The hothouse that wilted imperial ambitions

Before the Bauhaus
August 4, 2006

Whatever else we may think of the Bauhaus masters and their architectural legacy, they were surely accomplished publicists. From the design school's founding in 1919 through its Weimar heyday and beyond, Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe and other Bauhaus luminaries took great pains to cultivate an image of the school as unique, progressive and free from the past.

Little wonder that this manicured self-representation did not go down well with other modernists. Frank Lloyd Wright, for example, was apparently miffed by the catalogue of the Bauhaus's first US exposition - the 1938 "Bauhaus, 1919-1928" show at New York's Museum of Modern Art - in which the newly transplanted German refugees were credited with having brought modernism to America.

John Maciuika's new book is a wide-ranging study of Germany's "architecture culture" in the generation before 1914, rescuing the period's richness and complexity from Gropius's dismissal of it as crude "bourgeois philistinism". Here, Maciuika explores the heady mixture of an imported British Arts and Crafts style, Jugendstil romanticism and the hard-headed industrial modernism that characterised Wilhelmine architecture. While a handful of scholars such as Joan Campbell, John Heskett, Matthew Jefferies and Frederic Schwartz have done much over the years to revive interest in the period's buildings and "industrial culture", Maciuika's book is quite distinctive. For one thing, his scope is wider, insomuch as he ably locates the period's diverse architectural history within fin de siécle Germany's fast-changing economic, institutional and cultural life. Particularly revealing is Maciuika's stress on the regional dimension of Germany's design reform movements, effectively illuminating the Land -based patronage system and commercial competition driving the country's modernist crusade in design and education.

The chapters are largely divided according to various applied art reform movements across the regional centres of Munich, Darmstadt, Stuttgart, Dresden and Berlin. A separate chapter is accorded to Hermann Muthesius, the great architect and publicist, since his private architectural practice, published works and broad influence within the Prussian Ministry of Commerce and Trade neatly illustrate Maciuika's larger thesis about the intricate interplay of building style, education reform, business interests and state sponsorship. The rise of the famed German Werkbund as a national association of leading architects and industrialists is the subject of another chapter, wherein Maciuika explains how its well-known ideological battles reflected the main figures' ties to certain interest groups, political parties and government institutions.

One particularly interesting sub-theme is the extent to which the First World War was in many ways the moment in which Germany's design culture "became national". Indeed, some of the country's most powerful cultural brokers - including Muthesius - greeted the outbreak of war as a historic opportunity to expand and export the achievements of German industry in the name of a new "Pax Germanica". That this imperial vision failed is only part of the story, not least because the wartime subordination of architecture and design to new expansionist imperatives was something Gropius and his cohort vociferously condemned. The reform zeal to overturn the nationalist politics of the "generation of the 1860s" could be seen, for example, in the Bauhaus's marked internationalism. But for all of the "zero hour" proclamations emanating from the Bauhaus and elsewhere, Maciuika makes plain that irrepressible connections (in pedagogy, for example) persisted between the 1890s and 1920s.

Paying more attention to how the Werkbund itself reconstituted its legacy after 1918 in light of this "anxiety of influence" would have strengthened his theme of continuity even more. Nevertheless, this well-researched and handsomely illustrated book is a very fine rereading of Germany's hothouse architectural and design world on the eve of the Great War.

Paul Betts is reader in history, Sussex University.

Before the Bauhaus: Architecture, Politics and the German State, 1890-1920

Author - John V. Maciuika
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Pages - 386
Price - £55.00
ISBN - 0 521 79004 2

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