European Commission President Calls for a New Bauhaus

President von der Leyen calls for matching style with sustainability.

Bauhaus in 1928

 E. O. Hoppe/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In her recent State of the Union Address, the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, looked beyond the coronavirus and called for "a new cultural project for Europe." 

"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 co-creation space where architects, artists, students, engineers, designers work together to make that happen."

Staatliches Bauhaus was founded in 1919 by Architect Walter Gropius as a school where all branches of the arts would be taught under one roof. According to the 1919 program, "The Bauhaus strives to bring together all creative effort into one whole...as inseparable components of a new architecture." Gropius wrote more dramatically:

"Let us strive for, conceive and create the new building of the future that will unite every discipline, architecture and sculpture and painting, and which will one day rise heavenwards from the million hands of craftsmen as a clear symbol of a new belief to come."
EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen
EU EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.  Thierry Monasse/Getty Images

It's an interesting precedent to choose; in her call to reduce emissions by 55% and hit the 2030 targets needed to stay under 1.5 degrees of warming, President von der Leyen also noted:

"Our current levels of consumption of raw materials, energy, water, food and land use are not sustainable. We need to change how we treat nature, how we produce and consume, live and work, eat and heat, travel and transport."

Unite with Physics and Engineering

The Bauhaus didn't just do architecture
The Bauhaus didn't just do architecture.  Apic/Getty Images

The Bauhaus analogy is brilliant because the only way we are going to get out of this crisis is if we think of everything together holistically, and bring it all under one roof. So where Gropius wanted to unite architecture with sculpture and painting, today we have to unite it with engineering, physics, and materials science.

As noted in the post It's Time for a Revolution in the Way We Look at Buildings, "physics actually changes the way you design." Particularly with seriously high-performance buildings, the engineering and architecture are inseparable and it changes the aesthetics. Jo Richardson and David Coley called for "... a revolution in what architects currently consider acceptable for how houses should look and feel. That’s a tall order – but decarbonizing each component of society will take nothing short of a revolution."

You're Gonna Need a Bigger School

Jarrett Walker Tweet
 Jarrett Walker

But we can't stop with a building revolution, we need transportation engineers and urban planners under that one roof, because our architecture is a function of land use with it, as Jarrett Walker noted, a function of transportation. They are all the same thing. We wrote earlier:

"Making and operating buildings are 39 percent of our carbon emissions, and what is transportation? Driving between buildings. What is industry doing? Mostly building cars and transportation infrastructure. They are all the same thing in different languages, interconnected; you can't have one without the other. To build a sustainable society we have to think about them all together – the materials we use, what we build, where we build, and how we get between it all."
Emissions by sector
CC Architecture 2030

This is Not About Aesthetics

ADGB Trade Union School/ Hannes Meyer 1928
ADGB Trade Union School/ Hannes Meyer 1928.  Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Neither was the Bauhaus. The oft-forgotten second director of the Bauhaus (after Gropius and before Mies van der Rohe) was Hannes Meyer, who envisioned a much bigger picture than even Gropius. According to Graham McKay*,

"Hannes Meyer thought that architects should deal with real problems in real ways and to not pretend they were an artistic elite. For him, buildings had to be useful for people and for society. To him, what a building did and how comfortable it made the people who use it was the only thing that mattered. Functionalism was more than not wasting money on ornament or building more space than was necessary. For him, it meant an efficient structure and practical construction. It meant materials with properties that produced an environmental benefit for the occupants."

Matching Style With Sustainability

That actually sounds more like a Treehugger mantra than a speech from the President of the European Union, with her call for "a world served by an economy that cuts emissions, boosts competitiveness, reduces energy poverty, creates rewarding jobs and improves quality of life." She also speaks of "a world where we use digital technologies to build a healthier, greener society."

President von der Leyen's call to use the idea of the Bauhaus and bring everyone under one roof, whether physically or digitally, is exactly what is needed now. As Barry Bergdoll tells Kriston Capps of Citylab:

“They’re using the Bauhaus in a sense as a metaphor for innovative thinking, of breaking down boundaries between things, of design taking on everyday problems. All of those things are true.”