What a Second Bauhaus Movement Means for Europe

A century ago, the Bauhaus school brought together artists and architects like Paul Klee, Lilly Reich and Mies van der Rohe who challenged traditional orthodoxy and reshaped the West through their Modernist designs. Now the European Union sees a chance to create a new common aesthetic born out of a need to renovate and construct more energy-efficient buildings.

The proposal for energy retrofits is part of the climate actions at the core of the EU’s 1.8 trillion euro ($2.1 trillion) coronavirus recovery plan and could result in a sweeping architectural makeover, one that leaders have compared to a new Bauhaus movement for the continent. One schedule calls for renovations of as much as 2% of the continent’s building stock every year. That type of “renovation wave” would advance the goal of making Europe the world’s first climate-neutral continent by 2050 and could present an opportunity for a symbolic transformation as well.

“We need to give our systemic change its own distinct aesthetic — to match style with sustainability,” said Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, during her state of the union address at the European Parliament Plenary on Sept. 16. “This is why we will set up a new European Bauhaus — a co-creation space where architects, artists, students, engineers, designers work together to make that happen.”

Details of this agenda are still being negotiated, but in pointing to the Bauhaus — the Weimar-era school that churned out influential thinkers in design, architecture and craft until it was forced to close by the Nazi regime in 1933 — commissioners summon a legacy with a powerful grip on the imaginations of Europeans (and others). The sheer scope of climate actions under consideration could give lawmakers, engineers and architects an opportunity to build toward a shared continental vision.

The commission will unveil the details of the renovation wave initiative, part of the European Green Deal, on Oct. 14. For now, it’s not shying away from an aesthetic commitment of some kind.

“The message was, let’s create the style and architecture of our time, architecture that helps our cities become greener and also reconnect us with nature,” says Kadri Simson, European Commissioner for Energy. Maybe that’s as straightforward as a creed that unites Europe’s architects and planners behind a systemic and symbolic vision for progress. It might be as simple as the Modernist axiom that became so popular with the Bauhaus: Form follows function.

Diplomats are in talks this week about how to proceed with an agreement, which the EU’s 27 member states decided jointly back in July, to manage disbursements from both the bloc’s coronavirus recovery fund and its seven-year budget. About one-third of this $2 trillion package is earmarked for climate actions, including mass building renovations. Reining in building-energy consumption is seen as critical to curbing disruptive climate change, since building operations and construction together account for some 39% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

To this end, architects and engineers across Europe have any number of options for showcasing better performance from buildings. There are more than 20 schemes for building certification in use across Europe, among them LEED, Minergie and PassivHaus. These certification programs are voluntary; in terms of mandates, there are fewer in place. One EU framework called the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive requires property owners to complete energy performance certificates, typically when they put a building up for sale or rent, to describe a building’s energy use. In recent years, the EU has sought to shore up this directive by requiring member states to come up with national long-term renovation strategies.

A stricter energy-use regime falls somewhat short of a design philosophy, however. Policy efforts in this sphere have taken on a new urgency, too. In January 2018, European culture ministers assembled in Davos to work on a common approach for pursuing higher quality architecture and urban development as a political goal. The ministers adopted a declaration promoting Baukultur, a commitment to thinking about the built environment as a reflection of European identity and diversity. The Davos Declaration on Baukultur suggests that at least some quarters of the European establishment are striving for something greater than the sum of mandatory minimums for building performance.

The European Commission was until now “rather focused on bean counting, measuring accountable details of buildings like energy consumption or ventilation systems,” says Georg Pendl, president of the Architects’ Council of Europe. “It would be a change not having this purely technical approach. The assessment of the quality of buildings through technical data very often doesn’t have much to do with the quality of the building and of the environment.”

One year after celebrations marking the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Bauhaus, it’s not surprising that European leaders might want to co-opt the brand for their regulatory mission. The history of the movement also speaks to conflicts in the present. Frans Timmermans, executive vice president for the European Commission and climate chief for the European Green Deal, describes the Bauhaus as a “democratization movement and emancipation movement” that made design and urbanism more accessible. “That’s why Bauhaus was such a beautiful initiative that will withstand the times, and that’s also why all the autocrats coming to power in the 1920s and 1930s attacked Bauhaus and tried to make it disappear,” Timmermans says.

But the original Bauhaus was neither a movement nor a style but a school, and it was a provincial institution, not run by the state, says Barry Bergdoll, professor of art history at Columbia University. While it is known today for the seemingly canonical design imperatives about line and ornamentation associated with Walter Gropius, the Bauhaus was a clearing house for diverse pedagogical theories. Despite its factory-like appearance, it operated as a workshop for craft — a house of ideas rather than a plant for fabrication.

And the Bauhaus was never much of a policy shop. After the school moved from Weimar to Dessau in 1925, some of the faculty got involved with experiments in modernist thinking about housing at the city and state level (housing being a major debate for inter-war Germany). And in 1928–1930, under the school’s second director, Hannes Meyer, the Bauhaus pursued interesting avenues in environmental thinking, such as passive solar energy and ecological gardening. Bergdoll says that the Bauhaus would have loved to be called in to advise on policymaking, but that rarely happened at the time. Today, there’s an opportunity for European leaders to fulfill the school’s unrealized potential.

“They’re using the Bauhaus in a sense as a metaphor for innovative thinking, of breaking down boundaries between things, of design taking on everyday problems,” Bergdoll says. “All of those things are true.”

Pendl says that a new European Bauhaus should look to architects for inspiration, rather than the other way around. Such a project shouldn’t necessarily limit itself to Europe: Pendl points to the work of Diébédo Francis Kéré, an architect from Burkina Faso with a studio in Berlin and projects in Bamako, Barcelona and Montana, as an example of a designer whose work is measured in terms of its cultural, environmental and social values, not just its cost or aesthetic. No dogmas are necessary, Pendl says, although certain standards such as energy-saving triple-pane windows might be common. Buildings in wood or even clay could become more mainstream.

Milan Dinevski, a Slovenian architect and curator at the Museum of Architecture and Design in Ljubljana, Slovenia, says research and technology will be paramount in a new European Bauhaus, and nature should be too. He says that there must be diversity in decision-making processes to ensure that any renovation wave takes into account the local ecosystem, both social and natural.

“Traditional architecture has been building in the same manner for more than 100 years,” Dinevski says. “Nothing has changed since Bauhaus. You have better materials and success depends on whether you can have access to these materials. But there hasn’t been a universal or a paradigm shift.”

Dinevski, who is also project manager for the Future Architect Platform, which gathers curators, theorists, producers, and emerging architects to exchange ideas and foster innovation, says that the time for change is here. “Coronavirus has made us spectators of the forces of nature, and we are forced to think of alternatives to the current state of being.”

Neither the Davos Declaration nor the European Commission has gone so far as to endorse a singular architectural style for Europe. Bauhaus enthusiasts might be disappointed to learn that the EU has not green-lighted a surge of constructivist architecture across Europe. What works for Frankfurt won’t be the best solution for Belgrade, Dinevski says. 

The original Bauhaus was more than a look, and a new European Bauhaus should be more than a rubric, Pendl says.

“Design and style are terms for the past, not for the future,” Pendl says. “Now it’s a question of the attitude — how to think and how to approach problems.”

— With assistance by Nikos Chrysoloras, and Ewa Krukowska

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