Occasioned by the election of the new French President Emmanuel Macron, we turn our gaze toward France. Were the ground-breaking aesthetic ideas of the Bauhaus appreciated there during its lifetime and, if so, what influence did they have?

Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye / Photo: LStrike (Wikimedia Commons)
Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye / Photo: LStrike (Wikimedia Commons)

The fourteen-year history of the Bauhaus is an indicator of both its rapid recognition and the sobering effect of the frequently problematic realisation of its ambitious goals. Modern icons such as the White City in Tel Aviv or educational institutions such as the New Bauhaus in Chicago (today the Illinois Institute of Design) are just a small sample of the many international repercussions of the closure of the Bauhaus by the National Socialists. Less is known, however, about how the ideas of the Bauhaus were received in France at the time, and what impact they had.

This is all the more surprising given that relations between the German and French art worlds intensify again after the end of World War I. In Germany, art collectors, dealers and critics and museum directors focus their attention on art movements from cubism to surrealism. Regular reports about them appear in German art and architecture periodicals. [1]

In France, too, reviews and articles about German art appear in print, though far less frequently and written not by French cognoscenti of the German art scene, but by German authors. “It would appear that French culture is more self-contained, intent on its own tradition and less receptive to encounters with other philosophies of art, especially so during an age following catastrophic military conflict.” [2] It is therefore easy to understand why the opening of the Bauhaus as “an ultimately anti-academic project of cultural renewal” [3] went largely unnoticed in France.

Le Corbusier's building in the Weissenhof Estate / Photo: Andreas Praefcke - Opera propria (Wikimedia Commons)
Le Corbusier's building in the Weissenhof Estate / Photo: Andreas Praefcke - Opera propria (Wikimedia Commons)

In the last fifteen years of academic research however, we see increasing evidence that the French were indeed aware of the existence of the Bauhaus, even if an extensive reception seemed to be lacking. [4] Often, prejudices against the former wartime enemies complicated access to the artistic tradition of the emerging Weimar Republic. The French attested to the German people’s inventiveness, discipline and economic and industrial competence, but beyond pure utility they simply had no flair for aesthetics. [5]

Two different routes

The different traditions and social conditions in the two countries had resulted in different, quite contrary routes to modernity. While in Germany since the foundation of the Deutscher Werkbund in 1907 art and industry had sought a way forward together, in France these two sectors remained largely separate. In France the individually handcrafted masterpiece was highly valued, while at the Bauhaus a method for the artistic training of the craftsman was devised, geared to the production of functional articles of daily use. [6]

On these grounds, innovations such as cubism that broke away from the usual aesthetic tradition were viewed as “un-French”. Especially in the years of political tension prior to World War I, this was interpreted as a German attempt to destroy French culture. [7]

It is therefore all the more fascinating to see that the encounters between the artists in the two countries were not to be curbed, even though the political context at the time provided unfavourable conditions for an exchange of ideas. The artists were sensitive, curious and open to mutual exchange. The intellectual exchange between Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier serves to exemplify how communication about their respective artistic visions took place beyond traditions and borders.

Initial points of contact

In December 1923 L'Esprit nouveau, a French architecture journal published in Paris by Le Corbusier, the poet Paul Dermée and the painter Amédée Ozefant, printed a two-page, anonymous review of the Bauhaus catalogue of the same year under the title Pédagogie (Teaching method).

This article, with reasonable certainty written by Le Corbusier [8], is the first notable French response to the Bauhaus[9] and shows the stance of the time: It welcomes the agenda of the Bauhaus’s modern concept, calls it a “magnifique album”[10] and grants it the greatest respect. But at the same time it sees fundamental differences in the status of craft in respect of the relationship between design and realisation and is “irritated by the craft-orientated programme of the Bauhaus and its affinity with applied art”. [11]

Cover of the first edition of
Cover of the first edition of "L'Esprit Nouveau" / Photo: Alfred Werner Maurer: L'Esprit Nouveau - Le Corbusier als Publizist und Herausgeber, Edition Philologus Dokumente b. Basel 2009 (Wikimedia Commons)

In fact, despite Walter Gropius’s architecture-orientated introduction the Bauhaus catalogue sent to France (Idee und Aufbau des Staatlichen Bauhauses Weimar) mainly features products from the various workshops, and as such Le Corbusier’s polemic – that this was an “école d'art décoratif” (school of decorative art) [12] – seems perfectly justifiable. The larger share given over to the workshops was also criticised within the Bauhaus, and Gropius himself pushed for a greater presence for architecture at the school.

In the correspondence between Gropius and Le Corbusier in 1924, in which Gropius comments on the latter’s book Vers une architecture (Toward an Architecture), the deep respect and loyal bond between the two is apparent. Gropius writes: “I must confess that I feel a brotherly regard for you, although you have essentially opposed my intentions for the Bauhaus. I have yet to read a publication that at its core comes as close to what I myself have thought and written as you do in your book. [...] I feel that we are in tune and I await your publications with ever-greater interest.” [13]

Gropius himself was kept informed of Le Corbusier’s activities in France from 1921 through the agency of the German art historian Hans Hildebrandt [14], and art critics such as Paul Westheim and Adolf Behne reported on architecture in France from 1922 [15], thus awakening Gropius’s interest: The Bauhaus subscribed to the periodical L’Esprit Nouveau as early as 1922.

First confrontation

A first visible sign of a creative confrontation between the Bauhaus and contemporary activities in France revolving around Le Corbusier in particular took place from early 1922. [16] Of interest in the context is Walter Gropius’s 1922 essay “Wohnmaschine” (Machine for living). [17] This text shows clear parallels with the essay “Des yeux qui ne voient pas...les paquebots” (Eyes that do not see ... passenger ships) published by Le Corbusier in 1921 in L'Esprit nouveau. [18]

Le Corbusier – Photo: Still from the film
Le Corbusier – Photo: Still from the film "Le Corbusier en Bogotá, Plan Director 1947-1951"

Here for the first time Le Corbusier uses the expression “machine à demeurer”, which went down in architectural history in a slightly different form (“machine à habiter” (machine for living)) following the publication of his book Vers une architecture (Toward an Architecture). [19] The question of whether the intellectual rights to this concept of a “machine for living” belonged to Le Corbusier or to one of the Bauhauslers – e.g. Oskar Schlemmer, who in 1922 called “not for cathedrals, but for the machine for living,” [20] – has been presented in different ways. But all confirm one thing: The Bauhaus’s debates about Le Corbusier provided important stimuli that played a significant role in the further development of the concept of architecture both at the Bauhaus and in France.

Three short, rarely shown documentary films from 1930 clarify the new urban development challenges for the architecture of the French artists Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret, Perret Brother and Robert Mallet Stevens in France at the time.

Architecture d’aujourd’hui (1930), directed by Pierre Chenal

A further step towards rapprochement and acceptance

When the Deutscher Werkbund was invited to participate in the exhibition of the Société des artistes décorateurs in May 1930, the two sides grew closer. From the standpoint of the arts this invitation was a matter of great national and international prestige, not only for the Werkbund, but also especially for the government of the German Reich. Five years previously Germany, the former enemy, had been excluded from the great Parisian “Exposition des arts décoratifs” – although at the time Germany was not excessively unhappy about this because the political will to finance the German contribution was lacking. [22]

When after the resolution of countless problems and obstacles the German section of the exhibition was completed in time for the opening on 14 May, the Bauhaus’s ideas were also on show. Its primary message was the connection of content in cultural provision and design development. “Essentially, the intention was to demonstrate what Germany can accomplish in the field of applied art, especially well-designed standard goods, and what part it had played in the design developments of the past decade.” [23]

Impact

Of course, all these aesthetic influences of the Bauhaus did not go unnoticed and inspired French artists in the most diverse disciplines. We have two architectonic examples in Le Corbusier’s Villa Le Lac in Corseaux on Lake Geneva and two of the buildings on the Weissenhof housing estate in Stuttgart.

Together with his cousin Pierre Janneret in 1922 Le Corbusier has established an architectural practice in Paris and from there launched construction projects in various countries. Working together in 1923/1924 they built for his parents this villa, which he affectionately called “une petite maison” and, three years later (1927), the two buildings on the Weissenhof housing estate for the Deutscher Werkbund’s building exhibition. Their spatial concepts highlight the ideas of the Bauhaus, too, and they have retained their appeal to the present day. On 15 July 2016 both were declared UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Sites.

Villa Le Lac by Le Corbusier – Photo: Schwizgebel (Wikimedia Commons)
Villa Le Lac by Le Corbusier – Photo: Schwizgebel (Wikimedia Commons)

Shortly after the closure of the Bauhaus Berlin in 1933 Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius and other architects from all over the world boarded a cruise ship traveling to Athens. Inspired by the picturesque atmosphere of the Mediterranean and by their fellow travelling artists, the aim was to discuss the diverse experiences of increasing urbanisation worldwide and to develop visions of modern urban development. This floating architectural congress that brought together Bauhauslers and representatives of other schools set out the foundations of the Athens Charter, which Le Corbusier was to subsequently publish. This was a programmatic catalogue of theses and requirements with 95 guidelines for urban development, which in the postwar period played a major role in the planning of the reconstruction of cities destroyed in the war.

 

[AW/NF 2017, Translation: RW]

 

[1] CF. Thomas W. Gaehtgens, Das Bauhaus und Frankreich. Ed: Isabelle Ewig, Thomas W. Gaehtgens and Matthias Noll, Akademie Verlag GmbH, Berlin 2002, IV-XIV.

[2] [3] Walter Gropius 1921 in: “Das Bauhaus 1919–1933. Weimar, Dessau, Berlin und die Nachfolge in Chicago seit 1937”. 3rd edition, Bramsche 1962, 54-55.

[4] [5] [6] [7] Cf. Thomas W. Gaehtgens, Das Bauhaus und Frankreich. Ed: Isabelle Ewig, Thomas W. Gaehtgens and Matthias Noll, Akademie Verlag GmbH, Berlin 2002, IV-XIV.

[8] [9] Cf. Robert Scherkl, “L'art du bien faire – Über die Evolution der Form zum Standard”. In: Das Bauhaus und Frankreich. Ed: Isabelle Ewig, Thomas W.Gaehtgens and Matthias Noll, Akademie Verlag GmbH, Berlin 2002, 37–57.

[10] Le Corbusier in: Robert Scherkl, “L'art du bien faire – Über die Evolution der Form zum Standard”. In: Das Bauhaus und Frankreich. Ed: Isabelle Ewig, Thomas W.Gaehtgens and Matthias Noll, Akademie Verlag GmbH, Berlin 2002, 39.

[11] [12] Robert Scherkl, “L'art du bien faire – Über die Evolution der Form zum Standard”. In: Das Bauhaus und Frankreich. Ed: Isabelle Ewig, Thomas W.Gaehtgens and Matthias Noll, Akademie Verlag GmbH, Berlin 2002, 39.

[13] Letter from Walter Gropius to Le Corbusier, 17 March 1924, Fondation Le Corbusier (FLC). Sig. E211, folio 15–16.

[14] [16] [19] Cf. Elke Mittmann, “Beziehungsgeflechte in der Diskussion um internationale Architektur: Assimilation, Integration und Negation”. In: Das Bauhaus und Frankreich. Ed: Isabelle Ewig, Thomas W. Gaehtgens and Matthias Noll, Akademie Verlag GmbH, Berlin 2002, 59-80.

[15] Adolf Behne, “Junge französische Architektur”. In: Sozialistische Monatshefte 58/1922, 512-519. Paul Westheim, “Junge Baukunst in Frankreich”. In: Wasmuths Monatshefte für Baukunst 7/1922–23, 316–320.

[17] Walter Gropius, “Wohnmaschinen”, manuscript of 6 April 1922, Bauhaus Archiv, Sig. GA 19/694.

[18] Le Corbusier, “Des yeux qui ne voient pas...les paquebots”. In: L'Esprit nouveau 8/1921, 845–855.

[20] Tut Schlemmer (ed.), Oskar Schlemmer. Briefe und Tagebücher, München 1958, 132.

[21] Cf. Karl-Heinz Hütter, Das Bauhaus in Weimar, Studie zur gesellschaftlichen Geschichte eine deutschen Kunsthochschule, Berlin 1976, 139; Cf. Winfried Nerdinger, “Le Corbusier und Deutschland. Genesis und Wirkungsgeschichte eines Konflikts 1910–1933”, in Arch+. Zeitschrift für Architektur und Städtebau 90/1987, 82–83; Klaus Jürgen Winkler, “In der Wiege lag noch kein weißer Würfel. Zur Architektur am frühen Bauhaus”, in: Das frühe Bauhaus und Johannes Itten (ed. Bauhaus- Archiv Berlin), exhibition catalogue to mark the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Staatliches Bauhauses in Weimar, Stuttgart 1994, 300.

[22] Cf. Winfried Nerdinger, Walter Gropius, Berlin 1985, 145.

[23] Letter from Walter Gropius to Fritz Dach, 19 February 1930.