I grew up in a fibro cottage in the shadow of two housing commission towers built on the site of the former Rosebery Park Racecourse. The stables in the back of little houses like mine were the only remaining signs of that history; those towers dominate all of Eastlakes. And yet they’re not the kinds of structures that would vindicate Robin Boyd’s Australian Ugliness. At nine stories, the two are well-proportioned, set back from the street among ample community space, and so comfortably landscaped among what Boyd recognised as the fundamental necessity of trees as to recede quite elegantly from the streetscape at ground level. As a child I always enjoyed their form, their scale, the shapes they made in the sky as I walked through their park.
Only many years after moving away did I learn that these apartments were designed not by some expedient government draftsperson but by Harry Seidler, who alongside Boyd was the leading architect of Australian Modernism, and in his own right, Australia’s foremost exponent of the values and methodologies of the Bauhaus. It’s not those values and methodologies, however, that have established the Bauhaus as the most influential design school in history; instead, it’s a set of objects that, thanks to a combination of strong early commercialisation and poor global intellectual property protections, are commonly found in homes and offices all over the world. And so, like so many of us, I grew up in the shadow of the Bauhaus legacy, and two decades later, I would go on to work there on a project of great interdisciplinary scope focused on Sydney, critically analysing that legacy’s place in our contemporary world.
That was itself now two decades ago, and last year that legacy was the biggest news in the design world. In 2019 the Bauhaus celebrated its centenary with thousands of events, exhibitions and publications all over the world, centred on the opening of the new Bauhaus Museum in the heart of Dessau, as well as exhibitions and festivals of experimental arts at the iconic Walter Gropius building across town, including on the Bauhaus Stage. Seidler was too young to have experienced the Bauhaus directly, never having worked in the building that would become my workshop; he was a student and later collaborator of Gropius and other Bauhaus masters in the United States, where many had relocated after their impactful school was closed by the Nazis. Dessau had changed a great deal by the time I revisited last year, and so had Sydney, the city I was once again in the process of leaving. For the second time, I found myself in a position of proximity and critical distance to the city I grew up in – and both times, framed by the legacy of the Bauhaus.
But what is that legacy? For a school characterised fundamentally and uniquely by methodologies for cross-disciplinary collaboration, why is there so much focus instead on design objects? And as today’s global politics increasingly resemble the contexts that both founded and closed the Bauhaus, what aspects of that legacy can we best take into our practice today – no matter what field we’re in?
IMAGE: Bauhaus Building by Walter Gropius, Dessau, Germany. Photograph by Esther Anatolitis.