Saturday, May 25, 2013

Table Urbanism

Cambridge, May 25, 2013

This is not serious.

Beginning to study Mies's urban projects, a casual look at images of the early massing models for the IIT Campus reminded me of a table at the Gardner Museum that I've always loved.

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston is one of my very favorite museums.  For many reasons: its small size, the uniqueness of some of its pieces (like the exquisite little portrait of an Ottoman scribe by Gentile Bellini,) its Venetian courtyard with the façades of the Palazzi Barbaro turned inside out, the parallel corridors...

In one of the rooms on the top floor there is a large rectangular table with about a dozen small object, mostly reliquaries or other elaborately decorated metal, wood and leather boxes, at least one thick book and various large keys or hardware pieces.  Several of the boxes have gabled tops so its not difficult to think of the objects as building models.  Following that train of thought, the whole table can be seen as an exercise in urban design.

The objects are carefully deployed in alternating groups of two and three along the length of the table.  If you look at the composition as a scale model, the buildings are framing carefully layered open spaces of different scales, some central, others peripheral.  The middle of the table is dominated by a large, elongated box, as if it were the emperor's palace of some Chinese forbidden city.  At one end there is a taller square box that could be Jefferson's Rotunda at the University of Virginia.  Or is the large book at the other end of the table too obvious a programmatic clue for the place of the library?

And--why not?--from the corner, Sargent's portrait of Isabella looks over as the patron saint of this unlikely city.

(For years I've been fantasizing about giving this table as a starting point for a studio.)

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Bauhaus in Dessau (random musings 3)

Cambridge, May 14, 2013

Which one is the front façade of the Bauhaus?

Of course, as any architecture student can tell you, that is a silly question.  The whole point is that the building doesn't have façades in the traditional sense, much less any indication of front or back, or side, or any other notion associated with static hierarchies.

Yet, if you were coming from the center of Dessau along Friedrichs Allee (now Gropiusallee) at the time of the Bauhaus, the first thing you saw was an almost blank dark-gray wall with the word "BAUHAUS" spelled out in gigantic metal letters applied vertically across three levels.

If that is not a front façade--an iconographic expression of the institution in built form--I don't know what is!

The interesting thing is that Gropius chooses for this role a minor side elevation (in the process solving the classic end-bay problem of a long volume.)  Afterwards, he lets your eye glide along the glass-and-steel elevation of the workshops--conveniently recessed from the property line so you get just enough of a perspective--until it finds the transversal volume of classrooms oriented with the street that leads to the train station.

By then you're pretty much aware that the building is anything but frontal. 

Friday, May 10, 2013

The Bauhaus in Dessau (random musings 2)

Dessau, May 10, 2013

Constantine set out to re-build Rome in Byzantium (yes, with the help of Justinian, Theodosius and others.)  The comparison may be a little funny but, in a similar vein, when Walter Gropius moves the Bauhaus to Dessau in the mid 1920s, he seems to make every effort to bring with him a lot of Weimar.

If you allow me to indulge in the comparison, there is little doubt that the new Bauhaus building in Dessau is Gropius's Hagia Sophia.

The studio wing of the building, the one with the little balconies, was know as "Prellerhaus".  Do you know why?  Let me tell you: near the Bauhaus in Weimar, there was an old house--built in 1870 by the painter Louis Weimaer Preller--that students and young masters used as dwelling studios, and was associated with a sense of freewheeling creativity in the school.  So Gropius tried to reproduce this environment in the new building to the point it kept the same name.

At least you can tell that I'm not completely making this up...

And it's not difficult to imagine that the "Meisterhäuser" were trying to re-settle the older masters--Klee, Kandinsky, Feininger, etc.--in analogous way to what I imagine was a town-like existence in Weimar (I wonder if there is a map of Weimar with the locations of all the places where Bauhaus teachers and students lived?)

But at the risk of pushing my luck, I'd like to stretch the argument a little further, to the "Kornhaus", the restaurant on Elbe riverbank designed by Gropius's collaborator Carl Fieger in 1929.  It is about a mile and half from the Dessau Bauhaus, roughly the same distance between the Weimar Bauhaus and the "Ilmschlöesschen", the favorite restaurant, drinking and partying spot of the early years of the school.

Why not?

Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Bauhaus in Dessau (random musings 1)

Dessau, May 9, 2013

In the 1920s the urban core of Dessau was bound by the Mulde River to the east and the railroad tracks to the west.  When Fritz Hesse, the liberal mayor of the city, invited Gropius to move the Bauhaus to Dessau, he sweetened the deal with the funds for a new building.  And he gave Gropius--or did Gropius choose it?!--a plot of land literally on the wrong side of the tracks, several blocks west of the train station, along Friedrichs Allee (now appropriately named Gropius Allee.)

Earlier today we had a long conversation about the Bauhaus building with the students here, and some of them found out that the site was originally was not one but two plots separated by a small road (now called Bauhausstrasse) perpendicular to Friedrichs Allee.  Add to the bargain that Hesse included a separate vocational school (Gemeinschaftsgebäude der Kunstgewerbe- und Handwerkerschule) in the program and you have a pretty complicated starting point for project.

So, what does Gropius (or Carl Fieger, or whomever was working on the project) does?  He deploys three major rectangular volumes, almost as a child playing with wooden blocks: the workshop volume--the Bauhaus proper--oriented north-south along Friedrichs Allee, the volume of the vocational school oriented east-west along the road to the train station, and a third volume of studios, smaller in plan but quite taller than the other two.  That sets the game for two other moves, both of them bridges you could say: one a single-story volume--housing the auditorium and the refectory--between the workshops and the studios, and the other actually a two-story bridge of offices spanning between the workshops and the vocational school.

Today, the Bauhaus is very much embedded into the fabric of the city, but in 1926 it may have appeared like a very large thing in the middle of nowhere.  I like to think of it as a foundational gesture for the western expansion of Dessau, a major piece of urban architecture "in active voice."