Our story begins in germany just after the first World War. Young American architects, along with artists, writers, and odd-lot intellectuals, are roaming through Europe. This great boho adventure is called "the Lost Generation." Meaning what? In The Liberation of American Literature, V. F. Calverton wrote that American artists and writers had suffered from a "colonial complex" throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and had timidly imitated European models--but that after World War I they had finally found the self-confidence and sense of identity to break free of the authority of Europe in the arts. In fact, he couldn't have gotten it more hopelessly turned around.
The motto of the Lost Generation was, in Malcolm Cowley's words, "They do things better in Europe." What was in progress was a postwar discount tour in which practically any American--not just, as in the old days, a Henry James, a John Singer Sargent, or a Richard Morris Hunt--could go abroad and learn how to be a European artist. "The colonial complex" now took hold like a full nelson.
The European artist! What a dazzling figure! Andre Breton, Louis Aragon, Jean Cocteau, Tristan Tzara, Picasso, Matisse, Arnold Schoenberg, Paul Valery--such creatures stood out like Gustave Miklos figurines of bronze and gold against the smoking rubble of Europe after the Great War. The rubble, the ruins of European civilization, was an essential part of the picture. The charred bone heap in the background was precisely what made an avant-gardist such as Breton or Picasso stand out so brilliantly.
To the young American architects who made the pilgrimage, the most dazzling figure of all was Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus School. Gropius opened the Bauhaus in Weimar, the German capital, in 1919. It was more than a school; it was a commune, a spiritual movement, a radical approach to art in all its forms, a philosophical center comparable to the Garden of Epicurus. Gropius, the Epicurus of the piece, was thirty-six years old, slender, simply but meticulously groomed, with his thick black hair combed straight back, irresistibly handsome to women, correct and urbane in a classic German manner, a lieutenant of cavalry during the war, decorated for valor, a figure of calm, certitude, and conviction at the center of the maelstrom.
Strictly speaking, he was not an aristocrat, since his father, while well-to-do, was not of the nobility, but people couldn't help thinking of him as one. The painter Paul Klee, who taught at the Bauhaus, called Gropius "the Silver Prince." Silver was perfect. Gold was too gaudy for so fine and precise a man. Gropius seemed to be an aristocrat who through a miracle of sensitivity had retained every virtue of the breed and cast off all the snobberies and dead weight of the past.
The young architects and artists who came to the Bauhaus to live and study and learn from the Silver Prince talked about "starting from zero." One heard the phrase all the time: "starting from zero." Gropius gave his backing to any experiment they cared to make, so long as it was in the name of a clean and pure future. Even new religions such as Mazdaznan. Even health-food regimens. During one stretch at Weimar the Bauhaus diet consisted entirely of a mush of fresh vegetables. It was so bland and fibrous they had to keep adding garlic in order to create any taste at all. Gropius' wife at the time was Alma Mahler, formerly Mrs. Gustav Mahler, the first and foremost of that marvelous twentieth-century species, the Art Widow. The historians tell us, she remarked years later, that the hallmarks of the Bauhaus style were glass corners, flat roofs, honest materials, and expressed structure. But she, Alma Mahler Gropius Werfel--she had since added the poet Franz Werfel to the skein--could assure you that the most unforgettable characteristic of the Bauhaus style was "garlic on the breath." Nevertheless!--how pure, how clean, how glorious it was to be . . . starting from zero!
Marcel Breuer, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, Herbert Bayer, Henry van de Velde--all were teachers at the Bauhaus at one time or another, along with painters like Klee and Josef Albers. Albers taught the famous Bauhaus Vorkurs, or introductory course. Albers would walk into the room and deposit a pile of newspapers on the table and tell the students he would return in one hour. They were to turn the pieces of newspaper into works of art in the interim. When he returned, he would find Gothic castles made of newspaper, yachts made of newspaper, airplanes, busts, birds, train terminals, amazing things. But there would always be some student, a photographer or a glassblower, who would simply have taken a piece of newspaper and folded it once and propped it up like a tent and let it go at that. Albers would pick up the cathedral and the airplane and say: "These were meant to be made of stone or metal--not newspaper." Then he would pick up the photographer's absentminded tent and say: "But this!--this makes use of the soul of paper. Paper can fold without breaking. Paper has tensile strength, and a vast area can be supported by these two fine edges. This!--is a work of art in paper." And every cortex in the room would spin out. So simple! So beautiful . . . It was as if light had been let into one's dim brain for the first time. My God!--starting from zero!
And why not . . . The country of the young Bauhausler, Germany, had been crushed in the war and humiliated at Versailles; the economy had collapsed in a delirium of inflation; the Kaiser had departed; the Social Democrats had taken power in the name of socialism; mobs of young men ricocheted through the cities drinking beer and awaiting a Soviet-style revolution from the east, or some terrific brawls at the very least. Rubble, smoking ruins--starting from zero! If you were young, it was wonderful stuff. Starting from zero referred to nothing less than re-creating the world.
It is instructive--in view of the astonishing effect it was to have on life in the United States--to recall some of the exhortations of that curious moment in Middle Europe sixty years ago:
"Painters, Architects, Sculptors, you whom the bourgeoisie pays with high rewards for your work--out of vanity, snobbery, and boredom--Hear! To this money there clings the sweat and blood and nervous energy of thousands of poor hounded human beings--Hear! It is an unclean profit. . . . we must be true socialists--we must kindle the highest socialist virtue: the brotherhood of man."
So ran a manifesto of the Novembergruppe, which included Moholy-Nagy and other designers, who would later join Gropius at the Bauhaus. Gropius was chairman of the Novembergruppe's Arbeitsrat fur Kunst (Working Council for Art), which sought to bring all the arts together "under the wing of a great architecture," which would be "the business of the entire people." As everyone understood in 1919, the entire people was synonymous with the workers. "The intellectual bourgeois . . . has proved himself unfit to be the bearer of a German culture," said Gropius. "New, intellectually undeveloped levels of our people are rising from the depths. They are our chief hope."
Gropius' interest in "the proletariat" or "socialism" turned out to be no more than aesthetic and fashionable, somewhat like the interest of President Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic or Chairman Mao of the People's Republic of China in republicanism. Nevertheless, as Dostoevsky said, ideas have consequences; the Bauhaus style proceeded from certain firm assumptions. First, the new architecture was being created for the workers. The holiest of all goals: perfect worker housing. Second, the new architecture was to reject all things bourgeois. Since just about everyone involved, the architects as well as the Social Democratic bureaucrats, was himself bourgeois in the literal, social sense of the word, "bourgeois" became an epithet that meant whatever you wanted it to mean. It referred to whatever you didn't like in the lives of people above the level of hod carrier. The main thing was not to be caught designing something someone could point to and say of, with a devastating sneer: "How very bourgeois."