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The Bauhaus according to Italo Rota

Dialogue with the architect and designer one hundred years after Walter Gropius founded the school

Published: 2 Jul 2019
Italo Rota, internationally renowned architect and designer, has long been a collector of items related to the Bauhaus: “I collect them because I've always been attracted by the very high quality of these articles, and by the stories that they represent.” They are stories linked to great names in graphic design, architecture as well as European and worldwide design; stories often told, now in 2019, to celebrate the one hundredth anniversary of the foundation of the Staatliches Bauhaus directed by Walter Gropius.
The Bauhaus according to Italo Rota

The historic building of the Bauhaus school in Dessau (ph: Nate Robert)

Inevitably, the stories end with the closure of the school in 1933, following pressure from the Nazi regime, and with the diaspora of the last director Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and the teachers, many of whom, like him, emigrated to the United States. Nevertheless, Adolf Hitler's rise to power did not break the epochal Bauhaus at its peak. At that time, it was exhausted and in fact seemed to be at its end: “It was no longer current, there were no elements to suggest that it could have a future.

The architects had essentially sent the artists away”, he adds. “When we think of the Bauhaus, in fact, we think of the Bauhaus of Gropius, so much so that the exhibition organised at the MoMA by Gropius and Herbert Bayer in 1938 was named Bauhaus: 1919-1928. Also, let's not forget that many of the teachers of the Bauhaus worked organically with the Nazi regime; Bayer himself was Goebbels' art director up to 1938. Mies van der Rohe left Germany in 1936, after looking for work and also after working in the great propaganda exhibitions, as did other teachers at the Bauhaus.”

But the Bauhuas is not just material, albeit important, for the history books: it influenced several moments during the twentieth century – Rota mentions the architects of International Style, and later the artists and designers of the sixties rediscovered the pre-war avant garde – and its heritage can still be seen in the trends of the contemporary world.

“It no longer has a direct influence on the world of today,” explains Rota, “but rather it's the memory of a way of working. It’s the Bauhaus meaning interdisciplinary exchange and teaching by learning, finding solutions by doing; today that sounds like the definition of a Talent Garden or innovative startup.”
The Bauhaus according to Italo Rota

Walter Gropius in 1919 (ph: Louis Held) and the card of the student and then teacher Gunta Stölzl (source: Wikimedia)

But the Bauhuas is not just material, albeit important, for the history books: it influenced several moments during the twentieth century and its heritage can still be seen in the trends of the contemporary world.
“Another important aspect is that half of the Bauhaus students were women at the beginning, a factor that greatly influenced the school community. So, today we think only of the teachers, but it was actually a close-knit community, in which many students quickly became teachers when they had finished their courses.”

When the school opened, there were even more enrolment applications from women than there were from men. However, over time the applications dropped, because they were excluded from most courses and directed towards activities considered to be ‘feminine’, such as textiles and pottery. Nevertheless, some them became very young directors of the departments in which they had taken courses, such as textile designers Gunta Stölzl and Otti Berger, while others made their names as artists or designers in Europe and America: for example Margarete Heymann, Marianne Brandt, Ilse Fehling, Benita Koch-Otte, Alma Siedhoff-Buscher and others.
The Bauhaus according to Italo Rota

Napkin holder designed by Marianne Brandt in 1930-1932, now exhibited at the Milwaukee Art Museum (ph: Sailko)

As an architect, Italo Rota says he did not feel in any way that the Bauhaus legacy had had a profound effect on their work. On the other hand, he held several positions as a university professor, in France and Italy, and is director of the Department of Design in the Nuova Accademia di Belle Arti (NABA) in Milan. During these experiences, he tells us, “I always carried on the fundamental idea that was in the Bauhaus, that of shortening the distance between teacher and student, having them sit together around a table in front of a topic to be developed”.

It is not based on egalitarian inspiration, but rather a real inherent need to face the problems that we meet in today's world, that take us by surprise and prevent us from developing careers as specialists or targeted teaching techniques: “Experience is becoming shorter, and we find ourselves all together facing a new issue.”

The Bauhaus school provided an answer to the needs of the emerging mass society in the teaching methods and stylistic trends that it promoted. Not all the solutions that it developed and later spread, however, can be celebrated without critical assessment. Rota is thinking specifically of social housing, the design of neighbourhoods, buildings, apartments, furniture and kitchens intended for modern life: “Social housing was created with good intentions, but turned into the post-war urban nightmare that created some of the problems of today's towns.

” What went wrong? “It's nobody's fault, it’s a form of modernity that has failed in good faith. The Bauhaus was based on an idea of collectivizing ideas, but since then people have changed, especially since the seventies: gone are the regimes and ideologies, and individuals have gained more and more weight compared to society.”
The Bauhaus according to Italo Rota

The exterior of the “Sandro Penna” municipal library in Perugia, designed by Italo Rota (ph: Clodcardinali)

Despite the failures, the craft of those who design is that of looking to the future, to accommodate development, and partly to steer it. Having transcended the limitations of the product, design has become a philosophy for approaching contemporary problems, and the schools of design must face new challenges: “Things change a lot from school to school,” says Rota. “For example, I would find it much more stimulating to design services rather than the, albeit legitimate, activity of designing tables and chairs, which has now become almost poetic. But there are thousands and thousands of things that the world expects from us, and which should be taught: design interaction, design of services, mobility, energy, managing the mutation of megacities to make them more efficient; our relationship with other living beings on Earth, which is not green or ecological, but overcoming these things in the face of the state of emergency of our existence on the planet.”

Designing the future does not mean predicting the future, but at this point we must ask the question: Italo Rota, in your opinion, will we make it? “Well, yes. And if it all goes wrong, if we behave ourselves, we will leave a good impression to the species that take over from us.”