Building on the Bauhaus’ legacy

Building on the Bauhaus’ legacy
At the launch of the Bauhaus Effects art and design conference in Dublin were Dr Francis Halsall of NCAD, Dr Kathleen James-Chakraborty of UCD, Dr Sarah Glennie of NCAD, German ambassador to Ireland Deike Potzel, and Dr Thomas Lier of the Goethe-Institut Irland. Picture: Marc O’Sullivan

Founded by architect Walter Gropius in Weimar Germany in 1919 and closed by the Nazis in 1933, the Bauhaus school has had a huge global influence on art, architecture and design.

As Bauhaus Effects, a major conference marking the 100-year anniversary of the Bauhaus school takes place this weekend, we spoke to organiser and NCAD lecturer Francis Halsall about the movement, its influence and legacy.

The Bauhaus school in Dessau, Germany.
The Bauhaus school in Dessau, Germany.

What were the aims of the Bauhaus?

On one hand, the Bauhaus is known for establishing a modern style of architecture and design. They were interested in using new technologies and trying to imagine new design products for a new society. It was very idealistic.

One of the later directors was Mies van der Rohe, and he was famous for saying ‘less is more’. He didn’t invent this concept but he was invested in the idea that form follows function.

The Bauhaus were also experimenting with how to run an art school, thinking of the art school as a place where you reimagine society. It was not the first time that had happened but it was a radical idea to have art and design in the same place.

It was not a school of fine art, it was a place where you were engaging in aesthetic questions that might have some functional or practical outcome.

How is the Bauhaus influence obvious now?

On the one hand, you can see the influence in Ikea or the iPhone, when you combine the functional and the beautiful. What works well is beautiful, which was quite a new idea in terms of the history of humanity. The forms of functional architecture are often seen as one of the legacies of the Bauhaus.

You’ve got it in the Busaras bus station in Dublin, by Scott Tallon Walker. Even places like the Glucksman at UCC, by O’Donnell and Tuomey, their use of concrete, for example, which is a kind of functional architecture.

I think there is a more complicated legacy of the Bauhaus, which isn’t just a stylistic legacy.

It is not about the way things look, it is about an attitude towards education — that you produce citizens that are questioning and experimental. And the art school remains a place where that happens.

The Bauhaus was set up in Weimar Germany, which was a very particular type of society, it was permissive, liberal, outwards-looking. But as soon as the Nazis came to power, they shut the Bauhaus down and that was because they recognised that in a place where people think new things, there is a danger, a revolutionary potential.

Why did such a small group of individuals wield such influence?

They did capture the zeitgeist, the spirit of the age, that modernity. Also, when the Nazis dissolved the school in 1933, they went into exile. They took their ideas with them, to Britain, to America, you have this spreading out and distribution of their ideas.

How is the Bauhaus ethos relevant in today’s society?

Walter Gropius said you should look for common denominators. That is a really important question for us to ask right now — what do we have in common? The negative version of that leads to Brexit, nationalism, the rise of populism, it’s kind of scary. How can we rethink the values that humanity share?

To think of an institution or an art school as a way of doing that, or the site of that, is still really important.

Are Irish art and design schools doing that now?

I think every young person should do some form of art education. Art schools remain an interesting place where questions about society can be asked.

You can go into the classroom with students and have debates about feminism, wearable technologies or whether artists have any responsibility to fellow humans.

It becomes a way in which questions around citizenship and identity can be asked. I think art schools around Ireland are places where really important questions continue to be asked. But of course, they are all criminally underfunded.

The Bauhaus Effects conference, National Gallery, Dublin, Feb 7-9. www.bauhauseffects.com.

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