The Virtual Bauhaus Project
Arnold Wasserman's extensive review of the concept of the VBH
June 14, 2004
Virtual Bauhaus: Making A World Where People Are Producers Of design, Not Just Consumers of Design.
Arnold Wasserman 14.16.04
My first reaction to Bruce’s choice of the title “Virtual Bauhaus” was NO! Then, the more I thought about it, it turned to YES!
The Bauhaus in practice was everything opposite of what INDEX hopes to stand for.The original Bauhaus philosophy was about good design of everything for everybody. But in practice, Bauhaus design – and the Modernist movement of which it became iconic -- became design of elite things for elite consumers, and most importantly, dictated by an elite design priesthood.
Bauhaus Modernism was the artifactual expression of a particular philosophy of social power whereby high design producers would dispense Platonically ideal products, communications, environments, and entertainments to those who, by consuming them, would become ideal people in a Platonically ideal society.
INDEX’s “Virtual Bauhaus”, by contrast, will place the power of design in the hands of design consumers. INDEX will democratize and pluralize design. The Bauhaus conservatory/studio structure and its pedagogy of project - based learning (which were the most valuable things about the Bauhuas) will be extended spatially to the world at large by means of the structure of the WEB and processes like multi-participant games, communities, and virtual worlds. And it will be extended temporally, to take place continuously, with major review and assessment points every four years. Think of Worldgame (www.worldgame.org) meets the SIMS (www.thesims.com) meets Bruce’s virtual worlds and scenario simulations (www.digitalspace.com).
Here is some stuff about the Bauhaus history, theory, and critique:
The Bauhaus manifestos from 1918 through 1933 (and the manifestos of its precedent organization, the Deutscher Werkbund) did indeed call for a new design of everything in a new age for a new people in a new society. In reaction to both decorative excess of the Victorian era and to arts-and-craft aesthetics, the new age would be the Machine Age, with its heroic celebration of industrial speed, organization, efficiency, and conformity to an ideal Platonic design language employing new industrial materials and production methods. The new people (the consumers of design) would be as efficient, organized, and conformist as the industrial ethos that would shape them. The producers of design, on the other hand, would be exploratory, experimental individualists. The new society would be based on a social-collectivist Marxist model (Which is why Hitler closed the Bauhaus 1933 as a hot-bed of radical, communistic -- meaning Jewish -- decadent thought)
However egalitarian the Bauhaus story sounded, in practice, the folks who got to define the new product, environments, people, and society were the intellectual elite (the Bauhauslers). It was they who prescribed for the people (Das Volk) what would improve their lives, what “improve’ meant and how modern design would do it:
“Hansy, get rid of grandmas comfy and familiar over-stuffed sofa with the lace doilies on the arms and the ball-claw feet. Here is Marcel Breuer’s 1922 Wassily Chair in bent chrome steel tube and leather (the original had canvas) straps. It is a gorgeous sculpture of a chair. The production finesse required to make the smooth, seamless weldments joining the pieces, and covering them with a flawless mirror-chrome finish just happen to require so much handwork and time that the chair costs, not the $ 6 dollars that would make it accessible for everybody as promised, but $600. Sorry about that. Also, sorry about the fact that the chair is an orthopedic disaster zone and once down in it you need a cargo crane to hoist yourself back up or that sitting in it for longer than five minutes will send you to your chiropractor. All of this is a small price to pay for becoming the new, improved, modern person we have decided you need to be and that being in the presence of this chair will make you.
This, dear friends, is why the two Wassily chairs in my living room (any architect will tell you that it is illegal to have less than two, sitting side by side -- with a chrome and glass Eileen Gray side table in between surmounted by a glass bowl of white geraniums) sit across from two Victorian woven wicker rocking chairs. The rocking chairs did cost $6 dollars and they are the most comfortable and ergonomically correct chairs I have ever encountered. I sit in them and look across at my beloved Wassily chairs, which are the most impeccably gorgeous visually symbolic poems to the “idea of chair” that I ever saw.
Now there is no question that unprecedented and extraordinary stuff came out of the Bauhaus, not the least of which being some of the pioneering multimedia performance pieces – costume, staging, music, set design – as well as gorgeous architecture, painting, sculpture, textile, glass, ceramics, etc. We do, indeed, all stand on the shoulders of the Bauhuas pioneers. But not the Bauhaus only!
The Bauhaus deserves enormous credit, but not all the credit (or what some consider the blame) for modern design. Far from creating modern design, the Bauhaus was one of many movements created by a broad European shift in thought about society, politics, industry, technology – and design. For example, one noted book about the Bauhaus has a cover photo of a white cup and saucer – the most geometrically perfect, elegantly proportioned mass production artifact imaginable – the ideal embodiment of every Bauhaus tenet. Problem is that this tea set was designed not at the Bauhaus but for the Royal Berlin porcelain company by Elsa Fischer-Treyden, an elegant woman that I met in Bavaria when I was designing some table-ware for Rosenthal Porcelain Co. Elsa considered the Bauhauslers to be consummate self-promoters who managed to “private-brand” the Modernism that was flourishing everywhere in Europe in the period between the two World Wars. “Modernism was not Bauhaus”, she said, “we were all doing it, everywhere!”
Indeed, work being done at around the same time by de Style in Holland, the Sezession group in Vienna, Purism (LeCorbusier’s movement) in France, and Futurism in Italy was easily as important and influential. For that matter, the structure of the studio/lab and the concept of applying systematic design to every aspect of human life originated not with Walter Gropius at the Bauhaus, but with the architect Peter Behrens, who, in 1909 was appointed head of design for the German electrical giant AEG. Behrens was responsible for the design of all products, communications and promotional materials, factories, and workers’ housing. Among the young architects and designers Behrens hired to work in his AEG studio were Gropius and le Corbusier. That was where they encountered the idea – in industry, not in academe -- of design as a holistic, systemic practice addressed to every aspect of life.
Until the 1960s, Bauhaus Modernism held sway as the Platonic ideal of High Design to which all architecture, furniture, product, and graphic design in Europe and the U.S aspired. My industrial design education at Carnegie Mellon University in the 1950s was a pure Bauhaus foundation curriculum.
By the 1950s, High Modernism had become the prescribed style for corporate architecture and Low Modernism came to dominate urban residential architecture – with, despite a handful of iconic art-book structures, disastrous effect on the fabric of urban centers everywhere. But beginning in the 1960s, the Bauhaus became another kind of icon – the ubiquitous and tangible symbol of a tradition of discredited elitist social engineering. The entire Post-modern movement emerged as a reaction against the pernicious influences of European modernism upon thought, design, culture, society, politics, and the urban environment.
During the 1960s, landmark books like Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and Robert Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, and Christopher Alexander’s Toward A Design Language, opened the war against heroic modernism. After Tom Wolfe’s devastating and hilarious attack on the pretenses and hypocrisies of modernism in his book From Our House to Bauhaus, modernists pretty much went into hiding – until it has been safe recently to reemerge, rehabilitated as today’s NEOmodernists, in response to the equally egregious excesses of Post-modernism.
So the theorists of Modernism stripped away all historic decoration and contextual adaptation. That was good, but apart from that, their interpreters got it more wrong than right. And the theorists of Post-modernism put back some of the historic decoration and contextual adaptation. And that was good, but apart from that, their interpreters, too, got it more wrong than right. In both cases, what began as egalitarian populism turned into dictatorial elitism.
Let’s see whether in the past century we have learned anything. Let INDEX get it right by figuring out how to engage people as “prosumers” – producers as well as consumers – of design -- in partnership with the professional designers. Let that be the mission of the Virtual Bauhaus
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