You are in Hangzhou, China. You are weaving through the pedestrianised passages lined with clothes shops, barbers and noodle bars in a newly built district near the China Art Academy. Once through the security barrier, you are on campus, surrounded by lush gardens, concrete and wood faculty buildings and dozens of students on electric scooters. Walking east, you see the cranes on the adjacent building site and mountains on the horizon until you are faced with a pink stone clad monolith, the new Alvaro Siza designed China Design Museum. Finding your way through the museum, you catch a succession of long perspectives through the building before you are directed down a tight corridor, opening up into a large hall. You are met with the text Bauhaus 1919-1933; the exhibition’s ambitions appear clear but the arrangement of structures – muted blue and yellow tables holding material in vitrines, their interpretative and didactic texts on vertical panels above - betray a far more complex system to navigate. Tables cluster together; families of a kind. You weave between the displays, which are beginning to look something like open books; their content tracing histories of the Bauhaus in Germany and its spectral presence at design schools in India and China as well as architecture and town planning in the Soviet Union, Hungary and North Korea.
Weaving through Hangzhou and Moving Away
Rather than following a linear chronological trajectory, the exhibition you encounter sets up a polycentric narrative of the Bauhaus as the production house of universally useful objects, buildings and neighbourhoods with the collective aim of raising quality of life through integrated design. You spend a long time peering into the architectural model of the Dessau school, imagining the place where Marianne Brandt designed her metal and glass lamps, where Gunta Stölzl experimented with Hubert Hoffman to design new chairs and where commitments to both the commodity and the social function of objects led to epistemological innovations in design. You leaf through the 14 issues of the Bauhaus journal where new cultural ideas, progressive pedagogy and where the school’s diversion from the academic canon was published. Birthed at a time of political turmoil, the Bauhaus teachers and students were faced with building a new republic and you see plans and photographs of the Dessau Törten Housing estate, a major architectural and urban planning project integrating both the interiors and exteriors of affordable housing in Dessau, embodying the school’s political and universalist design principles.
Where are you in the section entitled Moving Away? Are you the housewife arranging shoes in the cupboard or are you the maid preparing eggs in the House Gropius as part of the film series, ‘How to live healthily and economically’ in 1926? Are you a weaver at the Bauhaus, an apprentice to ‘Meister’ Gunta Stölzl? Are you a consumer, interested in buying Marcel Breuer’s B3 chair? Are you a farm labourer, carrying water on your head in a ‘jota’ brass jug, in a film made about Indian craft by Charles Eames? Are you the woman sitting on an invisible chair, far in the future when design has become obsolete, as seen in the exhibition’s focal object, a collage by Marcel Breuer published in the magazine bauhaus. zeitschrift für gestaltung in 1926. Are you a student of design at the Bauhaus Institute at China Academy of Art, Hangzhou learning about the pioneering architects who translated the Bauhaus’ integration of art, design and life for a Chinese context? You shift from object to subject several times.
The exhibition pulls you away from inter-war Germany towards the equally tumultuous context of post-independence India. The exhibition brings together the knowledge and material gathered by researchers with different regional specialisations and highlights the Indian state’s consideration of design education as foundational to nation building. A woven skirt, a ceramic tea pot, a bamboo chair and the new publications Marg and Design sit alongside the glowing screen of the film JAWAJA the rural university which depicts an experimentation in education, bringing together economic development and pedagogy. There is an energy and an intensity of ambition that you feel from the material. Something as central to Indian society as craft was to become a transformative tool in the economic development of the newly independent state. The India Report, a key document by Charles and Ray Eames commissioned by Prime Minister Nehru in 1958, recommended that the government create a design institute dedicated to an awareness of the qualities and problems inherent in everyday life, enabling technological and economic development in the country. You learn that the public universities in NID (National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad) and IDC (Industrial Design Centre, Bombay) were established to generate this new drive for design led growth and you begin to see the constellation of schools, histories and individuals that comprise this design history in India. Ulm School of Design, where many students of the Bauhaus taught after its dissolution and where Indian designers studied (including NID course leader, Sudhakar Nadkarni) propagated an ideology to create for the public good with design theory and action, that was carried and adapted for the newly founded institutions. You take a close look at Nadkarni’s designs for a milk kiosk for the government inititative to freely distribute milk across India, and note the influence of the Ulm school’s functional approach translated into Indian modern design. You begin to establish connections between the objects, publications and films on show, tracing histories unimpeded by time and geographies.
The exhibition charts the flows of knowledge and power and you ride its asymmetries, across from Germany to India to China. You think about what set these flows in motion. Individuals figure on the horizon of Asia. The afterlife of the Bauhaus in China is populated by students of Walter Gropius who taught a new generation of designers from his adoptive home in Harvard. Wang Dahong, I.M. Pei, Huang Zuoshen and Richard Paulick feature prominently as architects and town planners. Sitting quietly under a vitrine there is a book published by Zhang Guangyu, Modern Art and Craft. He introduced the Bauhaus to Chinese designers and students in 1932, propelling the functional and universalist design ideology into a radically different context. You observe a new constellation forming in China, where a conflux of traditional styles met with a modernist aesthetic that is detached from its original context and your head is sent spinning by the proliferation of connections between designers, institutions, political and design imperatives. What does it mean to have a model of the Nanjing Railway Station here, designed by Paulick? What does it mean to have Bauhaus Imaginista here in Hangzhou as the China Art Academy celebrates its 90th anniversary? The legacy of the Bauhaus and the birth of the academy are entwined. One of the first instructors at the academy, the Japanese designer Kazo Saito, had visited the Bauhaus and 22 other German design schools and disseminated new models of practice which were taken up with enthusiasm as China looked towards modernisation. You can feel the weight of his impact in the halls of the colossal academy museum.
China was looking to modernize, but on its own terms. By the mid 1950s the European modernist model of design education became problematic as anti-western and anti-rightist sentiment grew. It was not enough that I.M. Pei was combining the courtyard gardens of traditional Chinese architecture with functionalist modernist design principles. You sense the hostility. You begin to notice a move away from the Bauhaus in the articles written by Liang Sicheng now rejecting modernist design principles. The government sought after a different model of design education, and they were looking toward Moscow. You turn on your heels towards a whole new set of urbanist practices in the Soviet Union.
You work hard to establish connections and map a network of exchange and influence through the archival material and objects. You search for signs of reciprocity between different geographies because you are feeling overwhelmed by the impervious precedence of the Bauhaus. You locate it in the exhibition’s focus on the Soviet Union where the Bauhaus, under the directorship of Hannes Meyer, and the design school Vkhutemas participated in shared teaching and exchange of ideas. You wonder how open to influence Gropius’ design practice was, after his time designing the ill-fated Hua Tung University in China or teaching I.M. Pei. You begin to unfold the trajectories of cross-cultural relations, imagining the migrating networks leading to and from the Bauhaus through Asia. Once expelled from the Bauhaus in 1930 by the National Socialist Party for his leftist political principles, Meyer and seven students were invited by the Soviet government to settle in Moscow where they could actualise his concepts of collective design with a social objective through large scale urban planning. You examine unrealised and realised city plans and apartment complexes. You are shaken by an image of a solitary chair, designed by one of the students, Philipp Tolziner, for a labour camp dentist’s office. Three of the students died in the Soviet Gulag and your experience of the exhibition shifts registers into an uncomfortable space, making you feel the objects and artefacts more than understand them.
Before leaving Bauhaus Imaginista: Moving Away you focus on a silent film that documents the International Congress of Modern Architecture (CIAM) 4 meeting, which was held on a boat floating between Marseille and Athens. Knowing that Bauhaus teacher László Moholy-Nagy filmed it in 1933, another node within the global network of the Bauhaus opens up. You look for familiar figures as they pull faces at the camera and sway with the surf - closing a transcultural story of the imbrication of state, design, education, and societal needs which crosses seas, wars and borders.