Exerpts from Ernő Kállai’s “Ten Years of Bauhaus” (1930)

Translated from the German by Wolfgang Jabs and Basil Gilbert.

From Between Two Worlds: A Sourcebook of Central European

Avant-Gardes, 1910-1930.  (The MIT Press.  Cambridge, MA: 2002).

• • •


It was ten years ago that Walter Gropius reorganized the Weimar School of Arts and Crafts and named the new school “Bauhaus.”  The success of his creation is well known.  What, during the early years at Weimar, used to be the vehemently disputed activity of a few outsiders has now become a big business boom.   Houses and even whole housing settlements are being built everywhere; all with smooth white walls, horizontal rows of windows, spacious terraces, and flat roofs.   The public accepts them, if not always with great enthusiasm, at least without opposition, as the products of an already familiar “Bauhaus style.”  But in reality the initiative for this kind of architecture originated by no means at the Bauhaus alone.   The Bauhaus is just one part of an international movement that developed quite a while ago, particularly in Holland.   But the Bauhaus became the first school of this movement.   It has been highly effective in disseminating its ideas and has been extraordinarily successful as a place for experimentation.   The reputation of the institute has quickly spread and reached even the remotest corners of the country.   Today everybody knows about it.   Houses with lots of glass and shining metal: Bauhaus style.   The same is true of home hygiene without home atmosphere: Bauhaus style.   Tubular steel armchair frames: Bauhaus style.   Lamp with nickel-coated body and a disk of opaque glass as lampshade: Bauhaus style.   Wallpaper patterned in cubes: Bauhaus style.   No painting on the wall: Bauhaus style.   Incomprehensible painting on the wall: Bauhaus style.   Printing with sans-serif letters and bold rules: Bauhaus style.  everything written in small letters: bauhaus style.   EVERYTHING EXPRESSED IN BIG CAPITALS: BAUHAUS STYLE.

Bauhaus style: one word for everything.   Wertheim sets up a new department for modern-style furniture and appliances, an arts-and-crafts salon with functionally trimmed high fashion trash.   The special attraction is the name “Bauhaus.”  A fashion magazine in Vienna recommends that ladies’ underwear no longer be decorated with little flowers, but with more contemporary Bauhaus-style geometrical designs.   Such embarrassing and amusing misuses in the fashion hustle of our wonderful modern age cannot be prevented.   His Majesty the snob would like something new.   Very well.   There are enough architects making the Bauhaus style into a new decorative attraction.   The exhibition of cold splendor is back again.   It has just been rejuvenated, has exchanged the historical robe for a sort of pseudo-technological raciness.   But it is just as bad as before…The new Berlin despises the swollen marble and stucco showiness of the “Wilhelmian” public buildings and churches, but it revels in the hocus-pocus of megalomaniac motion-picture palaces, department stores, automobile “salons” and gourmets’ paradises with their shrieking advertisements.   This new architecture, the slender nakedness of its structure shining far and wide and bathed in an orgy of lights at night, is by no means, so we are told, ostentatious; it is rather “constructive and functional.”  Hence, once more: Bauhaus style.   But let us take heart.   For small homeowners, workers, civil servants, and employees the Bauhaus style also has its social application.  They are serially packaged into minimum standard housing.   Everything is very functional and economical.   Furniture and house-hold articles are within reach and, according to Westheim: the suicidal gas main is in their mouth…

Let us keep the slogan “Bauhaus style,” since it has already become a household word, even where it is no more than a cover for a corruption of originally more sincere intentions.  With all due respect to the difference between these intentions and the commercialization of the Berlin Broadway.   It cannot be denied, however, that the work of the Bauhaus itself is in no way free of aesthetic over-cultivation and of dangerous formalism.

It is true that discarding all ornamentation and banning each and every curved [638] plane and line in the design of houses, furniture, and appliances has led to the creation of very interesting, new, and simple forms.   But whatever was obvious about these new functional forms has by no means always made as much sense.   Rather, the products which were to be expedient and functional, technical and constructive, and economically necessary were for the most part conceived out of a taste-oriented arbitrariness decked out in new clothes, and out of a bel-esprit propensity for elementary geometric configurations and for the formal characteristics of technical contrivances.   Art and technology, the new unity — this is what it was theoretically called and accordingly practiced — interested in technology, but art-directed.   This is a critical “but.”  Priority was given to the art-directedness.   There was the new formalistic willfulness, the desire to create a style at all costs, and technology had to yield to this conviction.   This is the way those Bauhaus products originated: houses, furniture, and lamps which wrested attention primarily by their obtrusively impressive form and which, as a logical result of this characteristic, were accepted or rejected by the public and the press as being the products of a new style, namely the Bauhaus style.   But they were not accepted or rejected for being the products of a new technical development in the building or furniture industries.   Of course the Bauhaus, in numerous programmatical and propagandistic publications, affirmed time and time again that the formal characteristics of its products were no more than the inevitable results of a “strictly relevant” fulfillment of function, rather than an intention to create a style.   Yet, a few years of practice were already enough even for the eyes of the younger Bauhaus generation to recognize that these products were outdated handicraft.   This may be less florid than customary handicraft.   But it is instead inhibited, prejudiced by a doctrinaire mock asceticism, stiff, without charm, and yet pretentious to the point of arrogance.   Fellow travelers who are smarter businessmen and are more unscrupulous have not hesitated to make frankly shoddy handicraft out of this somewhat clumsy trouble-child of the new functional design.   Where is the dividing line between genuine and false Bauhaus style? The Bauhaus started things rolling with its aesthetic ambition; it must now accept the fact that others are going to add all the rest right up to the bitter end.   Why is it that a similar fate does not threaten a swivel chair or the “Zeiss” lamp? The reason is that these products are not born of the unity of art and technology but are genuine constructions evolved from industrial technology: they are creations of engineering.   It would be revealing to ask one of the “Zeiss” engineers for his opinion on the technical and illumination properties of the Bauhaus lamps.

Gropius established, among others, the following guidelines for the Bauhaus program:

The Bauhaus wants to assist in the development of present-day housing, from the simplest household appliances to the finished dwelling The Bauhaus workshops are essentially laboratories in which prototypes of products suitable for mass production and typical of our time are carefully developed and constantly improved…The prototypes that have been completed in the Bauhaus workshops are reproduced by outside firms with whom the workshops are closely related…The Bauhaus brings creatively talented people with ample practical experience into the actual course of production, people who have mastered both technical and formal problems, and who are to take over the preparation of models for production in industry and the crafts…

Particularly with respect to building: the mass prefabrication of houses should be attempted and units should be kept in stock which would be manufactured not on the site but in permanent workshops, to be easily assembled later.   These would include ceilings, roofs, and walls.   Thus it would be like a children’s box of blocks on a larger scale and on the basis of standardization and production of types.

This program is extraordinarily up-to-date and very “social.”   Modern industry and business have attracted a tremendous number of people to their places of production [639] and distribution.   This has caused a social need in the area of housing which can only be overcome by mass production.   The industrialization of the building and the home-appliance industry is an urgent socio-economic and socio-political requirement.  Industrial production methods, by way of a process of mechanical elimination, inexorably cast off any discrepancies with respect to form which might interfere with the impersonal neutrality and complete fulfillment of the function of the articles.   To put Bauhaus production into the service of such standardizing elimination and to train, at the Bauhaus, the leaders of a modern construction and home-building industry is admittedly a highly important and productive idea.   But this idea must be followed in reality and not, as has many times been the case in practice at the Bauhaus, deviate into formalism.

It is not enough to force industrial mass production and in so doing, in the design of these products, to allow artistry — despite schematic simplification it is still aesthetically willful — to triumph over the engineer.   Architecture must strive resolutely to accomplish ‘social, technological, economic, and psychological organization” (Hannes Meyer).   Otherwise architecture will remain — Bauhaus style, a hybrid solution, indecisive about form, neither emotional and free like art, nor straightforward, accurate, and necessary like technology.   The result of this ambiguity of the Bauhaus style is the strange and inhibited situation of free art at the Bauhaus, especially that of painting.  This inhibition stems from the secret or open hostility between most of the architectural and workshop members.   These semi-artists and semi-technicians find arguments to present themselves as superior to the painters with respect to their usefulness and their powers of reasoning.   No engineer would ever dare take such a position.   It is clear that this hostility is no more than their way of protecting themselves against their own artistic drives which have been repressed by the fact of their association with technology.   Bad conscience with respect to the demands of form is thus anesthetized.

Yet, painting is avidly carried on at the Bauhaus, right next door to the imposing reinforced concrete structures and the huge glass planes, in the shadow of these strutting, rationally cold, expedient, and industrially aesthetic three-dimensional structures, so to speak.   Whoever was to find a chance to peek into the rooms and studios of the Bauhaus people at night would be surprised to see how many painters are standing in front of their easels, painting away at their canvases — some of them secretly, like high-school students who furtively write poems, with a bad conscience perhaps, because instead of sweating over functional modern buildings or folding tables or lamps, they remember just that part of the famous Gropius phrase about “art and technology, a new unity” that deals with art, leaving technology to the technologists.  These painters are transcending all rationalized expediency and the principle of aesthetic usefulness the Bauhaus preaches, with an indifference as if they were living on some fantastic planet of art where everything is in a state of surrealism.   The more the efforts of the Bauhaus workshops and the practice of the building industry focus on the achievement of the kind of straightforwardness that is functionally and structurally directed and mass production and standardization oriented, the more the Bauhaus painting falls into the other extreme.   Either it revels in dreams, visions, and blunt confessions of the soul or in paradoxical juggler’s tricks between tangible reality and its conversion into metaphysics.   It is interesting and curious to note that such art, concerned with psychic introspection and with the skeptical and playful enjoyment of contradictions, was able to develop, particularly in such close contact with the modern, daily practice of the purpose-minded Bauhaus.   This development is curious and yet characteristic, for it is to be interpreted as a natural relaxation and compensation.  The overemphasis on industrial technology and rational organization, on the other hand, is bound to activate all the powers of the spirit.   In this respect the Bauhaus can [640] well be considered a proving ground in the sense of intellectual, cultural activities.   The discrepancies between the soul and technology which today exist at the centers of the Euro-American civilization are put to their toughest test at the Bauhaus, where close human contact and close associations in practical work have developed under one roof.  Daring balance, cerebral and soul equilibristics: Bauhaus style.

Or is it simply a case of the left hand not knowing, or not wanting to know, what the right hand is doing, and vice versa? Is it a case of not knowing that architecture and art are going separate ways, as husband and wife do in a modern companionate marriage? Antiseptically clean separations are basically very well liked at the Bauhaus.  One separates painting from representation.   The painting has to be abstract.   In Kandinsky’s paintings a tree or a face may not even accidentally sneak in.   They are immediately contorted past recognition or are expunged altogether and assigned to photography.   Everything representational belongs to the realm of photography.

Violators of this principle are making punishable reversions into an epoch of art that has been discredited.   Still, there are painters at the Bauhaus who dare look at nature.  Feininger, Klee, and a good number of younger painters.   But they don their visionary protective goggles in order not to shield their spiritual eyes from the crude materialism of reality.

Hence once more: clean separation.   Just as between soul and belly.   “Eros” has very little influence at the Bauhaus.   People are either reserved, straightforward, and cerebral, or they are simply sexual in an unsublimated way.   People either pray according to German industrial standards or listen to phonograph records of American jazz hits twanging about sentimental voluptuousness.   People are balancing out antitheses: Bauhaus style.   There is little human fulfillment, little that is vigorous, genuine, and whole.   There is far too much theory, over-exaggeration, and abstraction.   What is urgently needed is reform…

[Originally published as “Zehn Jahre Bauhaus,” Die Weltbühne, No. 21 (January 1930)]


~ by Ross Wolfe on October 21, 2010.

3 Responses to “Exerpts from Ernő Kállai’s “Ten Years of Bauhaus” (1930)”

  1. […] Kállai, Ernő.  “Ten Years of Bauhaus.” Translated from the German by Wolfgang Jabs and Basil Gilbert.  Between Two Worlds: A Sourcebook […]

  2. […] Kállai, “Ten Years of Bauhaus.”  Pg. […]

  3. […] Kállai, Ernő.  “Ten Years of Bauhaus.” Translated from the German by Wolfgang Jabs and Basil Gilbert.  Between Two Worlds: A Sourcebook […]

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