Europe’s leaders want to create a ‘new Bauhaus’ as part of its Green Deal. But what does that even mean?

It was the design school whose legacy can be found in the gadgets we carry—Apple’s Steve Jobs and Jony Ive took clear inspiration—and some of the world’s most iconic buildings. Now, the spirit of the Bauhaus has been invoked once more, in the context of Europe’s grand plan to go green.

On Wednesday, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen gave her first State of the European Union speech, in which she announced more ambitious targets for the EU’s “Green Deal”—a fusing of pandemic-recovery initiatives with the environmental programs that were already on the agenda when the coronavirus struck.

A big part of that green plan relates to cars and their emissions, but the other notable strand relates to the energy efficiency of buildings, which needs to be stepped up if the EU is to cut carbon emissions by 55% by 2030, as von der Leyen’s commission is now proposing.

The refurbishment of buildings is a worthy but generally dull subject. So, what if it were to be jazzed up a little?

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen during the State of the European Union debate in Brussels on Sept. 16, 2020.
Dursun Aydemir-Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

“This is not just an environmental or economic project: It needs to be a new cultural project for Europe,” VdL (as she is known in Brussels) said in her speech. “Every movement has its own look and feel. And we need to give our systemic change its own distinct aesthetic—to match style with sustainability.

“This is why we will set up a new European Bauhaus—a cocreation space where architects, artists, students, engineers, designers work together to make that happen.”

The OG Bauhaus

The Bauhaus (“construction house”) was a revolutionary project when it was founded in Weimar, Germany, in the wake of the First World War.

Like the space VdL is apparently envisioning now, it was a multidisciplinary collective that brought together architects (its founder was the modernist pioneer Walter Gropius), artists (including the painters Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee), photographers, typographers, and furniture-makers.

“Bauhaus” is sometimes seen as shorthand for minimalism, which is true to an extent—the aphorism “Less is more” came from star Bauhaus architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe—but the real keys to the aesthetic are the marriage of efficiency and beauty, the embrace of mass-production technology, and the “honest” use and presentation of materials. (The latter principle was particularly visible in the Bauhaus-inspired brutalist movement of mid–20th century architecture, with its mania for naked concrete.)

As Gropius put it in 1926: “An object is defined by its nature. In order, then, to design it to function correctly—a container, a chair, or a house—one must first of all study its nature: For it must serve its purpose perfectly, that is, it must fulfill its function usefully, be durable, economical, and ‘beautiful.’”

It’s not hard to see how such principles translated into gadgets such as Apple’s iPod, some of the more classic furniture designs from Ikea, and structures such as van der Rohe’s Seagram Building on Park Avenue and Gropius’s John F. Kennedy Federal Building in Boston.

The Seagram Building in New York City was built in 1958. Its architects were Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson. (Photo by Independent Picture Service/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

It’s also not hard to see why the Nazis, with their love for traditionalism and the backward-looking Romantic aesthetic, hated this anti-adornment, relentlessly futuristic movement, which they saw as Communist and “degenerate.” The Bauhaus closed in 1933, as Adolf Hitler took power. But its students carried its ideas across the world.

Once more, with feeling

VdL’s invocation of the Bauhaus might seem a little whimsical at a time when Europe is facing the double whammy of a pandemic and a climate emergency, but it does make quite a bit of sense.

The ambition of the Green Deal will not pan out without mass production. For example, the prefabricated insulation panels that are needed to modernize old, drafty buildings must be manufactured at scale, and fast.

The Haus Esters (L) and the Haus Lange in Krefeld, Germany, 30 March 2016. Both houses were built by Bauhaus architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe for Hermann Lange and Josef Esters.
The Haus Esters (left) and the Haus Lange in Krefeld, Germany, March 30, 2016. Both houses were built by Bauhaus architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe for Josef Esters and Hermann Lange.
Roland Weihrauch-picture alliance via Getty Images

What’s more, they ought to look good. Such a monumental effort would be slowed down without the buy-in of the people who live in and around these buildings. Form and function need to go hand in hand, Bauhaus-style—though taste is a personal matter, and there will doubtless be many people who don’t approve of whatever aesthetic the “new European Bauhaus” comes up with.

But there’s a political aspect to the idea, too, and it’s one that will probably cause some trouble down the line.

Just as it boasts many cuisines, Europe has a huge variety of architectural styles; the streets of Helsinki look nothing like those of Paris. The idea of coming up with some sort of distinct aesthetic for the EU’s systemic change, as von der Leyen puts it, goes beyond the more typical Brussels fare of standardizing emissions targets and trying to create “European champions” in the industrial and digital sectors; it risks treading on the contentious territory of standardized culture.

But then again, the Bauhaus was always an internationalist movement, and its legacy could hardly be more impressive—and relevant—to this day. Maybe, just maybe, Europe really could come up with a successor that proves as useful and influential.

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