Has the Bauhaus ruined our cities?

Glimpses of an old debate

Bruno Glätsch (https://pixabay.com/users/bru-no-1161770/?utm_source=link-attribution&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=image&utm_content=3491512) via Pixabay (https://pixabay.com/?utm_source=link-attribution&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=image&utm_content=3491512)
The modern city – “the sad result of our failure to put basic human requirements before industrial demands”?

[Translate to English:] Überschrift

Any readers wondering whether this title is a cheap click-baiting trick or even a reactionary provocation can rest assured: of course the Bauhaus has not destroyed our cities. The design principles represented or even developed by the Bauhaus have undoubtedly entered into a fruitful relationship with social and architectural perspectives that defined Modern urban planning in subsequent years. Over the past five decades, these have been the subject of numerous debates and fundamental criticism.

[Translate to English:] Zitat 1

All ideologies of the 1920s and 1930s have one thing in common: they were aimed at creating a new type of person. Completely new. A brand new human being who is completely dedicated to the Party. Whether red, black or brown – the political colour was irrelevant. It is clear that architecture is not immune to such a totalitarian atmosphere. Architecture became one of the most effective tools to shape that new society. And Modernism was the perfect product of the times.

Gabrielle Tagliaventi, architect and urban planner, representative of the movement  „European Urban Renaissance“

[Translate to English:] Überschrift

So, has “Modernity” in general destroyed our cities? The suggestion would only be plausible if one also classified National Socialism as a “Modern ideology”, as some certainly do.[1] The often quoted conceit by James Stirling that the most important current task is to liberate German cities from the post-war damage that Modern architecture afflicted upon them, inverts the cause and effect, while also smacking of cynicism in view of the shocking damage to European major cities during the war unleashed by the Nazis.

What were the intentions of modern urban planning? What effects have its visions had on our way of life and the way we build? The starting point of reform efforts were the cramped and unhealthy living conditions created by the industrial revolution in rapidly growing major cities; in only 35 years after 1875, the population of cities like Leipzig and Essen grew by a factor of four or five.[2] The building boom that emerged as a result of that development led to appalling  hygienic living conditions in some places, especially in working class areas, despite investment in sewage systems, the water supply and Bismarck’s health insurance scheme.

[Translate to English:] Zitat 2

Inspired by the age of machines and motivated by the importance of simplicity and function, this new architectural movement led cities to the concept of good design for all social classes. Clear geometries and fluent interior spaces were combined with urban areas to create a unique modern experience for the children of the 20th century. The Bauhaus also made it possible to break down social class differences, which had been the hallmark of classical architecture, making good design available to everyone.

Ali Modarres, director of Urban Studies and assistant chancellor for community engagement at the University of Washington Tacoma

[Translate to English:] Überschrift

If some criticise Modernism by “glorifying the rear courtyard”[3] (Wolf Jobst Siedler), that perspective always also has an unhistorical, aestheticising quality. The pre-modern counterpart to a green space between long rows of sun-facing housing was by no means “Riehmer’s courtyard garden”.[4] The great failure of the Wilhelminian period was not reinventing Berlin through urban planning, leading to what the urban historian Hans Reuter describes as the “great destruction of Berlin”, the culmination of which was not Modernity or allied bombers, but Kaiser William II.[5] According to the principles of many Bauhaus protagonists and also the signatories of the “Charter of Athens”, the aim of urban planning was to put an end to and even reverse such destruction and a ensure new quality of life in  booming cities.

The document, regarded as a manifesto of Modern urban planning, was signed at the conclusion of the fourth International Congress on Modern Architecture (CIAM) and was adopted the same year that the Bauhaus dissolved itself due to pressure from the National Socialists. Although László Moholy-Nagy and the Bauhaus students Hubert Hoffmann, Wilhelm Hess and Jan van der Linden were personally present in Athens as representatives of Bauhaus visions, the demands of the architects and urban planners gathered there represented less “Bauhaus” and more Avant-garde heritage. “It was not the originality of the question, but the targeted appropriation and pointed interpretation of the theme that should be regarded as the actual achievement of the Congress,” Gregor Harbusch concludes. It was a heritage that was also able to surpass the boundaries of political conviction.

© Stefan Becker (instagram.com/_stefan_becker_)
Gebäudekomplex in Hong Kong: Ein Hinterhof der Moderne?

[Translate to English:] Zitat 3

It is always fascinating to see that the world-famous handbook by Ernst Neufert was produced in 1939 under the auspices of Albert Speer in Berlin. ‘Der Neufert’ became a global point of reference for designing Modern architecture and World War II provided the urban environment for Modern experiments.

Gabriele Tagliaventi

[Translate to English:] Überschrift

A key concern of Modern urbanists from Ludwig Hilberseimer to Le Corbusier was regarding the city as a functional unit. An oversimplified definition would be that the main functions of living, working and recreation were to be spatially separated from each other to give each of the areas an appropriate appearance. While city centres were dedicated to trade, culture and administration, the aim was to establish exclusive residential neighbourhoods outside a mixed band of industry and trade encircling city centre. Unlike the tenements of the past, these residential neighbourhoods should have broad green spaces, a wealth of light and the same hygienic and technical benefits for all residents.

The redevelopment of cities destroyed by war allowed planners to test the principles developed during the inter-war years in practise. However, from 1950 onwards, this “advanced Modernism”[6] (Joachim Schöffel) eroded as a result of the negative developments that became increasingly evident in many places in the following decades, including the decay of city centres, the formation of social hotspots and all the climatic consequences of a “car-friendly city”. Criticism of Modern cities was inspired during the 1960s by works such as Jane Jacobs’s “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” and Wolf Jobst Siedler’s “Die gemordete Stadt”, and could not be ignored by the 1970s, but rarely addressed their “hostile living conditions”[7] (Alexander Mitscherlich).

[Translate to English:] Zitat 4

So, were our cities destroyed by Modernity? The answer is complicated. In many cases, what was built in cities around the world was based on formal simplicity, as inspired by the Bauhaus, but neglected the quality of building and the importance of craftsmanship. Two Bauhaus obsessions undermined its reputation: the machine and a focus on mass production. The former gave birth to the car-friendly city, while the latter enabled sub-standard housing. From an aesthetic perspective, the global uniformity of form made the Bauhaus outdated in the age of cultural awareness and the celebration of diversity.

Ali Modarres

[Translate to English:] Überschrift

The return of block perimeter developments, neoclassicist façades and the reconstruction of the Berlin Palace: almost every taboo of Modern urban planning has been sacrificed at the altar of restoration in recent decades – not only, but also to placate the general public, which is becoming increasingly critical of Modernity.[8] However, since the signing of the Leipzig Charter in 2007, if not before, experts agree that the tide seems to have turned with respect to urban planning: “The age of individually optimised housing and commercial quarters, oversized shopping centres and large areas for transport has passed.”[9] This is combined with a radical criticism of the city, which is not exhausting itself due to “critical reconstruction”, but has “shaken the notion of a city to the core” with its focus on ownership and property, as Jürgen Tietz noted in 2016 at the opening of the exhibition “The Dialog City: Berlin wird Berlin”.[10]

“They thought it was rational to carry out large-scale urban planning on the drawing board and erect enormous estates with skyscrapers such as prefabricated ‘Plattenbau’ buildings,” Jan Gehl, an urban planner and prominent representative of a cycle- and pedestrian-friendly city, explains. “But people are not rational. They vote with their feet and go where it is worth living. That is why such housing estates are regarded as rather unattractive today.”[11] Should urban planners truly manage to learn from the mistakes of Modernity in future and transform our cities into living spaces with a much-vaunted “urban mix”, Bauhaus protagonists such as Walter Gropius would hardly have any objections. In 1956, the Bauhaus founder stated: “The malady of today’s cities and settlements is the sad result of our failure to put basic human requirements before industrial demands.” He always believed that what went on behind the façade was more important than all the stucco one could remove.

However, when cultured minds transform Modern cities into museums of a golden past, and when identity-building architecture is used to distract from the true interests of a diverse urban community, those people are no doubt tempted to regard the “home city” with a timeless curiosity: “Urban culture has always been a culture of confrontation with strangers. One could even define cities as places where strangers live, even before any migration. The city begins where residents no longer know each other. That is why cities are places where people have learned to behave in a relatively civilised way towards strangers.”[12] (Walter Siebel)

  1. [1] Norbert Frei, Wie modern war der Nationalsozialismus?, in: Geschichte und Gesellschaft (1993), 367-387.
  2. [2] More on the “Growth of German Cities (1875-1910)”
  3. [3] Wolf Jobst Siedler and Elisabeth Niggemeyer, Die gemordene Stadt, München 1978, 9.
  4. [4] More about “Riehmer’s courtyard garden”
  5. [5] Hans Reuther, Die große Zerstörung Berlins. Zweihundert Jahre Stadtbaugeschichte, Frankfurt 1985, 74.
  6. [6] Symbol und Bühne der Stadt – Die historische Mitte im Wandel städtebaulicher Leitbilder. Eine Untersuchung bundesdeutscher Städte seit ihrer Kriegszerstörung, Dissertation, Darmstadt 2003.
  7. [7] Alexander Mitscherlich, Die Unwirtlichkeit unserer Städte. Anstiftung zum Unfrieden, Frankfurt 1999.
  8. [8] See lately the dispute to “Right-winged Spaces”, which was initiated by the magazine ARCH+ and rejected by journalists such as Thomas Steinfeld (Süddeutsche Zeitung, June 6, 2019).
  9. [9] More about the “Leipzig Charter”
  10. [10] Jürgen Tietz, Ruinenbaumeister, in: NZZ (20.10.2015)
  11. [11] Stefan Kesselhut, Wo ist denn hier noch Platz? (Interview mit Jan Gel), in: Fluten (17.09.2015)
  12. [12] Walter Siebel, Die Kultur der Stadt, Berlin 2015.

[NF 2019; Translation Textbüro Reul GmbH]

  1. [Link] About the loss of modern buildings in the present
  2. [Link] About the current urban development in Germany
  3. [Link] About the canceled IBA 2020 in Berlin
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