|FROM BAUHAUS TO OUR HOUSE|
by Tom Wolfe
1981, Simon & Schuster
If you want to know how to write, read this book. If you want to know how to dress, read this book. If you want to know about modern art and architecture, read this book.
Think the Barcelona Chair, the Seagram Building in New York and anything minimalist. Bauhaus (which began in Germany in 1919) is all about starting from zero? The Bauhaus concept was to unite the arts under the umbrella of architecture, create plain worker housing and avoid being bourgeoisie. In reality, everyone involved with the movement was, well, bourgeoisie. So the word took on the most damning of meanings. At all costs one wanted to avoid creating something people could point to and declare "How very bourgeois." Which so reminded me of college art classes. The greatest fear one had, the worst thing one student could say to another about her work was "How very derivative." It was enough to cause one to drop out of art school and do something random, like major in business.
But -- let's get back to zero.
Among the greats who taught at the Bauhaus school were photographer Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, furniture designer Marcel Breuer, architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and painters Paul Klee and Josef Albers. Albers taught the introductory Bauhaus course. His inimitable style was to drop a handful of newspapers on a desk and tell students to get busy. He'd be back in an hour. With competition akin to football players at the Super Bowl, each of the students would work tirelessly in an attempt to top each other, creating airplanes, birds, yachts and more. Always, one student would take a piece of newspaper, fold it in half and plop the tent on the desk to the snivels of his classmates. The esteemed Albers would march back into class, eye the paper machinery and pick one as the epitome of all things Bauhaus. Always -- it was the tent.
"This is a work of art in paper," he said marveling at the folded parchment. "This makes use of the soul of paper." And every cortex in the room would spin out. So simple! So beautiful... It was as if light had been let into one's dim brain for the first time. My God! -- starting from zero! Few people can turn a phrase quite so succinctly, beautifully and sarcastically as Wolfe can. He of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Bonfires of the Vanities and A Man in Full fame.
Again, let's return to zero.
With little money in Europe to build their oh-so-vanilla buildings, the leading Bauhaus lights lit out for America. There they found a receptive audience at Harvard. America's most talented and intellectually gifted students were drilled the line "less is more," a line originated by Mies van der Rohe. Less is more exactly summed up the Bauhaus style. Less is more. How very ground zero!
During this time, among the Bauhausers Frank Lloyd Wright was considered pretentious scum. Too bourgeois, while Buckminster Fuller, he of geodesic dome fame, brilliant. Besides the difference in architectural styles, Wright was considered too independent, while Fuller was believed to be either genius or insane. Better to side on the former. It always comes down to personalities, doesn't it?
The Bauhaus influence resulted in buildings that all looked the same. Similar boxes of glass, steel and concrete. Simple, yes. Inspired? Not really. In other words -- b-o-r-i-n-g. The thing was, Bauhaus was all about minimalism, and America in the fifties was all about excess. Think big, honking, gas-guzzling cars and you have a snapshot of the country at that time. What were rebellious architects to do? Go elaborate! Add cornices and columns, divide up those damn boxes. Edward Durel Stone, the architect of New York's original Museum of Modern Art, abandoned Bauhaus for a more extravagant style, much to the derision of his former brethren. In fact, when the Modern was to have an addition, he wasn't asked to expand it. Instead, Philip Johnson, a protege of van der Rohe, was given the commission.
Yet, today Stone's work, including the Gallery of Modern Art in New York and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., stands as important parts of the urban American landscape. Bauhaus represented then - and represents today - a minimalist style that continues to influence modern culture, from dance to art to music.
What makes From Bauhaus to Our House a worthwhile read isn't just the history of modern architecture and the artsy politicking going on, rather, it's the lessons of editing. The essence of all good art, whether writing, building or music, is found in vetting the unnecessary and keeping the essentials, making From Bauhaus to Our House required reading.