How we feel is a function of what we see. That’s the strongest argument for an effort to make our cities more beautiful. Read E&M author Hendrik Steinort’s plea for Europeans to claim their right for aesthetic integrity of the public sphere through a New Bauhaus that merges sustainability with beauty.
“Bridging the chasm between idealism and reality” – the Bauhaus Manifesto
Realising the aesthetic chasm in idealism and elevating it. – New European Bauhaus?
It is Bauhaus renaissance time, from the Berlaymont to dusty provincial universities, to iconic green lamps on chic lobby desks, Bauhaus has become, like the red of Coca-Cola, Western aesthetic heritage. So it comes as no surprise that Von der Leyen announced the creation of a new architectural initiative that ought to link aesthetics with sustainability and the grey past with the green future. But first let’s talk Bauhaus’ origins. For this, we need to get back to the tree roots and the chlorophyll green canapés of our ancestors. We will be starting by talking about the Bauhaus as a tree house and also as a ‘house of beauty’.
In our primate past, lounging high atop solid branches in the tree tops of our low ppm biotopia, beauty and sustainability were merged with function. Fast-forward into the aftermath of one of humanity’s most violent wars, the first World War, the Bauhaus set up its ideational roof truss with its ‘form follows function’ formula. Only for it to spill into a future where friyays are now rebranded in serious ‘for future‘ undertones, where the Green Deal does another bauhausesque recast of the postwar New Deal and modern architecture is about to be finally post’ed.
In short, a revival of Bauhaus, the school that, tongue in cheek, should have focused on industrial design, rather than architecture, coined the ‘form follows function’ approach of architecture and made a quantifiable impact on the cityscape of the West and beyond. This triggered generations of architecture practitioners to view beauty, as the late Roger Scruton would sardonically put it, as a by-product of function, rather than the defining goal. We still see, though to our dismay at too slow a speed, that beautiful buildings change their functions and functional buildings get torn down. By learning from the past, this dualism should be sublimated into a higher architectural form. A form that concretely (not literally) assumes the value of a right that EU citizens can claim: the right to aesthetic integrity in the public space. We all know about its violation: here, here or here. And as we are still coping with this ‘concrete-alienation’ of our sense of belonging to our urban environment, high atop the tree tops of our unsullied aesthetic innocence, it becomes obvious that the charge of the violation of the right to aesthetic integrity is a valid one. A right that millions of tourists each year try to claim positively when their souls are uplifted by the aesthetic spectacle of a visit to Venice, Kraków or Granada.
European citizens must demand, more so than merely hope, that the marriage of a new aesthetic endeavour, the New European Bauhaus, with the new European Green Deal, will yield the birth of a new European aesthetico-political order as part of an aesthetico-sensitive state building process. From Europe on the brink, to Europe, brick by brick.
Biophilia and philocalia – on the love of life and the love of beauty
Poor architectural design makes people physically ill and might have caused more depressions than genetics. Whereas the old town of Florence, for example, is a romantic incubator for little poets, the brutalist outskirts of Naples create even more misery than mere socio-political neglect. It is explicitly the understanding that ugly windows create ‘broken windows’-city scapes.
Loving life stipulates utmost care and love for beauty, and it is in our common, shared public sphere, where the love for individual and planetary life and the love for beauty conflate. Thus, our architects, deviating between being instigators of concrete terrorism and performing sandstone psychiatry, play a key role in our new architectural mission for a green Zeitgeist. In order to win allies, we must call forth beauty and not be shy of demanding excellence, exclusivity and genius. We should not shy away from blacklisting a whole generation of anti-aesthetes to finally bring forth what enamours the public with its public sphere and subsequently with its ideologico-political emanations in the form of our European branch of western modernity. Whereas the perception of beauty is often very democratic, the creation of beauty is radically aristocratic.
New European Bauhaus
New Bauhaus relies on a concrete aesthetic formula: The politicisation of aesthetics needs to be understood as being more than the aestheticisation of politics – as a framework for a new economic agenda; we need to radically reconstruct the idea of economics as anthropological ecology and with it will come the need to aestheticise ecology aiming at ecologising economics.
Neo-Bauhausians, a new generation of Mise-Akolytes, are best tasked at standing as architects in the foreground of the understanding of art as a tacitly collective project. The little self of postmodernism needs to re-emerge in the big self of a coherent cultural outlook, an architectural Leitkultur, and maybe in this we ought to look at Japan, where a limited collective aesthetics emerges by simply making possible a space in which creation takes place. For us, this is the European political space.
From Gropius to Mieses, from Kandinski to Friedländer, what we find are particular geometric obsessions and even synaesthetic feelings, disguised as architectural aesthetics. The heavy neoclassic aesthetico-political dome of post-war Europe, once disposed of, made way for a sacrilege: an industrialised secularisation of aesthetics. Bad politics seemed to be behind great architecture and good, behind tasteless one. I am a bit sceptical as to what this might mean for us.
A few examples of the New European Bauhaus co-design phase of the New European Bauhaus initiative:
“WW2 resulted in a dismantled & fragmented town centre wedged into the urban fabric like a foreign body”. The citizens of this old town are still trying to integrate the many external post-war interventions that were based on a new politicised architectural understanding in the wake of the funding of the socialist republic. But as part of a communal healing and reconciliation process, citizens are now claiming their right to aesthetic integrity by becoming the local engines of organic architectural change that is happening in the midst of their community, out of the midst of their perception of beauty.
Here we are also looking at a de-historicisation, upscaling and even anthropomorphisation of European industrial architecture in Slovakia : “Electrical wiring, plumbing, heating, and ventilation are all revealed & form a visible “vascular system” of the building”. We are talking of an organic aesthetic endeavour that is collectively emerging among the ruins of an outdated aesthetics that was bound by old, fossil-capitalist ways.
As claimed by the Commission, this concept deeply relates to the conceptual underpinnings of the architectural initiative, namely to create accessible and inclusive spaces: “Practitioners who build together – with people rather than for people – alternative ways of thinking of the built environment, of habits, connections, local territories, new-old derelict areas…“All the while locating beauty in sustainable solutions that replenish resources, and enriching the cultural experience of a common project by bringing people together. Designers-builders “bring the site to life through their permanent presence, generating new dynamics between people”.
Do we have to compromise aesthetics for sustainability?
Functionality without beauty, I dare to say, is equal to what Peter Sloterdijk wrote about in his bestseller ‘Zorn und Zeit’. Speech, without truth, breeds ressentiment and function without beauty breeds sadness. That is the combined challenge we are facing:
A collapsing planet and a collapsing public sphere. On to beauty!
Talking about beauty is not relative, not merely subjective, we have very democratic votes on beauty, though the public should not be easily entrusted with decisions on beauty. A true philocalicracy is based on a slim illusion of incongruence. Because we accept that different people will have different favourite Island(s) of the Dead versions by Arnold Böcklin, but we all agree that all constitute a fitting standard of beauty that we can commonly grasp and endorse.
In our pitiful age, where politicisations are a measure of quality, we need to make sure that architectural quality transcends politics.
I would like to imagine that Europe’s new architectural project would translate into a new European narrative, where green and beautiful architecture provides a stunning anti-Gilgameshian epic in our times of the very real climate catastrophe, clamouring out into the future:
Europe avant le deluge!