Felipe Tofani The Bauhaus technique worked best in the field of graphic design, says Aaron Betsky.

We are in a Bauhaus moment. The centenary of its opening has produced a raft of exhibitions, books, articles (add this one to the pile), and even a new building—a museum commemorating the institution’s original home in Weimar, Germany. What is remarkable is the manner in which what was no more and no less than a school of design, albeit a rather innovative and unusual one, has become a concept at best and a style at worst. Not too long ago, I attended a conference in Beijing in which our Chinese hosts referred to the renovated factory buildings in which we were meeting as evidencing “Bauhaus design.” When I pointed out that they were, in fact, constructed according to East German models based on the work of American architect Albert Kahn, I received a rather chilly reception.

I am familiar with such a confusion between what a school is and its reputation because I run the continuation of the apprenticeship program Frank Lloyd Wright and his third wife, Olgivanna, started in 1932. Whatever the Wrights thought they were teaching here has very little to do with the imitation of late Frank Lloyd Wright–designed buildings that many—including even some alumni of our school or the apprenticeship—associate with the program.

hal_pand_108 The Bauhaus in Dessau.

In fact, both the Fellowship, as the apprenticeship came to be known, and the Bauhaus share roots in a very particular approach to design and pedagogy—one in which those two are completely intertwined—that first emerged in the United Kingdom in the second half of the 19th century. Known as the Arts & Crafts movement, it generated imitators in both the United States and several countries in Europe, most notably in Germany and Austria. At the core of what became a loosely affiliated movement of thinkers and designers that expressed itself not only in objects, images, and structures, but also in magazines, associations, and school curricula, was the notion that design could be at the core of a community of makers. Working and living together, they would observe and analyze their environment, and in particular the natural world, combine that seeing and drawing with research into ways of making that would include new technologies, and produce artifacts that would present an idealized version of the reality they had encountered. What is more, the images, objects, and spaces they made could serve as building blocks for a more aesthetically refined, more moral or ethical, and more socially inclusive future.

Velela The 1960 Red House in southeastern London, designed by Philip Webb and William Morris.
William Creswell An edition of “Song of Myself” by the Roycrofters.

Though a few communities focused on production emerged (C.R. Ashbee’s Guild of Handicraft in the United Kingdom, the Roycrofters in the United States, the Werkstätte in Vienna), the most successful model for such a design-based affiliation turned out to be a school. These schools often split into ones that were either more idealistic or more focused on production. If Taliesin developed into a program that mixed not only practice and academia, but also agriculture, cuisine, and performance art, the Bauhaus, under the direction of its second head, Walter Gropius, moved toward building stronger ties with industry. After the move to Dessau in 1925, the Bauhaus dedicated itself both to figuring out the basic elements of design and how to create prototypes for mass production. The theories of Paul Klee, László Moholy-Nagy, and others became more and more (pseudo)scientific, while designers such as Wilhelm Wagenfeld and Marcel Breuer used metal, plastics, and standardized forms to propose (and in some cases achieve) limited multiples that were somewhat affordable.

Taliesin Shelter by Nelson Schleiff
Aaron Betsky A recent student shelter at the School of Architecture at Taliesin by Nelson Schleiff. It shows the notion of gathering elements from our world and assembling them.
Many students still build and occupy their own desert shelters, a tradition dating back to the creation of Taliesin West.
Mark Peterman Another Wright Fellowship student-designed and -built desert shelter at Taliesin West.

The Bauhaus technique of using analytic reduction to create standardized and mass-producible forms worked best in graphic design. Where it resolutely did not work was in what remained the core of the curriculum, namely architecture. Yet it was in this field that the Bauhaus had arguably its greatest influence. The “Bauhausler,” as the graduates and former faculty members came to be known, spread out across the world creating neither basic shapes nor standardized ones, but boxes clad in white stucco relieved by metal-sash windows that carried forward the designs Gropius had made for the Dessau school and its masters’ houses. The “Bauhaus style” became thus not a realization of its principles, but an imitation and elaboration of the building in which the school was housed.

Sailko Wiener Werkstätte designs from Josef Hoffmann.

Inside the Bauhaus Masters’ Houses in Dessau

Because this style was both expensive to execute and appeared highly refined, it developed into an emblem of the enlightened middle class. You can find the “purest” Bauhaus architecture in the villas dotting the hills above Zagreb and Prague, on the shores of Tel Aviv, or in the fancy and educated suburbs beyond. When Gropius emigrated to the United States to escape the Nazis, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe followed him, they changed their mode toward one that adapted itself at least somewhat to local materials and building methods, while also bulking it up into a much franker expression of structure. Only in postwar Eastern Europe were these principles applied to other types of construction, although we still know little about these buildings.

Christian Schmid A line of Marcel Breuer’s 1925 Wassily Chairs inside the Bauhaus Dessau building.

The White City of Tel Aviv

The real influence of the Bauhaus in architecture, however, went beyond these buildings. It was in the manner in which the work was published in articles and books, and exhibited in photographs and models, that its elements became part of the global toolkit for architects. It is those metal sash windows, the pristine white corners, the glass-enclosed walkways, the L-shaped compositions that broke down masses, and the furnishings in the Bauhaus building and its residential derivatives—which extended the geometries to the scale of the human body, and were available as fragments to be used as influence or just copied—that made everybody aware of the Bauhaus.

What disappeared in that process was the notion that the Bauhaus was a place to learn about and change the world, a place to understand nature and science and create types and forms that would make all of our lives better. It is that work that I believe should still be at the core of those research and development laboratories for the future of the designed environment that we call architecture schools. We should all be Bauhausler, in the best sense of the world, while rejecting the nostalgic recall of the limited palette of forms, materials, and compositions that housed that particular school.

Martin Schutt/dpa-Zentralbild/dpa/Alamy Live News Inside the new Bauhaus museum in Weimar, Germany.