Recently, #bauhaus overtook #brutalism as one of the most popular design and architecture hashtags on Instagram. Peruse through the associated images and you’ll be met with a wild selection: soft focus Autumnal leaves in Stockholm, shocking pink hairstyles, the 1970s British goth rock band of the same name, a still from The Shining, inspirational quotes from architect Walter Gropius, and occasionally, a certain school in Dessau, Germany.
Historically, the term Bauhaus (literally meaning “building house”) refers to latter instance: the Staatliches Bauhaus, the design institution founded by Walter Gropius in Weimar in 1919 and later based in Dessau and Berlin. When scrolling through #bauhaus images, it’s easy to think that history has been lost. However, the “spirit” of the Bauhaus has found new relevance in our current social media landscape—one that could end up influencing the future of the platforms themselves.
Bauhaus the physical institution may have been curtailed, but Bauhaus the idea was anything but.
The institution’s original, Gropius-authored modernist manifesto outlined a multi-disciplinary teaching program that sought to unify art, craft, and design, and to create the new architecture of the future. Its declaration that “the ultimate goal of all art is the building” was later joined by the notion that form follows function.
These principles would find expression in Gesamtkunstwerk—the notion of a “total work of art.” In 1933, the Berlin school closed under pressure from the newly installed Nazi leadership. Yet while Bauhaus the physical institution may have been curtailed, but Bauhaus the idea was just beginning to take off.
After 1933, a diaspora of Bauhaus students and teachers relocated to the U.S., Russia, Israel, Switzerland, and beyond. They would introduce into these new contexts a number of physical Gesamtkunstwerks, such as the the Alan I W Frank House in Pittsburgh, a collaboration between Gropius and Marcel Breuer, who designed everything from the house’s floorplan down to each individual light switch. They would also bring with them the Bauhaus’ ideological emphasis on collaboration, interdisciplinary practice, and social progress.
In the U.S., Gropius and Breuer joined the newly founded Harvard GSD in 1937, while Lotte Stam-Beese, the first woman to study in the construction department in Dessau, moved to Moscow then the Netherlands to work on the postwar reconstruction of Rotterdam and teach at the Academy of Architecture and Urban Planning in Amsterdam. There were also Anni and Josef Albers carrying on the Bauhaus at Black Mountain College in Asheville, North Carolina, and Lászlo Moholy-Nagy and others at the Isokon Flats in Hampstead, London.
Is the Bauhaus spirit now rendered at best irrelevant, at worst completely expired?
Of course, the #bauhaus on Instagram doesn’t exactly do this long and expansive history full justice. By now, and particularly on social media, we often see the Bauhaus and it’s founding philosophies flattened into aesthetic tropes, which vary in relevance to the actual school.
Images of generic interiors or vaguely minimalist graphic design are tagged #bauhaus alongside other popular hashtags such as #architecturelovers or #swissgraphicdesign, in order to draw in views and likes. Another common trope is to lionize (mostly male) Bauhaus designers as laureates of design, or to employ one liners that echo with the same cultural resonance as a #livelaughlove post (“The mind is like an umbrella. It’s most useful when it’s open” — Walter Gropius).
Silicon Valley’s tech boosterism recalls the Bauhaus in its belief in the emancipatory potential of technology and the importance of design in everyday life.
Is the Bauhaus spirit now rendered at best irrelevant, at worst completely expired? It’s tempting to say yes on both counts—and to level a large part of the blame at platforms like Instagram that often divorce content from context. But in fact, it is in precisely this arena that the Bauhaus “spirit” might arguably find the best contemporary expression and utility. When viewed as social technology rather than purely social media, the very platforms that do so much to separate ethics from aesthetics can become dispersed sites for that same collaboration, interdisciplinarity, and knowledge sharing seen among the post-33 Bauhausler diaspora.
For instance, consider some surprising parallels between the institution of the Bauhaus and large data-based corporations such as Google and Instagram’s owners, Facebook. All have sought to reconstruct quotidian life on a massive scale by redesigning the social technology through which it takes place. Silicon Valley’s tech boosterism recalls the Bauhaus in its belief in the emancipatory potential of technology and the importance of design in everyday life. For example, in Mark Zuckerberg’s 2017 open letter stating a renewed mission after the company’s role in the 2016 US presidential election, he made frequent reference to an ambiguous “social infrastructure.” The declaration recalls the Bauhaus’ own utopian drive (and the letter even mentions Bauhaus). Note the similarity in language:
“My hope is that more of us will commit our energy to building the long term social infrastructure to bring humanity together.” — Mark Zuckerberg, “Building Global Community” open letter
“Let us strive for, conceive and create the new building of the future that will unite every discipline… and which will one day rise heavenwards from the million hands of craftsmen as a clear symbol of a new belief to come.” — Walter Gropius, Bauhaus Manifesto
Both the Bauhaus and Facebook have taken pains to portray themselves as politically neutral organizations, despite being firmly embroiled in public life at times of extreme political polarization. In the case of the Bauhaus, such impartiality was a brief exception in the face of the extreme political circumstances of 1930s Germany. By contrast, the doyens at Facebook have consistently donned the neutral hat (Zuckerberg 2020 or 2024 game-plan notwithstanding).
The Bauhaus’ delicate political history reared its head as recently as October 2018, when a concert for a leftist punk band at the Bauhaus building in Dessau was cancelled as the Bauhaus Dessau Foundation attempted to distance itself from “politically extreme positions.” In an open letter published on e-flux criticizing the decision, the signatories—which comprised an international array of artists, architects, and academics including Eva Franch, Beatriz Colomina, and Hito Steyerl—recalled the futile attempts of the historic Bauhaus to appear apolitical in the face of rising Nazism that eventually led to the school’s own closure. “Against this background,” they write, “the Foundation’s present decision seems alarmingly forgetful of history.”
This tension between the platform and its users—be they students or digital profiles—also connects the Bauhaus to social media. Just as Bauhaus students were political in ways that the institution itself was not—attending a leftist Kapp Putsch memorial en masse, for example—so too can users of social media attempt to push their platforms into more progressive entities.
In 2016, for example, Twitter users began adding triple parentheses—(((like this)))—to their usernames, reclaiming a tactic of the far right for identifying Jewish users and subjecting them to anti-Semitic abuse. In an act of solidarity with those targeted by alt right trolls, many Twitter users started adding the triple parentheses to their own names to disrupt the process and call attention to the issue.
Even if the images that come up with #bauhaus seem as far from the original school as ever, there’s still a lot to be learned from the Bauhaus in the digital age. Considering the history of the Bauhaus as we determine the future of social media platforms may not be as simple as glorifying the aesthetics of the movement. But as the signatories of the e-flux open letter point out, the Bauhaus ideal still holds true: “Not a style, but a stance.”
This article was written following discussions that took place between the authors during the Projekt Bauhaus Datatopia workshop, which took place at the Floating University in Berlin in 2018. Authors’ thanks go to the organisers and participants.