Nate Robert, Bauhaus, Dessau, Germany.
Nate Robert, Bauhaus, Dessau, Germany.
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When my cousin graduated from University of Johannesburg’s Graduate School of Architecture (GSA) in 2021, there was quite a bit of debate around the GSA’s modus operandi and his preparedness for the real world; a practice in construction and numbers. The GSA, and I hope the field in general, has been moving to idea-forward, practice-led research, using the field as a cornerstone of societal development, progress and reinterpreting a world unfairly engineered.

GSA’s focus on a political and abstract-led course promotes a freethinking and creativity away from the constraints of a deeply rooted old-guard and a vastly influential practice. Using history, power dynamics and sociology are hugely important in a field that has insidious and blatant connotations embedded within its design — there is no wonder SA’s most infamous and evil architect, was in fact a psychologist.

Alexander Opper, coincidentally a lecturer at UJ, has been an influential proponent of “undoing” architecture and consciously using it as a force for change and equity. Opper has just released a book through Iwalewa Books on the ubiquitous nature of the Bauhaus movement, unpacking the role and history of architecture through numerous voices of the Global South. In tandem with his two co-editors, Katharina Fink and Nadine Siegert, have curated a coffee-table-cum-thesis book of gorgeous graphics, academic-led research and revolutionary and radical viewpoints from pillars of the design industry.

Describe your architectural practice?

I started architecture at UCT in the early nineties, worked here for a while and went to Germany in 1995, essentially the home of the original Bauhaus. I finished my masters there and worked for various architectural firms, I came back to Johannesburg in 2005 to build a commissioned house and a teaching position came up, which was advertised in 2007. I got the position, decided to stay and I love it here; I've been teaching ever since. Parallel to teaching now, I don’t do much building and design, I’m not interested in that facet anymore, I would say I am much more of an artist.

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In a nutshell, I teach architects, but in a very fraught society and city, even though it’s been 28 years since the end of apartheid or, rather, the institutional dismantling of apartheid. A lot has changed, but not enough and not quickly enough, we are still an extremely segregated society. Architecture is complicit in that. My pedagogy uses architecture against itself to question the linearity and self-assuredness of architecture, the way that it’s, it sort of maintains an innocence. I think architects are responsible, both for change and are complicit in making sure that things stay the same in many ways, even though they’ll not necessarily want to admit that.

In other words, design and architecture and the built environment by extension are incredibly radical social tools for change. I find art extremely useful, because it’s a much faster process and manifestation of a medium than building structures. I am connected to the idea of making through artistic practice, using art and architecture in a partnership.

What is Bauhaus and how does the book tackle such a movement?

There was a Bauhaus origin, a perfect embryonic moment for this design miracle, in 1919 in Germany. On one level we pluralise the idea of the Bauhaus, we suggest in the book that there's not just one Bauhaus movement, not one Bauhaus school, not one Bauhaus moment. We think it’s become too idealised. Through these contributions, and because of the powerful nature and strength of this movement, an undeniably visionary and convincing movement, that there were multiple parallel art movements in the world or attitudes to art making and art teaching that were overlooked and missed.

Brno Chair by Mies van der Rohe.
Brno Chair by Mies van der Rohe.
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It was interesting at the book launch, there were people there who weren’t architects or designers, so they didn’t necessarily know what the Bauhaus was. Designers, architects, artists and lovers of these fields carry around an arrogant assumption that Bauhaus is a universal problem solver, and everyone must know what it is. It is interesting as Bauhaus has been exported as a nonplus ultra, an attitude and design movement that can solve any problems that might come up anywhere in the world. It cultivates the same approach as modernism, developing solutions in an international style, a super arrogant ideal that understands itself as being valid in any context and in any space. Both movements are intrinsically linked to colonialism, as a European or global north, a western export into the world that can address any design problem, and by extension, and societal problem. It has a lot to do with power.

The way I have come to this perspective and learnt about this was because of this book, which my two co-editors Katharina Fink and Nadine Siegert, two very respected researchers and academics invited me to be a co-editor on the book. We released a very simple call for contributors, which prompted a radicalisation of the subject matter. We asked how they could or would think about unpacking the relevance of the Bauhaus now, 100 years later, not for the Global South but from the Global South. Does it have meaning and value? Has that changed in some way? Do we dispense with it altogether? Why is it so pervasive? Does it deserve that attention? This was all catalysed by the 2019 centenary. We complicated the idea of a single movement, model or moment of the Bauhaus.

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Our call to elicit responses from authors, architects and creatives — we got contributions from the global south, across Africa and South America and India — was simple and their responses were more insightful and of depth that we could have conceived. We received really interesting proposals from a range of people; artists, designers, teachers, all tied together by the idea of design or arts education or artistic practice or designers who make objects and buildings and things. There is a wide variety of formats and mediums used. Some are conversations — there’s an interview, there’s an architectural practice that reflects on the way they work and how important in their case, the kind of Bauhaus model is, but in a completely different context in Nairobi in Kenya, with different parameters that they work with and within. Through this process, I had to question, and self-critically question my own built-in education and practices, my generation of schooling with a movement like the Bauhaus, which was not difficult to do. Because of the critical nature of the way that I practice artistically and the way that I teach it, it suited me to critically examine the Bauhaus. I look at it completely differently now.

What does the title mean?

It is a very ambiguous title. When we had all these chapters together, after four long years, we started looking at everything that was on the table and the way that the authors were thinking about the Bauhaus critically. We consciously introduced the idea of radicalising the movement. For the title, we used two languages, Das Bauhaus Verfehlen, which is very hard to translate but means to fail or miss the Bauhaus and then translated it as Missing the Bauhaus, which is ambiguous because if you look at it naively, it suggests a nostalgia, a longing for the Bauhaus, which subscribes to that mythological status of the school. This probes the idea of the Bauhaus being definitely not missing — its omnipresent as we saw through the worldwide events of the centenary. These travelling exhibitions and events across Europe tended to present it as the singular school of schools from a design point of view.

Wassily Chair by Marcel Breuer.
Wassily Chair by Marcel Breuer.
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The back blurb is quite useful because we unpack this quality of missing, we are saying it’s problematic to be nostalgic for something uncritically. And the fact that the Bauhaus is not missing, it’s very present, but also misses the point in many ways, because it's so confident and so arrogant in its design position. In many cases, it is not intentional, but because of its strength or its self-assuredness has colonised other possibilities or overlooked, overwritten them in the same way that modernism did in many cases. Such as, if you look at the way cities started to look the same because of the pervasive nature of modernist expression.

Das Bauhaus verfehlen/Missing the Bauhaus is available from Iwalewa books in physical and e-book versions, available on their website. Bookstores, in Cape Town and Johannesburg, in which the book is available, are Black Ark, Proto~, Clarke's Bookshop, The Commune and the David Krut Bookstore. Contributions are from Myriam El Haïk, Bettina Malcomess, Ângela Ferreira, Leago Madumo, Demas Nwoko, Raimi Gbadamosi, Leon Krige, Jurgen Meekel, Abri de Swardt, Jonathan Cane, Leago Madumo, Alexandra Ross and Pebofatso Mokoena, Bethan Rayner and Naeem Biviji and Lucio Agra.

Composition 8 (Komposition 8), July-1923 by Wassily Kandinsky.
Composition 8 (Komposition 8), July-1923 by Wassily Kandinsky.
Image: Supplied
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