Beyond Bauhaus at RIBA

I visited the highly anticipated exhibition about the Bauhaus in Britain last week. I had heard about it months ago via an article on the FT, and I made a note to go see it as soon as it opened. It sounded like it'd be a great way to commemorate the centenary of the legendary school!

What I found instead was a dark basement space with columns in some of which holes had been carved in the classic triangle, circle, square shapes the Bauhausers favoured, and you could peek into those to try and see something, because clearly this is the best treatment for intricate, never displayed before, architectural drawings.

Columns, 1

Maybe you can't see it but the pictures show an insane amount of noise as my camera increased the ISO to 1500+ (a picture in normal light conditions would be more like 200-ish).

Columns, 2

Consequently it was sort of harsh on the eye to look at the bright(er) holes after navigating the dark forest of columns. As if trying to strain your eye to see details on far-away sketches wasn't bad enough.

Architectural sketches which are way too far to see through a peep hole

What was also harsh was the positioning of the holes. It dawned on me really early on as I had to tiptoe and sort of turn my head while closing one eye to see some details that were not on a straight line of vision that perhaps this exhibition hadn't been designed with accessibility in mind—how was someone on a wheelchair going to tip toe?

After a while I started feeling really uncomfortable; what with all the kneeling and tiptoeing and contorting into weird unnatural positions, this exhibition was just not accessible to human beings in general (and I do yoga every week, before you ask).

Architectural sketches which are also too far to see through a peep hole

There were also some videos which were half hidden behind holes. I kid you not—you could not simply watch them if you stood right in front of the holes; you had to peek from above and look downwards at a certain angle.

I didn't have the patience to watch all of these as I was starting to feel afraid that I would get a slipped disc if I tried any harder, but I liked learning about the Kensal House development. This was a development that was not just for 'the middle class' or 'design conscious' owners as most of the previous sections were, but simply social housing for workers.

It also sounded really wild to me that the building was initially powered exclusively by gas for all their energy needs (except for some electric batteries to generate sparks that would turn lights on when you pressed a switch). But not entirely surprising, considering it was built for workers of the Gas Light and Coke company (more fascinating details here).

There was a very interesting video showing images of all the sorts of practical, communal spaces that the inhabitants could get access to, like workspaces, nurseries, shops, etc, and it was narrated in part by its actual inhabitants rather than just the architect.

Unfortunately, the volume was so low that you could only barely hear some sort of distant, quiet voices, and headphones or similar weren't provided, although I am afraid to imagine how headphones would look like in this exhibition, though. Perhaps one piercing pyramid that you had to insert into your ear canal? 😂

I was surprised that there was no mention whatsoever about the limited role that women were playing on that video. They only showed up as taking care of babies, cooking and taking care of more babies, and watching with an air of extreme boredom while the guys played cards and had all the fun.

There were some marginal mentions to some Bauhaus women in some of the other columns, but mostly in passing. Or maybe it was placed in such a convoluted position that I could not notice it.

I feel like this lack of awareness when looking at historical documents is quite telling in this time and age.

Finally, there was this sort of declaration that the design studio had written to justify their layout choices:

We actually despise humanity

Transcription, because I'm feeling wildly generous:

"For this exhibition we designed an architectural experience that evokes both the original ethos of the Bauhaus and its current deviations. Instead of a literal translation of the school's aesthetic, our installation explores a severe sense of order, a kind of rational objectivity, together with a rather oblique presentation of the archival material. Beyond Bauhaus, in our view, should be understood as a form of ubiquitous transparency, a regulated yet universal space that promotes a degree of curiosity with an endless variety of informal human encounters. Based on three existing columns in the gallery, the addition of thirteen temporary columns forms a distinctive colonnaded room, an open structure, an interior without walls. The resulting space is a dense, labyrinth-like atmosphere where every column is perceived as a silent element within a regular formation.

The use of a palette of secondary, and perhaps more complex, colours—as opposed to the classic Bauhaus red, blue and yellow— alludes to the assimilation of the school's ideals in a new cultural context. When walking through the gallery, visitors encounter a series of singular openings, basic forms in a diverse range of sizes and heights, allowing the content to be revealed within. By not displaying material on the gallery walls, the grid of columns becomes a storage facility, an open archive without front or back, and their interior acts as a little theatre, in which the collection can perform.

Pezo von Ellrischhausen
October 2019"

Just two comments:

  1. What have they smoked?
  2. Style over substance.

What I found more concerning overall is that all of this was happening under the roof of the home of British Architecture. Seriously, if you're condoning this, I suppose the rest follows from there 🙄

Should you go visit? I wouldn't advise you to do so, unless you're in the area and want to see this pipe dream with your own eyes. Entry is free.

If you're interested about the Bauhaus, I learned way more by reading the article on the FT magazine that I mentioned above, and other sources such as this article from Tate magazine on Walter Gropius in Britain.