From Bauhaus to Our House Critical Essays

Tom Wolfe


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

In Wolfe’s view, the Bauhaus, which Gropius established in 1919, “was a commune, a spiritual movement, a radical approach to art in all its forms, a philosophical center.” It came into being on the heels of the devastating European tragedy of World War I and presented its young architects with the opportunity of building a “brave new world” out of the rubble of war. The war had been a watershed: It convinced artists and architects that they were on the cutting edge as the avant-garde of European culture and society. In rejecting the past, they believed themselves to be “starting from zero,” to be “re-creating the world.” Wolfe argued that the unique tradition of the Bauhaus was distinctly ideological and that its orientation was Marxist. In fact, however, much of the postwar intellectual world (including the literary and artistic communities) was clearly antibourgeois and each art compound attempted to outdo the others in the purity of its nonbourgeois truth.

Thus, the Bauhaus architects, in seeking the creation of a Marxist world, believed themselves to be seeking the purest and most perfect of goals—the development of proletarian, or worker, housing. They were, according to Wolfe, attempting to obliterate the bourgeois world and replace it with a world of their own creation. In this new world of the proletariat, the worst criticism imaginable, stated with a superior sneer, was, “How very bourgeois!” That criticism could and would be applied to everything that one person did not like about another.

Following such an orientation, art compounds, such as the Bauhaus, became self-contained units which rejected the bourgeois establishment and announced to the world their manifestos. As Wolfe noted, in their estimation the members of the art compound, no one else, owned the truth and represented the inevitable progress of architecture. Having established their ethical and artistic tenets, they proclaimed them as the wave of the future while rejecting everything of the past. In The Theory of the Avant-Garde (1968), Renatto Poggioli described this process as it applied to late nineteenth and twentieth century art. Eric Hoffer, in The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (1951), described the psychological orientation of such an intellectual posture. From Bauhaus to Our House provides examples that illustrate both of these theses.

The question of translating nonbourgeois truth into architectural reality was a difficult one. The Bauhaus architects and their rivals engaged in a debate which became arcane and esoteric to the point of being scholastic. In his book Wolfe showed how each building or construction became a theory designed to support the Bauhaus truth. Because one could say of color, “How very bourgeois,” the Bauhaus spectrum became black, gray, white, and beige—nothing else could appear in a building. Bauhaus truth included the idea of “functionalism,” which meant being nonbourgeois. Therefore, pitched roofs were rejected because, representing the “crowns” of artistocracy, their repudiation was functional, or nonbourgeois. The fact that flat roofs leak in the moisture of the world’s temperate zone was irrelevant. Buildings had to fulfill a correct theory, regardless of weather. For the same reason, cornices, overhanging eaves, and elaborate facades were all strictly prohibited. Similarly, all luxury—granite, marble, limestone, and even red brick—had to go. Decoration simply hid the “soul” of the building, its simple inner structure, which had to be reflected in the outer expression of the building. These were the theoretical requirements for a nonbourgeois building and each Bauhaus-inspired building illustrated the required theory, just as, as proved in The Painted Word, art reflected theory.

Above all, Bauhaus architects were theorists interested in advancing theory, not necessarily in building. Thus, Le Corbusier, the theorist of the school, was regarded as an architectural genius although he had produced few examples of his theories. Simplicity of style in the nonbourgeois buildings had infected most European architects during the decade of the 1920’s, and the “worker” houses were invariably plain and dreary. As Wolfe noted, when the residents of such homes attempted to add color and warmth to the brutal sterility, the architects insisted that the workers required “reeducation.” It appeared that the world of architecture had to be re-created in the image of worker housing—narrow halls, low ceilings, flat roofs, colorlessness, lack of ornamentation and decoration, and, above all, uniform dullness. Wolfe vividly depicted how architects intimidated laymen.

How the dullness of the Bauhaus tradition could be foisted on the American public is a question whose answer lies in a historic American psychological problem: the colonial complex. In 1932, Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson wrote “The International Style,” a description of contemporary European architecture. It introduced International Style to the United States and served to promote that style. Drawing a distinction between “architecture” and...

(The entire section is 2118 words.)