Culture | December 10, 2019

Slippery Modernism

Kevin Jones

Fountain under construction with tiling, courtesy of Hisham Ashkouri

What more can be said about Bauhaus? The German art school’s centenary has knee-jerked into existence a spate of laudatory shows worldwide, countless analytical articles, deep dives into the archive, and a renewed interrogation of the consequent crescendo of modernism, its (over?) promise of a “new world”, and its fight for survival in the existing one.

In the midst of this Bauhaus bonanza, the Dubai-based Jean-Paul Najar Foundation (JPNF) quietly opened Building Bauhaus (30 September 2019 - 29 February 2020), a terse, almost humble show that works hard to balance the general and the specific. While Building Bauhaus successfully brushstrokes the German institution’s foundational raison d’être, it is also careful to visualise the regional (architectural) legacy of the school, cultivated by its globetrotting acolytes. This double-barrelled curatorial intent is neatly captured in the title: “building” refers at once to the pedagogical and architectural genesis of this art school-cum-movement, and to the modernist, Bauhaus-related structures that dot the Middle East to this day.

Bauhaus identity card of Gunta Stolzl, 1928. Photo: Markus Hawlik, Bauhaus-Archiv, Berlin

Ask most people about Bauhaus and they will conjure images either of the school’s signature design contributions that amplified the already simmering modernist aesthetic (rationalised forms, tubular steel furniture, cubic structures, bold graphics), or the larger-than-life temperaments of its visionaries (founder Walter Gropius, designer Marcel Breuer, painter Paul Klee). Yet Bauhaus was (and, arguably, continues to be) a pedagogy, a weltanschauung, a movement. All the exhibition mainstays used to illustrate this triad—the Vorkurs wheel detailing the core courses and specialised workshops, images of student parties, student studies in colour and form, Gropius quotes writ large on the wall—are here. Yet, even in this largely predictable opening section on Bauhaus’ origin story, the show threads up a curious political tension coursing below the industrious zeitgeist: gender bias.

Bauhaus Building, Dessau, 1925-1926: Workshop wing from the southwest. Photo courtesy Harvard Art Museums/Busch-Reisinger Museum, Gift of Ise Gropius, © President and Fellows of Harvard College

Although the point is made in a mere eight square meters of wall space (featuring most notably a tapestry by textile artist Gunta Stölzl and a copy of her Bauhaus ID card with “student” status crossed out and “master” handwritten in its stead), it is nonetheless potent: women were relegated to the weaving workshop, with the lone Marianne Brandt managing to drill through to the metalworking corps. Ironically, under Stölzl’s stewardship (she was the sole female master at the school), the weaving workshop was the most financially successful node of Bauhaus production in the late 1920s in Dessau, attaining levels of commercial self-sustainability that helped keep less profitable métiers afloat. Her students, Anni Albers among them, later endeavoured to hoist weaving and textile design into the realm of fine art. Yet, as the Nazis gained power, pressure to eject women intensified: one year prior to the closure of the Dessau campus by the Nazis, in 1931, then-director Mies van der Rohe, under political pressure, requested Stölzl’s resignation.

After this initial section on Bauhaus origins (invigorated by its gender-exclusion twist), the show quickly shifts to a purely architectural register. Even the brief “design” section, juxtaposing Marcel Breuer’s tubular steel B3 club chair (1925) with a contoured bicycle handlebar, is accompanied by its own architectural drawing featuring two elevations of the photogenic armchair, later renamed the Wassily Chair in the 1960s, as marketing efforts spiked.

Beyond the iconic chair, the remainder of the show hones in on Gropius and Breuer’s worldwide architectural legacy, culminating in a “best of Bauhaus-esque Middle East” on the Foundation’s upper floor. The JPNF building itself, as unassuming as it may seem, folded into the discreetly industrial rows of Alserkal Avenue warehouses, smacks of Bauhaus pedigree. Mario Jossa, who, in 1964, joined the practice Breuer had founded in 1941, was coaxed out of retirement to design the building—boasting tubular steel staircase guardrails and angular ceilings—in 2015. Prior Gropius-Breuer triumphs featured in the show include North Carolina’s Black Mountain College (1939), and substantial space is devoted to Breuer-Jossa’s sole private residence in France, the Villa Sayer (Glanville, Normandy), concluded in 1974.

Construction site photographs showing east and west elevations, courtesy of Radisson Blu Resort

Wander upstairs and a second political twist awaits. Cradled among a selection of familiar local constructions—Abu Dhabi’s Cultural Foundation and Sharjah’s Radisson Blu hotel, both built by the globally active American practice TAC (The Architects Collaborative) of which Gropius was a member, and the more remote University of Baghdad, begun by Gropius in 1957—sits the infamous White City in Tel Aviv. A collection of over 4,000 buildings constructed starting in the 1930s in what was then Mandatory Palestine, the compound was classified a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site in 2003, solidifying its status as a beacon of now-Israeli modernity.

Cultural Foundation Complex, Abu Dhabi, c. 1981, Courtesy of Hisham Ashkouri.

Perhaps to its credit (or not), Building Bauhaus is discreet on this point, with the sole mention “Mandate Palestine” in bold typography gracing a large-scale render of the glistening compound. But in a show presumably about building, here we are confronted with an act of erasure. Architectural time and place, so cherished and lauded in sites like Glanville and Black Mountain College, have been hi-jacked in the White City: Palestinian architectural fact has been morphed into Zionist national myth. Is modernism’s minimalism to blame for its easy appropriation and injection into modernising, nation-building yarns? How does the White City’s revisionist inclusion in a narrative of Israeli modernity fuel the “apologetics of Jewish settlement[1]” now ravaging the territory?

Dizengoff Circle from the north, Tel Aviv, c. 1934, Prints and Photographs Division, G. Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection, Library of Congress

Countless Bauhaus shows frame the school as having lived and produced in a temporary state of grace (Nazi nastiness aside). But architecture is rarely innocent—so often enlisted as the henchman of ideology. For all its praiseworthy regional specificity, Building Bauhaus signposts a burning question about modernism’s slipperiness, but, curiously, leaves us hanging.

About Kevin Jones

Kevin Jones is an independent arts writer based in Dubai. New York-born and Paris-bred, he is currently the UAE Desk Editor for ArtAsiaPacific. In 2019, he founded the niche consultancy Juniper Mind, which helps brands be more like artists, and artists more like brands.


[1] Rotbard, Sharon, White City, Black City: Architecture and War in Tel Aviv and Jaffa, MIT Press, 2015.

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