Bauhaus at 100: how does its workplace legacy stand up?

As the fountainhead of modern architecture, Germany’s Bauhaus design school controversially provided the visual basis for management efficiency and control. So why do we still revere it today?

The 100th anniversary of the founding of the Bauhaus – the legendary German design school widely acknowledged to be the fountainhead of the modern movement – is currently being celebrated around the world as a global landmark in design and architecture.

According to Sir Norman Foster, ‘Bauhaus at its best was a revolution in the relationship between arts and crafts, aesthetics and functions, conceiving and making.’ Fellow super-architect Daniel Libeskind, who rebuilt the World Trade Center in New York, eulogises: ‘Bauhaus, at its core, is about understanding the world and its wonder.’

The impact of the Bauhaus, its faculty and alumni, which included Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, Marcel Breuer, Josef and Annie Albers, Herbert Bayer, Max Bill and Lazlo Moholy Nagy, is undeniable; and especially when you consider that the school only lasted 14 years in Weimar and then Dessau from 1919 to 1933, when the Nazis closed the place down.

Democratic elegance

The Bauhaus philosophy to make explicit the links between architecture, design and art in the service of a startling industrial modernity gave rise to a modern movement in design, expressed through a sleek, pared-back, democratic elegance. Based on a minimalist logic, the unadorned doctrine of ‘less is more’ was designed to sweep away the old bourgeois, pre-First World War order, with its dated visual hierarchies and fussy decorations.

But while this new international style looked great in a Marianne Brandt teapot, it was more controversial when applied to large office buildings after the Bauhaus masters decamped to America in the late 1930s and the pace of 20th century business life accelerated sharply. It is in the sphere of workplace design that Bauhaus principles made themselves felt most keenly.

An unholy alliance

The Bauhaus emerged as an international movement at precisely the moment when management processes were adapting the Taylorist time-and-motion studies of the factory floor to the fast-evolving office environment.

In a period of post-1945 economic expansion, modernist design became the visual embodiment of organisational efficiency and control. It thus created an unholy alliance between functionalist aesthetics and scientific management processes based on treating the organisation as a giant piece of engineering and employees like cogs in a machine.

The office became a testbed for modern movement ideas – a place of rational production and administration, like the factory, whose design would almost entirely be determined by the considerations of management efficiency. Modern architects and designers provided the practical settings for system fanatics in management theory, inspired by Mies van der Rohe’s dictum that, just as the home was ‘a machine for living’, so the office was machine for working. Workplaces were destined to look and feel like ‘machines’.

Le Corbusier wrote enthusiastically in Towards A New Architecture (1946) about ‘admirable office furniture’ as one of the most significant new objects of modern life. Later, Mies van der Rohe would sell the ideals of the Bauhaus to American big business with his 1958 glass-block Seagram Building. By the 1960s, the modern movement’s design signature had become the perfect encapsulation of corporate control, as hard edges and ‘efficient’ rectilinear forms dominated office interiors.

Meanwhile, modern architects inspired by the Bauhaus removed grand, eye-catching entrances from their buildings (too bourgeois!) so that people struggled to find their way into the base of all those sleek, glass-and-steel office towers sprouting in every city. All of this was not universally popular with office workers, even if the Bauhaus inspired devotion in the design community itself.

From Bauhaus to Our House

By the time the post-modernism backlash fully got underway in the 1980s, modern design was being blasted from every corner. Tom Wolfe’s famous book From Bauhaus to Our House (1981) led the charge. Wolfe was flabbergasted that corporate America at the peak of its economic power should bow down before Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius (named ‘White God No. 1’) and his doctrine. Wolfe was simply incredulous that a design style evolved for worker housing in the Weimar Germany amid the social strife of 1920s Europe should be so widely and unquestioningly adopted by post-war American big business.

Today, with the brief blowback of post-modernism blown out, we have again fallen in love with the modern aesthetic, although we now seem to prefer to the softer Scandi version rather than the industrial Teutonic strain. As artist Michael Craig-Martin told The Observer, ‘It’s only half joking to say that Ikea is the realisation of the Bauhaus dream’. We also have a more balanced view of what really works for people in office design – reinforced by a recognition that most of us don’t want to work in a machine and that more attention needs to be paid to human experience.

A reductionist, pared-back simplicity can make management processes visible – but, at the same time, a lack of visual variety and richness can make employees miserable.

‘Bauhaus continues to be hugely significant to judge from the critical reception…’

Perhaps the darker side of the Bauhaus’ legacy in workplace design lies in the way its original ideals were implemented by those with far less skill than the original masters. Despite its short and abruptly curtailed life, the Bauhaus continued to be hugely significant as an institution – to judge from the critical reception on its 100th birthday.

It remains one of the enduring artistic treasures of the modern era. But, in the way that its core design principles upheld the dogma of management efficiency, its legacy also made working life difficult for many people for a long time.

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