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Thoughts on a new European Bauhaus

Updated: Aug 10

by Soumaya Majdoub

Original Article published in Sampol, May 2021

‘Cafeteria after lunch, Bauhaus, Dessau’, Iwao Yamawaki

A critical reading of the Bauhaus era (1919-1933) cannot but compel us to recognize that the European Green Deal is a plaster on the deep wound that modern industrial capitalism has inflicted on the world.

"I want NextGenerationEU to start a European renovation wave and make our Union a pioneer in the circular economy. But this is not just an ecological or economic project: it has to become a new cultural project for Europe." (vision text Ursula von der Leyen, 21 January 2021)

Ursula von der Leyen announced in this vision statement the launch of a new European Bauhaus. She referred to the women Anni Albers and Iwao Yamawaki. Politically very correct, considering the Bauhaus is best known for the works of Josef Albers, Marcel Breuer, Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee. So men. Although Walter Gropius, when he founded the Bauhaus Design School in Weimar in 1919, boasted that the school would be open to 'everyone of good standing, regardless of age or gender'. More so, there should be 'no differences between the fairer sex and the stronger sex'.

Interdisciplinary innovation where craft and design go hand in hand was the central goal of the Bauhaus school. Integration of female artists was part of this. In theory anyway. After all, Gropius believed that the brains of men and women were so different that thinking in three dimensions was only for men. Textiles and weaving were what women had to do (including Albers and Yamawaki, dear Ursula). The men, on the other hand, were destined to become architects, painters and sculptors. And yet the Bauhaus movement was largely populated by women. It is striking how in stories about this influential movement, the Bauhaus women are written down with almost surgical precision. How do we protect ourselves against a repetition of such things in a new European Bauhaus?

Inequality thus formed the basis of all Bauhaus productions and has thus been influencing the layout of cities worldwide, the design of furniture and creative thinking for more than a century. What's more, the social and economic transition to industrial society of the 20th century bears an unmistakable Bauhaus stamp. We can say without much contradiction that inequality is inherent in industrial society. A critical reading of our history, and especially the period in which the Bauhaus existed (1919-1933), cannot but compel us to recognize that the European Green Deal is a plaster on the deep wound that modern industrial capitalism has inflicted on the world.

In Ursula von der Leyen 's vision text we read further: ' The Bauhaus projects should stimulate the discussion about new construction methods and designs. This requires experimentation and a concrete answer to the social question of how the modern lifestyle of Europeans can be brought into harmony with nature .' It is very easy to ignore the fact that the European modern lifestyle came about thanks to the realization of undue profits. Either at the expense of economically backward regions, or at the expense of colonies, or through technological innovation. And we still try to bring a destructive lifestyle – which we owe to inequality elsewhere – 'in harmony with nature' without first eliminating that inequality.

Europe to be the first climate-neutral continent by 2050. As the whole world gradually gears up to recover from Covid-19 and learn lessons, Europe is seizing the momentum to make the economic recovery climate-friendly and become a leader in the circular economy. The ambitions are noble, the ambitions are right. Worked out in a plan, however, it takes courage. Because change can only be systemic. A successful transition cannot occur until history is read correctly. When existing inequalities are recognized for what they are, namely the result of policy choices. Policy choices that embody a particularly skewed worldview.

A Green Deal without social justice within and beyond European borders is much of the old, little of the intended new. After all, the climate issue knows no borders. So how can we pursue a transition from a Eurocentric point of view? With the necessary pretension, one would dare to think that the ambitions wrapped in the Green Deal could give Europe the normative power and legitimacy to set higher standards for the rest of the world - with a new European Bauhaus as a soft diplomacy tool. But the normative power that Europe could win lies – contradictoryly – in recognizing that the Green Deal can only succeed if it does not have Eurocentric reflexes.

This cries out for a cultural turnaround – the core of a new European Bauhaus – and permanent questioning of how new the new is new. The initiative is currently in the design phase. This is followed by the phases in which realization and dissemination are central. As can be seen from the considerations above, one phase is missing: that of self-reflection and criticism. So it is not too late to leave familiar paths and make way for the voices of those to whom Europe owes everything. From below, just as Gropius had envisioned.

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