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The London Bauhaus Designed a Socialist Utopia for Penguins

Erin Schwartz

Erin Schwartz

The 20th-century German design movement is often associated with tubular chairs and streamlined workspaces, but the Bauhaus was invested in the natural kingdom from the start.

Photo by Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1938, almost two decades after the founding of the Bauhaus, and after many of its leaders had fled Nazi Germany for the United Kingdom and America, MoMA debuted a retrospective exhibition that they warned would be “considered its most unusual.” The show contained nearly 700 Bauhaus works, from ballet costumes to Expressionist paintings. Tucked between tubular chairs and futuristic sculptures was an illustration by Alexander Schawinsky spelling out the number “50” in vegetables and fruits—pears, grapes, corn, cherries—and a photograph of a curvilinear trellis by Gustav Hassenpflug, fashioned for a 1935 flower show in Berlin. Snaking leaves spill from pots; the tendrils of hanging plants twine through the trellis’s metal ribs, lending a lively entropy to the machine-made frame.

Harvard Art Museums/Busch-Reisinger Museum, Gift of Gustav Hassenpflug

Professor Peder Anker, the author of From Bauhaus to Ecohouse: A History of Environmental Design, told GARAGE that “there’s always been, in Bauhaus, a fascination with science.” He mentioned that László Moholy-Nagy, who taught one the school’s introductory courses, assigned biology textbooks to his students. “When you think about it, it’s quite radical that designers, people who want to design furniture and architecture and do fine art, had to read biology. That would be radical even today.”

The Bauhaus school began in Germany in 1919, its goals outlined in a manifesto penned by architect Walter Gropius: rebelling against the superficiality of neoclassical architecture, he declared that “the ultimate aim of all visual arts is the complete building.” Steel exoskeletons, cast concrete, walls of plate-glass windows laid bare the building process. Bauhaus courses were interdisciplinary, and many were taught by artists—Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, and Josef Albers. Most often associated with streamlined furniture and technological utopianism, the Bauhaus movement also had a less-known love affair with trees, plants, and, at one point, penguins.

When Bauhaus architects fled from Germany to the United Kingdom in the 1930s, they found an ally in biologist Julian Huxley, who, while secretary of the London Zoological Society, populated the city's menagerie with ambitious modernist designs. In 1934, the London Zoo unveiled a Bauhaus-influenced penguin pool, designed by Berthold Lubetkin: two ramps, ribbons of concrete, intertwine like strands of DNA, where groups of birds preened for an eager audience. Attacked by some zoo critics (a real job, in the 1930s!) for its circus-like staging, its designers saw the pool instead as a model society in miniature, with the penguins standing in for city-dwellers in a rapidly modernizing Europe. “[They didn't] want to replicate their natural environment, [they wanted] to make a radically new environment for them and show the world that penguins can survive in this type of environment, just like workers can become acclimated to a new environment,” Anker told GARAGE. “There was something revolutionary about it, that we can live in a totally different type of world.”

It's great to be a penguin! Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images

For the Bauhaus, the natural world was not a decorative finish, a Rococo floral cornice pasted over brick; it was fundamental to the design process, and the dynamic equilibrium of the natural world became a metaphor for the utopian society the school dreamt of constructing. In 1920, in the midst of a post-war food crisis, the school acquired abandoned farmland and students learned to cultivate peas, potatoes, lentils, beets, and cucumbers, which were prepared and served in the school’s communal canteen. Gropius, discussing the expansion of air travel in The New Architecture and the Bauhaus, even proposed an idea that seemed to prefigure the contemporary green roof movement: “The utilization of flat roofs as ‘grounds’ offers us a mean of re-acclimatizing nature amidst the stony deserts of our great towns, for the plots from which she has been evicted to make room for buildings can be given back to her up aloft.”

He continued: “Seen from the skies, the leafy house-tops of the cities of the future will look like endless chains of hanging gardens.”

This is the first installment in Garden Varieties, a series examining how plants, animals, and the natural world have crept and crawled into the history of design.