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Essence of the bauhaus

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bauhaus dessau at the design museum, shad thames, london until 4 june

'why have two alphabets when one will do? why write capital letters if we cannot speak capitals?' wrote laszlo moholy-nagy, and capitals were duly omitted in the typography of his bauhausbucher, regularly published by the school to publicise its activities. the result looks radical, elegant, sober, and convincing - like so much of the output of that remarkable institution during its 14 years of existence - and it is appropriately emulated by the captioning of this exhibition.

jungmeister of typography at the bauhaus was herbert bayer, who 'was among the first to campaign against the upper case in a country which employs a capital as the first letter of every noun and at a time when german printing was still using gothic typefaces.' But he was not rigid about it: he could use capitals very effectively, generally unmixed with lower case, as can be seen in a number of posters on view.

they are clear, bold, and effective - not unlike the figures used by the reichsbank on the 1,000,000 mark notes issued in 1923. printing and typography, which calls for the meeting of craft, industry, and intelligence, was a field supremely well suited to the bauhaus' abilities and concerns - once it had set aside the medievalist expressionism of its earliest years - and a field in which its achievement is exceptional.

for the bauhaus underwent an astonishing transformation. gropius's initial programme of 1919, with its emphasis on craftsmanship and the unification of the three arts of painting, sculpture, and architecture - symbolised by the three star-capped spires of feininger's manifesto image - now seems remote. For us, craft is scarcely an issue and the relevance for architecture of painting and sculpture - scarcely extant as separate disciplines - is unclear.

pevsner, gropius' prime advocate, could never understand this expressionist phase of his thinking, of which the 'log-cabin' sommerfeld house of 1921 (built with teak from a dismantled battleship) was the prime embodiment. he saw it as a temporary aberration between the rationalism of the pre- war factories and the rediscovered rationalism of the dessau and berlin projects of the later 1920s.

this re-orientation came about following the uninvited arrival in weimar of van doesburg and the opening of his unofficial de stijl classes in 1922, with the exhibition of russian constructivist art in berlin the same year. the mystic johannes itten, who had established the celebrated vorkurs, departed, and the objective of the teaching changed abruptly from personal development of the students to the creation of anonymous forms for industry consonant with social needs.

but gropius had written in 1919: 'let us together create the new building of the future, which will be everything in one form. architecture and sculpture and painting,' and the creation of such a gesamkunstwerk remained his prime objective. he finally achieved it when the bauhaus moved to dessau, and he designed, built, and furnished its new building as a corporate enterprise in the remarkably short period between march 1925 and december 1926.

shortly afterwards, seeing his task as accomplished, gropius resigned as director. but the school was to occupy the building for only 68 months until nazi victory in municipal elections forced it to close. it is this period that is the focus of this exhibition; though acknowledgement is made of the preceding weimar years and short postlude in berlin. the display is appropriately lucid and elegant. the furniture of marcel breuer and photographs of lucia moholy are outstanding. all that is missing, one feels, is the students.

by now of course many of the exhibits and images are familiar, and a sense of the vitality of the place would be a bonus. after all, itten taught under the motto 'play becomes party - party becomes work - work becomes play,' and that feeling remained important. photographs of the bauhaus' own travelling exhibitions of its wares look rather less pure than this. gropius wrote 'my sole aim is to leave everything in suspension, in flux, in order to avoid our community solidifying into a conventional academy.'

the closure of the bauhaus led to the creation of a diaspora, with many of its key figures emigrating to the united states. 'the bauhaus was not an institution with a clear program - it was an idea ... only an idea has the power to travel so far,' wrote the last director mies van der rohe. margret kentgens-craig's the bauhaus and america: first contacts 1919- 1936 (mit press, £24.95) traces this process, including the investigation of the new arrivals on suspicion of spying. it is an intelligent book, illuminating the perception of the bauhaus in the outside world and the contributions of america to the bauhaus as well as the other way round. but the typography does not live up to its subject.

james dunnett is an architect in london

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