Shortly before Selmanagić’s arrival in Dessau, the Bauhaus had in 1927 opened a Department of Architecture headed by Hannes Meyer who, became the school’s director in 1928. Meyer’s two-year-term of office involved a radical revision of the school’s programmatic and methodological concepts. Under Meyer, the new motto of the Bauhaus became “the needs of the people instead of the need for luxury.” Selmanagić began the Bauhaus Preliminary Course (Vorkurs) in October 1929, studying under Josef Albers, who focused on achieving the best possible product with the minimum expenditure in terms of material, energy and time. Selmanagić often recalled a moment from Albers’ Preliminary Course that illustrated his working method well. Selmanagić kept a German dictionary on his desk, which he pressed with a plank so that it opened like a fan, making it quicker and easier to use. When Albers noticed this practical “invention,” he praised it as a perfect example of studying the nature of material and the way it could be used. (It is worth noting that until his third year of study his family remained unaware of what he was doing and he was forced to manage his living and education expenses entirely on his own. Then in 1931, his father, who wanted to see concrete proof of his son’s educational progress before deciding to lend support to his continued studies, asked him to redesign the family house in Zvornik, Bosnia. This project earned him the appellation “le Corbusier of the Balkans” from his architecture professor Ludwig Hilberseimer.)
The stratification evident in Selmanagić’s cultural identity and professional career path was intrinsically formed in the encounter of different traditions, resulted in his eagerness to become acquainted with new and different cultures. His father was well-educated in Islamic philosophy and spoke Turkish, Farsi and French, which partially explains Selmanagić’s interest in the humanities and social sciences while he attended the Bauhaus, where, during his years at the Bauhaus (1929–1932), he avidly attended lectures by Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky, as well as the philosophers Rudolf Carnap and Otto Neurath, the psychologist Karlfried Graf Dürckheim, and art historian Karel Teige. Due to Selmanagić’s broad range of interests, his functionalism eventually evolved into something more than a utilitarian program—one informed especially by Dürckheim’s lectures on the psychology of form and his teaching on “perceived space”—becoming instead, a method based on the function of the synesthetic elements of experience, in both perception and design. His contact with the lectures of Paul Klee during his second semester—during which he was enrolled under strict conditions (“unter scharfer Probe”)—was crucial for his formative years since Klee’s work, with its rare and specific synthesis of Islamic tradition and analytical aspects of European modern painting, reflected Selmanagić’s own worldview.
According to Selmanagić’s own testimony, he was very impressed with Kandinsky’s lecture, “Abstract Elements of Form and Analytical Drawing” as well as with Klee’s course in Free Painting. Klee was concerned with the origins of form and made it clear that behind and above the rational factor on which he had to base his demonstrations there stood the element of intuition and that this element is both the primary and the final criterion in all creative activity.2 According to Selmanagić, Klee once pointed out that Bauhaus wanted to make the invisible—the study of life processes (Lebensvorgänge)—visible; a project that appeared to him as central to the Bauhaus pedagogy.3 On one occasion, Klee praised Selmanagić’s way of visual thinking to his colleagues in the class.4 What surprised Selmanagić was the fact that he was among the few students in the class who did not graduate from an Art Academy. A Non-figurative, analytical and conceptual mode of representation—characteristic of Islamic abstract painting and the arabesque—were both familiar to Selmanagić’s sensibility and childhood environment, close to Klee’s understanding that “art does not reflect what is seen, rather it makes the hidden visible.” As he wrote in 1928 in the Bauhaus journal:
“One learns to look behind the façade, to grasp the roots of things. One learns to recognize the hidden currents, the prehistory of the visible. One learns to dig below the surface, to uncover, to find causes, to analyze … One learns the special kind of progress that leads to a critical penetration into the past, in the direction of that which has existed before, on which future things will grow … One learns about the things that form a connection along the way between the cause and reality.”5
Two-years before Selmanagić’s arrival in Dessau, Klee made a drawing of a small rug (kilim) from the Berber region of Tunisia he had visited during the now-famous trip he took to North Africa in 1914. It is well known that Oriental rugs played an important role for modern, abstract painting and their influence was especially notable during the Munich exhibition of Islamic arts in 1910. Artists such as Wassily Kandinsky, Franz Marc, and Henry Matisse became fascinated with the rugs hung as paintings on the walls. An interest in non-European, pre-Modern praxes and techniques was at the core of the Bauhaus program; a search for a primordial language of forms synthesized with industrial technology. Bauhaus masters’ and students’ interest in the pre-modern materials, praxis, and craft techniques from North Africa, as well as North and South Americas, offered a possibility for multifaceted, intercultural translations within the framework of Bauhaus modernity in tacit contestation of the Eurocentric notion of “primitivism” in art and culture.6
Even Selmanagić’s first memories of the carpentry workshop in Dessau were strongly marked by this inherent duality between East and West. As an example, he mentions the exercise of designing a cabinet and the question that Professor Alfred Arndt asked them at a workshop during the second semester: “What is to be placed into this cabinet?” His subsequent explanation was that in each phase of the designing process one should start from the idea of the whole, the actual needs of the user, and the function of the object rather than the elements of design. Up until then, Selmanagić believed that the beauty of a cabinet strongly relied on “Arabic ornaments and rosettes.”7
Beside the increasing readiness to explore fresh principles of design, which focused on users’ needs, Selmanagić’s stay at Bauhaus also defined his worldview and his political orientation, presupposing a specific view on architecture as a phenomenon that must be understood, reflected upon, and conceptually defined “beyond the four walls.” The spirit of anti-fascism was a determining feature of his position from 1929 onwards, when he joined the Communist Party, to his involvement in illegal Communist cells in Berlin during World War II, and continuing on to his significant role in building up the new East German state from 1949. His remarkable openness for dialogue with various cultures and traditions (especially manifest during a dynamic stay in the Middle East during the 1930s) reflected Selmanagić’s spirit of internationalism and openness, an attitude that characterized the Bauhaus as a whole.