A ‘ New Bauhaus’ ? Or Solar Decathlon ?

During my time as a professor I was regularly at odds with the Academy of Architecture’. I feel affiliated with ’the art of building’, but not with architecture or construction as art. That was more or less the reason for the quarrels. Not surprising, because in my guidance I start from “form follows physics” , while in architecture and at the time at the academy, more or less Form Follows Architect was the adagium, the individual expression of the individual emotion, of the architect.

Is that what we are looking for today? I don’t think so. The idea of building as art should finally become history. Architecture has been able to indulge itself for 150 years since the indsutrial revolution, while ignoring all kinds of basic physical rules and limits, think of Rietveld’s fake concrete doll’s house in Utrecht, a completely failed attempt to combine modernism/functionalism and art. Only successful in the eyes of those who elevate art above all else. [1]

That is exactly what gets us into trouble, ignoring the physical limits of what we can do.

Of course, I can also admire the beauty of buildings, and even more so of groups of buildings, cq neighbourhoods, but I am still convinced that beauty comes from physical logic, and not from human emotion. Nevertheless, something may be beautiful, according to whatever definition, but it must not waste energy and raw materials, it must fit within a maintainable potential in regenerating resources. And that was and is a difficult message, because it ensures that architecture is not free. That not everything is possible anymore.

That something has to change in the way of building and architecture, is obvious ( I hope) . I wrote a book about that : ‘reinventing the built environment’. [2] But whether this should be done by reviving the old Bauhaus principles, as the EU now wants to do with the ‘New Bauhaus’ programme ? [3]

New Bauhaus has ‘the intention to identify inspirational projects, practices and concepts’.

And yes, the politically correct keywords are there: such as

sustainability, from climate goals, to circularity, zero pollution, and biodiversity

aesthetics, quality of experience and style, beyond functionality

inclusion, from valuing diversity, to securing accessibility and affordability

But it doesn’t get very concrete, notwithstanding many festivals, creative workshops, and so on.[4] Somewhere hard targets, limits and system boundaries to which designs must adapt are missing. Think, in particular, of the very limited CO2 budget that is left .

Anyway, what was the original Bauhaus movement?

It was the time of modernism, De Stijl, but also craftsmanship, and handicraft, and (multi-)functional. Which had to translate into a synthesis of arts, crafts technology and industry. With the main focus still on the ‘Arts’ , combined with crafts. Arts and Crafts, as was the trend in many ‘design domains’ at the time. A search that led to modernism, De Stijl , and the attempt to integrate and industrialize Art, which in turn led to functionalism. The moment, in fact, when the older principle of ‘form follows function’ really penetrated into ‘architecture’.

“Where function does not change, form does not change”, was Sullivan’s original reasoning at the end of the 19th century. That statement still holds true today, but when will function change? When circumstances demand it, when the physical environment requires other functions and materialization, forms must adapt to a new reality. When functions have to follow physics. And that reality is currently changing at breakneck speed, the physical conditions require a different approach with regard to energy and material use, and those who do not adapt, those who do not mutate, will die out. Mutatis mutandis, function and therefore form has to adapt to the physics of the environment.

Not that the Bauhaus was doing anything wrong. They explored the relationship between theory and practice, had relations with minimalism, in the sense that they limited the use of materials, designed efficiently, and already then, in the 1920s, paid serious attention to energy saving, as Thomas Luetzkendorf describes in the book about the Haus am Horn, one of the showpieces from that time. [5]

For the record, I like very much the Bauhaus movement at that time. However, we are ind ifferent times. At that time, early 1900’s , architects were like Alice in Wonderland: they had an enormous amount of new materials at their disposal thanks to the fossil revolution: glass, steel, concrete, later aluminium, there was no end to it. And they had to find out what they could do with it and what to do with it. And as I wrote in FFF, most are actually still doing that, experimenting.

En passant, minimalism combined with the industrialisation focus also was responsible for the fact that integrated parts of a building were eliminated, because they provided creative challenges in itself , as well as commercially interesting products: combinations of ‘art and practice’, and as such simply scrapped from the house: cooling via a cellar, integrated bed (stee), storage in built-in cupboards, laundry room, compartmentalisation (with sliding doors), etc. The only thing that was added to the house was the most unhygienic part: the toilet. [6]

So in 2022, a sort of Bauhaus revival? Fine, but not in that way. It is now time for a new approach that does not relate to that festive past, but to an even more distant past; that of building with organic materials, pre-fossil, available in sustainable quantities. And yes, we do need workshops again, in which it is investigated how these materials can be used most effectively to provide people with shelter.

But then I would even rather look at ancient China, and Japan from the Edo period, how they dealt with materials. Here in Europe, before the fossil revolution, it was mainly rude and heavy. In Asia, it was mainly light and balanced. The basis was wood, So it could pherhaps be a ‘Yingzao Fashi revival’, after the building rules from the 12th century in China, which were laid down in a book how to build effectively in wood. [7]

But that is probably a bit too far out for Europe. So perhaps something like “before Bauhaus” could work, and beyond functionalism. Or perhaps even: “Beyond Bauhaus”. But then, we already have that! Isn’t that just the Solar Decathlon, where teachers, educators, and student teams explore the future of building in very creative and ambitious ways? Take that as the standard, as a EU programme, and don’t start working separately with the conservative building and architecture world on a model from the beginning of the fossil era. That would cost us another century….

Not entirely coincidentally, if you are interested, next weekends (in June) is the highlight of the Solar Decathlon, in Wuppertal: the exhibition of 18 houses of university teams from all over Europe. [8] There you can see the future. (Also TU Eindhoven, with team Virtue).



[1] 150 years of partying: http://www.ronaldrovers.com/architects-it-cant-be-santa-claus-forever/

[2] Form Follows Fysics – reinventing the built environment , R.Rovers, 2021, publ.: RiBuilT, isbn 978083144115 via: www.ribuilt.eu

[3] new bauhaus: https://europa.eu/new-european-bauhaus/index_en

[4] the Festival: https://new-european-bauhaus-festival.eu/home en

[5] Haus am Horn, Rekonstruktion einer Utopie, Bauhaus Universitat Weimar,  isbn 3-86068-122-2

[6] house as commodities: http://www.ronaldrovers.com/houses-as-commodities-sold-in-parts/

[7] YingZao Fashi : https://www.jstor.org/stable/1568644 and https://www.officeccxd.com/projects/yingzao-fashi/

[8] solar decathlon : https://sde21.eu/event/uebersicht

Author: ronald rovers