innovation and using new materials and techniques to address existing problems was embraced throughout the Bauhaus. Perhaps its most vocal supporter was the Hungarian Lazlo Mohony-Nago, who replaced Johannes Itten in 1923. His rationality and clear-headedness quickly became popular amongst students and teachers, reportedly “blowing all the metaphysics, meditation, breathing exercises, intuition […] out of the window”. Moholy introduced unconventional materials like glass and plastic to the metal workshop and encouraged students in the preliminary course to find new and interesting combinations of raw material that was bought directly from industrial suppliers. (Withford, 1984)
This new openness towards technology became central to the Bauhaus curriculum and continues to drive creative practitioners today.
One can feel Norman Foster’s excitement for new technology as he talks about computer-controlled buildings, sustainable energy and the potential of 3d-printed homes. For the Reichstag Foster worked with engineers to develop a system that uses solar energy and vegetable oil-powered generators to power the building. The system is so efficient that the Reichstag is not only completely independent from the city grid, but also serves as a power station for surrounding buildings (Schulz and Foster, 2000).
Functional research in the design process
The students in the Bauhaus furniture workshop were likely not the first to investigate sitting in order to try and design a comfortable chair. However, they were the first to regard such research as not only a vital part of the design process, but also as a selling point. Their investigation led to a list of requirements that their designs would be measured against:
- Elastic seat and back rest […]
- Angling of the seat so that the full length of the upper leg is supported […]
- Angled position of the upper body
- Spine left free since any pressure on the spine is uncomfortable as well as unhealthy
These rules were rigorously followed. Almost all chairs that were designed in the workshop between 1925 and 1927 were seen, and sold as direct products of this research.
There is of course an argument to be made questioning the integrity of Breuer’s research: Apart from life drawing classes, there was no formal training in physiology, medicine or any other scientific discipline at the Bauhaus. This makes claims such as pressure on the spine being generally unhealthy seem questionable. Also other “research projects” at the Bauhaus, such as Paul Klee’s surveys about his colour theory show little regard for the scientific method.
Despite these problems the underlying notion of seeing research as a central part of the design process and basing decisions on it rather than aesthetic principle remains a key factor in modern practice.
In the case of the Reichstag, many decisions were informed by extensive research into both functional requirements of a modern parliament building and the role the building had played in German history. For instance: The research found that German MPs often have to move back and forth between their offices and the debating chamber many times during the day. This led to the faction rooms being moved into the Reichstag itself (contrary to the original brief), making the distance between them and the debating chamber as short as possible. In another instance, historians discovered graffiti that had been left by Russian soldiers in 1945 and had been covered up and forgotten about in the 1960 . Foster had them carefully reconstructed and made them a deliberate part of his design concept. They are now visible throughout the building, adding to its historical significance. (Jodidio and Foster, 1997)
Like many other Bauhaus designs, the Wassily chair never made it to mass production. Although they take the appearance of machine-manufactured parts, they were in most cases entirely handmade and were at no point affordable for the working class. It isn’t the actual products of the Bauhaus that continue to inspire generations of designers and architects - it is the underlying set of ideas that does. As Norman Foster himself puts it in a 2015 interview, the Bauhaus is “one of the birthplaces of the modern world - a utopian vision” (Kries and Kugler, 2015).
Figure 1: B3 “Wassily” Chair. Available at http://www.bauhaus.de/en/ausstellungen/sammlung/205_moebel/ [acessed 24 January 2016]
Figure 2: Norman Foster : Reichstag winning proposal. Available at http://www.laits.utexas.edu/berlin/images/buildings/01Reichstag/c183_Reichstag.jpg [accessed 24 January 2016] Obj.Id_60422_web_hoch.jpg
Figure 3: Marcel Breuer/Tischlerei Bauhaus Weimar, Lath chair, 1924. Available at http://www.bauhaus.de/images/Obj.Id_60422_web_hoch.jpg?w=800 [accessed 24 January 2016]
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