“Bauhaus” can conjure a lot of things: an arty embrace of industry, a style of smoothly conjoined geometries, a constellation of early 20th-century European art stars. But first and foremost, the Bauhaus was a school. Its primary objective was not the creation of coveted streamlined classics but the establishment of a new pedagogical model, one that saw design in terms of social and material problem-solving. In 1919 Walter Gropius set the goal as creating “a new guild of craftsmen without the class-distinctions that raise an arrogant barrier between craftsmen and artists.” His famous pedagogical diagram lays out the curriculum in concentric rings: on the outside, a foundation year, and, at the core, mastery; these are linked through intermediate bands of theoretical and material studies (wood, metal, weaving, color, etc.). The school was meant to do more than improve the shape of teapots. A “building of the future,” it was to “combine architecture, sculpture, and painting in a single form, and . . . one day rise towards the heavens from the hands of a million workers as the crystalline symbol of a new and coming faith.”1
It is easy enough to scoff today. Experiential learning, studying across disciplines and working closely with materials never came close to delivering a classless utopia. Yet 90 years on, these practices, essential to the training of artists and designers, constitute a legacy that is more active in the world than the historical style put on view in most Bauhaus exhibitions.
Tapping into that legacy is the ambitious goal of “Learning Modern,” an exhibition at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), in cooperation with the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) and the Mies van der Rohe Society, in which projects by more than a dozen contemporary artists,2 architects and designers have been brought together in the SAIC’s Sullivan Galleries, fashioned from the gutted interior of Louis Sullivan’s landmark Carson, Pirie, Scott and Company building.3 A legacy that consists of experiences and principles is a difficult thing to put on display, and if “Learning Modern” is, by museum standards, sprawling, untidy and incomplete, that was part of the plan. For its semester-long duration it has functioned as laboratory, classroom and exhibition. The overall design was the outcome of a “Bauhaus Labs” summer course; projects came and went in the space, many of them fabricated in collaboration with students, alumni and faculty of SAIC and IIT.4
The city of Chicago has strong claims as a Bauhaus legatee. In 1937 László Moholy-Nagy, who had taught at the school from 1923 to ’28, arrived to set up the “New Bauhaus” (later the Institute of Design, and eventually incorporated into IIT). Mies van der Rohe, the final director of the Berlin Bauhaus (1930-33), took charge in 1938 of the architecture program at IIT (then the Armour Institute of Technology), where he built his low-slung glass and black-steel masterpiece, S.R. Crown Hall (1956), and solidified his reputation as an oracle of modernism. Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), the city’s dominant architectural firm, established in 1936, earned the sobriquet “three blind Mies” for its allegiance to the master, and became famous for its part in the global proliferation of “glass box” office towers.5 Chicago was the place where Bauhaus idealism wedded corporate modernism.
That slide from utopia to midtown is one of many threads running through “Learning Modern,” where visitors are greeted with wall-size versions of Gropius’s diagram overlaid by signage in the International Typeface Corporation’s “Bauhaus” font, designed in 1975. (The font is also used in the 2-foot-high letters Kay Rosen mounted on the gallery’s support columns in her installation, Divisibility, 2009.) This is not a show about “authenticity” or the formal resonance between generations. Much of the art—installations, interactive sculptures and video—relies on technologies too young to have made it into Gropius’s diagram. And for most of the participants, the trademark forms of modernism offer not inspiration, but citations. Carole Frances Lung remade the red coveralls Moholy-Nagy affected when teaching and hung them on the wall for visitors to try on; in a dual-channel video titled Projection (2008), Andrea Fraser enacts the two sides of a mock psychotherapy session while seated in a 1958 Arne Jacobsen egg chair. In the virtual touch-screen playground, Infinite Sprawl (2009), by Mark Anderson, Mark Beasly and Matt Nelson, visitors manipulate “words about modernism” that are transformed into “modernist” building blocks.
For other artists, modernist landmarks are lenses for regarding overlooked histories. In the sculpture Crown Hall/Dragon House (2009), for example, Angela Ferreira suspends a tall, spectral steel skeleton of Mies’s masterpiece over an abstracted rendering of a building in Mozambique by the eccentric architect Pancho Guedes. A complex installation by Narelle Jubelin and Carla Duarte, Key Notes (2009), pulls half-a-dozen historical threads together in 14 vast tricolor wool panels whose form is meant to echo the floating fabric panels of Lilly Reich, an early collaborator with Mies. The colors are drawn from Goethe, the Bauhaus and a turn-of-the-century Sydney department store, while the panels’ dimensions precisely replicate those of Sullivan’s windows behind them, on which are written footnotes from a text about Moholy-Nagy’s pedagogy that was studied by all the participants in “Learning Modern.”6
For Catherine Yass’s Descent (2000), a video camera was lowered 800 feet from a crane at a fog-bound Canary Wharf construction site; shown upside down and slowed down, the world of corporate office towers is wreathed in an aura of ponderous threat. Iñigo Manglano- Ovalle’s video Always After (The Glass House),2006, presents the act of sweeping up shattered glass as an elegy for losses unspecified. It helps to know that the glass was once the window-wall of S.R. Crown Hall: when the building was renovated in 2005, IIT auctioned off the window-breaking rights on eBay. The winning bid came from Dirk Lohan, an architect and Mies’s grandson, who got to swing the sledgehammer at a formal demolition ceremony.7
Gropius’s “crystalline symbol of a new and coming faith” is now old and showing some cracks. In Modernity Retired (2008-09), Staffan Schmidt interviewed five elderly architects (Alfonso Cararra, Natalie de Blois, Ken Isaacs, Gertrude Kerbis and Peter Roesch). Speaking with Kerbis, Schmidt draws her out on the gender politics of architectural firms in the ’50s and ’60s. Kerbis points out, philosophically, that it was simply a sexist era, but Schmidt makes it clear from his own comments that he believes modernists should have been different—that the movement should have fulfilled its promises. Modernism had its signal failures; the movement draws as much finger-pointing as retrospective romanticism.
Among the architects and designers here, however, essential Bauhaus attitudes toward materials, technology and human perception still seem to hold sway. Vintage Bauhaus forms are revitalized in Arturo Vittori’s astrolabelike sculpture Atlas Coelestis (2009) and in the light installations of Helen Maria Nugent and Jan Tichy, in which projected light plays over a variety of surfaces and structures in a series of small chambers, built like chapels off the main space. Thom Faulders’s AmesSpot (2009) is a high-tech update of the “Ames Room” illusion in which a tilted floor and trapezoidal walls conspire to change the apparent size of things within a space. When one stands inside Faulders’s room, it is experienced as a Day-glo, podlike space with a crazily sloping floor, but a live-feed of the interior projected on a wall several feet away shows a space with all the rectilinear sobriety of a television newsroom, in which only the people are bizarre. The team of Joshua Cotton, Justin Nardone and Douglas Pancoast created odd plastic buoylike devices that twitch and rock on the floor in response to sound (SonoTroph, 2009).
The contributions of two figures from an earlier era raise more profound questions. A re-creation of Ken Isaacs’s Knowledge Box, first built in 1962, occupies center stage in the exhibition. Featured on the cover of Life magazine that year, the Knowledge Box became something of a ’60s icon. A stand-alone plywood room fitted inside with two dozen carousel slide projectors, it is a cubical projection surface in which floors, walls and ceiling are wrapped in a constantly changing patchwork of photographic images. A similar audio mash-up of spoken word and music is played through headphones. With its engineered sensory overload and purposeful destruction of linear narrative—its matrix of multiply related bits of information—Knowledge Box is a precursor to psychedelic light shows as well as the Internet (with the critical difference that within the Knowledge Box the viewer has no controls).
What does such trippiness have to do with the Bauhaus? As it happens, the original Knowledge Box was constructed in Mies’s Crown Hall. More importantly, Isaacs’s dream—to produce a new kind of consciousness through a combination of technology and solid carpentry—would have been familiar enough to Gropius:
build a new way of learning, learn a new way of thinkingand think a new way of building. This grand scale of purpose is palpably absent elsewhere in “Learning Modern.” But the Knowledge Box is a reminder that ambition and realization are two different things. The idea of the Knowledge Box was widely disseminated, but the chance to experience it physically remained rare. Isaacs, who also designed modular DIY “Living Structures,” strove to make work that was transformative, accessible and materially modest, but his influencenonetheless remains that of a “visionary” architect.
The exact opposite is true of the work of the industrial designer Charles Harrison, represented here by beautiful drawings of televisions, alarm clocks and sleds, as well as his 1958 View-Master 3D Model G slide viewer, an object conceived with no grand aspirations that nonetheless provided entertaining expanded vision to millions. Harrison spent most of his career at Sears, Roebuck and Co. churning out designs for sewing machines, hair dryers and lawnmowers, all of them pragmatic, graceful and affordable. He developed the plastic garbage can, permanently altering the sound of garbage collection day across the globe. Harrison’s career seems in some ways the ultimate fulfillment of the Bauhaus’s promise, including Gropius’s vision of design as a tool of liberation: initially refused a job at Sears because he was African-American, in the 1960s Harrison became the company’s chief designer and first black executive.
Isaacs and Harrison shared a faith in the transformative potential of objects outside the studio. Most of the work in “Learning Modern,” by contrast, seems carefully designed to function in art spaces, for art audiences. Which makes Bio-Line (2009), by landscape architect Walter Hood, all the more remarkable. Bio-Line is a weirdly wonderful sculpture, garden and air filtration system in one. Running through the space under the exposed air ducts, it consists of a linear web of aluminum loops cradling hundreds of soft white fabric cups, each of which nurtures a mistletoe cactus poking tiny tendrils over the edge.
If you happen to look up, you see Bio-Line stretched overhead, looking industrial and ethereal, like a cloud with braces. Below and around it soundtracks rumble, talking heads chatter, sculptures wiggle, and students spread drawings out or hammer away at moveable walls. In the midst of all this, it is easy to miss Bio-Line as it goes about its business, silently exchanging oxygen for CO2. You might see all the activity in the show as merely distracting. Or you can think of it as the real subject here, a reminder that no matter how elegant the final product may be, learning is always a mess. After all, to paraphrase Moholy-Nagy, the purpose of any school should be to keep man, not the product, as the end in view.
Currently On View“Learning Modern,” at the School ofthe Art Institute of Chicago Sullivan Galleries, through Jan. 9. (Click here to view Official site)
1 Walter Gropius, “Bauhaus Manifesto,” Bauhaus Archiv, www.bauhaus.de/english/bauhaus1919/manifest1919.htm.
2 In addition to the artists mentioned, the show included a small retrospective of the clothing designs of Claire McCardell; Travis Saul’s ongoing series of sculptures produced with a 3-D printer in response to viewer behavior; the screening of the video What’s the Time in Vyborg? by Liise Roberts; a musical performance in which the color-panel installation of Narelle Jubelin and Carla Duarte is “played” by Jon Brumit; a rotating selection of student video works; and poetry readings.
3 Built as a department store at the end of the 19th century, the building, featuring open steel framing and large windows, pioneered structural ideas essential to modernism. It is also situated at the center of the Chicago city plan, the point from which all street addresses count up east or west, north or south.
4 The exhibition was co-organized by SAIC and the Mies van der Rohe Society at the Illinois Institute of Technology. Mary Jane Jacob, SAIC executive director of exhibitions, told me that the show evolved through a “shared process of inquiry” among various students, artists and faculty members.
5 Paul Goldberger, “House Proud: Mies van der Rohe and Robert Venturi at Three Museums,” New Yorker, July 2, 2001, www.newyorker.com/archive.
6 The text used was by Alain Findeli, “Moholy-Nagy’s Design Pedagogy in Chicago (1937-1946),” Design Issues VII, no. 1, Fall 1990, pp. 5-10.
7 A label explains that it was Crown Hall, while in a separate video Manglano-Ovalle explains the identity of Dirk Lohan.
SUSAN TALLMAN is a Chicago-based writer and art historian.