The Bauhaus Influence in Chicago and Detroit

The Bauhaus Influence in Chicago and Detroit

By Max Eternity


In recognition of the 100th Anniversary of Germany’s Bauhaus school (1919 – 1933), many events have been planned and plenty of news articles are being written and published, including a history-driven essay about the post-Bauhaus influence in Chicago by Nancy Chen.

800px-Bauhaus (built 1925-26)Bauhaus Dessau by Walter Gropius – 1925/26 (Wikipedia)

I was informed about the piece by my good friend and fellow artist-educator, Nancy Bechtol, who works and teaches in Chicago.  And I have to say she picked a very informative link to send me.  This article includes a critique of Chen’s article, as well as information from my own prior and ongoing research and writing.

The article by Chen, entitled “One Hundred Years of Bauhaus: How a Short-Lived German Art School Influenced International Art and Design and Shaped Chicago,” is divided into 3 sections:

  • Building a new kind of school: Bauhaus and its founding principles
  • The New Bauhaus: Moholy and Mies in Chicago
  • The Whole World a Bauhaus

Bauhaus Cafeteria (Dessau)Bauhaus Dessau Cafeteria (Wikipedia)

And though research for the 2 book projects I’m working on that speak extensively to the history of the Bauhaus –  From Bauhaus | To Black Mountain, and The Agency of Art: War, Pedagogy and Social Change in the Western World: 1919 to 1965 – have no substantial subject matter concerning the Bauhaus influence in Chicago or Detroit, it nevertheless remains a very important aspect of the overall evolution of modernism that certainly deserves mention.

Chen’s article is somewhat lengthy, but is well worth the read.  The first section of the article starts with a basic timeline of the Bauhaus.  It also mentions the manifesto of Bauhaus founder, Walter Gropius.

Bauhaus Dessau DormitoryFigure 3 Bauhaus Dessau Dormitory (Wikipedia)

Chen’s article then spends some quality time on a handful of women who were key players at the Bauhaus, along with some of the men who tend to have more name recognition.  The first section wraps up talking about the sobering events surrounding the Bauhaus’ closure:

In the first sentence of his “Bauhaus Manifesto and Program,” architect Walter Gropius…wrote, “The ultimate aim of all visual arts is the complete building!” The brief and spirited manifesto insisted that the arts had become unproductive and deficient, existing in isolation from everyday life. The way to rescue and revitalize art was for artists to dedicate themselves to thorough training in the crafts—acquired in workshops and in both experimental and practical sites—so that students to masters alike could engage in artistic production through various disciplines including carpentry, woodworking, metalworking, painting, printing and advertising, and weaving.

Continuing on, Chen shifts the focus to some of the more notable women: 

Gunta Stölzl, who entered the school in 1920 when she was twenty-three years old, gradually took over management of the weaving workshop and became the school’s only female master…[U]nder Stölzl’s direction, with assistance from fellow women weavers Anni Albers, Otti Berger and Benita Otte, the weaving workshop became the longest-running Bauhaus department and one of its most commercially successful. 

Among the other Bauhaus women who are less prominently remembered and celebrated than their male counterparts are Alma Siedhoff-Buscher, a toymaker who created the Bauspiel building kit that encouraged free and experimental play…[and] Marianne Brandt, a metalworker, designed iconic globe lamps and a geometric teapot that remains one of Bauhaus’ most famous objects. Brandt taught applied art and design in Berlin and Dresden until 1954, then continued to produce paintings, weavings and sculptures for the rest of her life in Chemnitz. 

And about the school’s final years, Chen writes:

From 1919 to 1933, the school moved from Weimar, to Dessau, to a campus designed by Walter Gropius as an embodiment of the school’s values, and finally to Berlin. By the time Mies van der Rohe took over as director in the early 1930s, political pressure was mounting from the National Socialist party, which regarded the Bauhaus with suspicion, considering it a hotbed of degenerate and “un-German” art. The Gestapo, under the orders of the newly elected Nazi government, raided the school looking for anti-Nazi propaganda and other incriminating evidence of unsuitable political affiliations. The school was closed on April 11, 1933.

The rise of Germany’s Nazi Party in 1933 meant the closure of the Bauhaus.  It was a political and cultural shift in the nation that meant championing nationalist art, writing and design, and demonizing nearly all other creative activity.  In the second section of the article, Chen provides a survey of what happened after the Bauhaus closed – namely that many of the school’s major players left Germany, with most arriving in the US at Black Mountain College, Harvard University, and in Chicago and elsewhere:

In the ensuing Bauhaus diaspora, two major emigrés landed in Chicago: László Moholy-Nagy and Mies van der Rohe. Moholy was among the renowned artists invited to Chicago by Walter Paepcke… a Chicago industrialist who started the Container Corporation of America… 

In 1937, László Moholy-Nagy founded the New Bauhaus in Chicago, a design program that continues today as the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology. In the same year, Mies van der Rohe arrived in Chicago to direct the architecture program that would be housed within the same institution. 

The New Bauhaus became the Institute of Design (ID)…[E}ighty years since the first iteration founded by Moholy, ID retains the Bauhaus tradition of the foundation year.

It’s also worth noting a somewhat confusing and complicated aspect of the career of Mies van der Rohe as it relates to his stance on social justice and his leadership style.  In Chen’s article she reports that when “Mies received a letter from the Gestapo saying he could reopen the school if the curriculum was rewritten and if some of the more left-wing faculty were replaced with “individuals who guarantee to support the principles of the National Socialist ideology.”  While he did not comply, neither did Mies “condemned Nazi politics outright, a silence which disappointed many of his colleagues…”

Also in my own ongoing research on modernism and Mies, I’ve found myself inspired, perplexed and greatly disappointed, with the disappointment primarily arising when I recently discovered from the Detroit Historical Society of Mies’ active involvement in the extreme gentrification and total displacement of an entire African-American community and thriving neighborhood known as Black Bottom.  From the Detroit Historical Society:

 In the early 1960s, the City of Detroit conducted an Urban Renewal program to combat what it called “Urban Blight.” The program razed the entire Black Bottom district and replaced it with the Chrysler Freeway and Lafayette Park, a mixed-income development designed by Mies van der Rohe as a model neighborhood combining residential townhouses, apartments and high-rises with commercial areas. Many of the residents relocated to large public housing projects such as the Brewster-Douglass Housing Projects Homes and Jeffries Homes.

Presently on display at the Detroit Central Library is an exhibition entitled “Black Bottom Street View.”  It’s a photographic exploration into the rich history and cruel demise of an empowered Black working class neighborhood whose demolition was engineered by the federal government.  A few passages from an article at The Detroit News:

Just before demolition, the city sent photographers out — a bit like Google Street View — to shoot every structure in what was officially dismissed as a “slum.” The result was some 2,000 images documenting clapboard houses, New Orleans shotguns, churches and corner stores, all of which look far tidier than the government’s description. 

“The demolition was triggered by the passage of the Federal Housing Act of 1949,” said exhibition creator Emily Kutil, an architect who teaches at the University of Detroit Mercy. “That act funded destruction of African-American neighborhoods all over the country.”

It all seems odd to me, especially in light of the fact that one of Mies’ many large commissions was the 400,000 sq. ft. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in Washington D.C.  And too this, as I reported a few years ago for Truthout in an article entitled “Building Inspiration: Architecture and Black Liberation,” which included a feature interview with renowned African-American architect and author, Roberta Washington, Mies does appear to be, even if only superficially and/or for the sake of profit, a champion of women’s rights and civil rights.  For instance, according to Washington:

Louise Harris Brown received her architecture license in 1948. Urged by her brother, Brown took an evening class taught by Mies van der Rohe at the University of Illinois, and some years later became the structural engineer for two of Mies van der Rohe’s high-rise buildings on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago. Because of racial discrimination, Brown moved to Brazil for greater opportunity, married a German architect and practiced there for the remainder of her career.

Brown’s career, which included dozens of major commissions and contracts with a long list of architecture firms, is also well documented elsewhere, including a well-written piece at the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation, which in part reads:

Georgia Louise Harris Brown (1918–1999), a pioneering African American architect practicing in Chicago and Brazil from the 1940s to the 1990s, is recognized as the second African American woman licensed as an architect in the United States.  She forged an impressive career in industrial architecture in Brazil, where she may have immigrated in the hope of escaping racial prejudice, though she was rarely credited as the designer in publications about these works.

And a concise 2018 historical narrative at speaks to Brown’s heroic contribution in the field, as well, saying in part:

Georgia Louise Harris Brown had a knack for seeking out the most fertile architecture scenes in the world during her long career. She practiced in Chicago during Mies van der Rohe’s prime and, from there, moved to Brazil, where a singular modernist language was being created for Brasilia, the most ambitious planned capital of the 20th century. 

Born in 1918 to a middle-class family in Topeka, Kansas, Brown was mechanically and design inclined, enjoying working on farm equipment, drawing, and painting. After graduating from Washburn University in 1938, she traveled to Chicago for the summer and enrolled in a class taught by Mies, whose steel-and-glass modernism would soon permeate the globe. 

Chicago had been a laboratory for testing new materials and possibilities for urbanism since the Great Fire of 1871 razed much of its central business district. After the fire, Chicago architects pioneered skyscrapers and the steel structural systems required to make them work. During Brown’s time, a new generation of architects refined this model, turning high-rises into pure glass-and-steel expressions of verticality, showing off brawny girders and whisper-thin curtain walls. It was a transition that Brown would play a key role in.

Returning now to Chen’s article, in the third and final section she dedicates most of the remaining prose to the Mies designed McCormick House, and the journey of the house becoming acquired by the Elmhurst Art Museum, which later this year will be the only US venue to host of The Whole World a Bauhaus international touring exhibition.

To experience Mies’ vision on a more intimate scale, one can look to the Western suburb of Elmhurst, which is home to the McCormick House, one of only three single-family homes that were built from the architect’s designs for prefabricated housing in the United States. 

After three families had lived there (including one former mayor of Elmhurst), the Elmhurst Fine Arts and Civic Center Foundation purchased McCormick House in 1991. Two years later the house was transported on a flatbed truck from its original location to become part of the new museum’s campus.

And about the title of the international touring exhibition The Whole World a Bauhaus, Chen writes: 

“The whole world a Bauhaus” was a phrase used by alumnus Fritz Kuhr, a self-described “eternal learner” who studied with Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky before going on to teach drawing and painting at the Bauhaus. The exhibition is divided into sections that examine themes of work and life at the Bauhaus, including “Art, Crafts and Technology,” “Community,” “Radical Pedagogy” and “Experiment” and includes a selection of art and design pieces as well as varied documentation of life at the Bauhaus.

Lastly, for her closing statement Chen writes:

Bauhaus is making a robust entrance into its second century. “The Bauhaus existed for a short span of time but the potentials intrinsic in its principles have only begun to be realized. The sources of design remain forever full of changing possibilities,” Bauhaus alumnus Herbert Bayer said,” The Bauhaus is dead. Long live the Bauhaus.”

At the end of last year I applied for research funding for two of my current book projects, requesting funding for a semester-long fellowship at The American Academy in Berlin, and funding for (US) travel and research from The National Endowment of the Humanities.

Foyer of the Bauhaus-University Weimar, with Jugendstil staircaseFigure 4 Foyer of the Bauhaus-University Weimar, with Jugendstil staircase (Wikipedia)

The completion of the books for which I applied for funding – From Bauhaus | To Black Mountain, and The Agency of Art: War, Pedagogy and Social Change in the Western World – 1915 to 1965 – will happen as planned with or without outside funding.  An award announcement should come soon, and I imagine the direction of the books will be to some degree defined by the outcome.

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