On the corner of a residential street in Toronto’s west end, a brick house has been washed in a coat of white paint and its front door repositioned at a jaunty 45-degree angle. Inside is Ja Architecture Studio, a boutique firm run by Nima Javidi and Behnaz Assadi, who share the ground floor with dozens of architectural models cut out of foam core. One of those maquettes is for the Bauhaus Museum in Dessau, Germany. The studio was shortlisted for its design in a prestigious international competition in 2015, a run-up to Bauhaus’s big birthday in 2019. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the eponymous school, and celebrations are being rolled out around the world.
Ja’s concept for the museum reads as a visual mapping of the German design school that launched the world into modernism. It features a jagged roofline with peaks that fold together at the core, each one symbolizing the Bauhaus’s six-program curriculum – one that famously broke down the barriers between fine art and applied arts by merging craftsmanship with mass production. As a practitioner and teacher of architecture at the University of Toronto, Javidi has a lot to say about Bauhaus’s influence on his profession. “For young architects,” he says, “Bauhaus is the basis of their education.” Even now, with technology disrupting every stage of design, the ideals of rational, simple standardization are still fundamental. “It’s crazy, but when you see how contemporary some of the objects of Bauhaus are, they’re timeless and I don’t know how that’s possible … It’s still so beautiful.”
No other modernist movement has infiltrated the built environment quite like Bauhaus. It’s synonymous with almost every aspect of the 20th century, from concrete-slab towers to cantilevered chairs and sans-serif fonts. The school, originally founded in Weimar in 1919 by architect Walter Gropius, has launched countless creative protagonists, changed the look and scale of our cities and our striped interiors, décor and furniture down to their fundamentals, while simultaneously grabbing the art world by its tail and replacing sentimental representation with bold, industry-inspired abstraction. Even if you can’t point to a building or household object as quintessentially Bauhaus, you’re likely surrounded by it.
In Canada, its arrival didn’t come as a wave of enlightenment as it did in Europe, or even the U.S., where many students and faculty, including Gropius himself, immigrated after the school’s third location in Berlin was shuttered in 1933 because of the rise of Nazism. Here, it trickled in slowly and unevenly through a handful of expats such as architect Eb Zeidler, an alumnus who arrived in 1951.
Canada eventually caught up, spurred on by the government’s 1967 Centennial campaign to build the nation’s future via state-of-the-art airports, schools and museums. Toronto furniture retailer Klaus Nienkamper started importing modernist seating from Knoll to fill airport lounges. In Vancouver, architect Arthur Erickson, who was Bauhaus-trained at McGill University, mixed his love for nature with European modernism, while Vancouver artist B.C. Binning thrived in the spirit of cross-disciplinary collaboration by working with creatives in other professions. He eventually designed his own house, now a heritage site, inspired to some degree by the Bauhaus zeitgeist.
Cities also saw the rise of concrete apartments that offered a chic vertical lifestyle at an affordable price. Complexes such as the City Park Co-op, designed by Peter Caspari in 1956, on Church Street in Toronto, incorporate Bauhaus elements like generous balconies that double as outdoor living rooms. In the late 1960s, the city’s first TD tower by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe became the ultimate symbol of the country’s embrace of the International Style, which stems directly from Bauhaus.
More than buildings, the movement’s legacy is connected to education, which is one reason it continues to inspire new generations. Oliver Botar, a modernist expert who teaches at the University of Manitoba, points to a book that was part of every design, art and architecture school reading list throughout the 1970s: Hungarian artist László Moholy-Nagy’s Vision in Motion from 1939. It is essentially a layperson’s guide to design theory and even Marshall McLuhan recommended it for his culture and communications courses.
Moholy-Nagy’s work has stood the test of time because of his fixation on the future. For Dave Colangelo, a digital-based Toronto artist, he is the rightful forefather of new media architecture, where building exteriors become canvases for interactive projections. In 2012, Colangelo teamed up with designer Patricio Davila and turned the facade of Ryerson University’s Image Centre into an interactive light show. By synching embedded LEDs to a weather app, they were able to project waves of blue light across the facade, mapping wind patterns in real time.
In every way, the installation is a product of our hyper-tech times, but Colangelo doesn’t see his art as the result of the internet. Rather, it’s an example of technology catching up with what Moholy-Nagy had already imagined. “He wrote about making actual structures of light in space,” says Colangelo. “And that’s now a big part of how we’re envisioning smart cities.” The Bauhaus school strikes again.