This new film is less about the mythology of the Bauhaus and more about its significance for contemporary design, architecture, and urban planning. All the same, a documentary of this kind still needs to do justice to and not stint on the historical context. Even given the limited time available, the problematic view of women at the Bauhaus, for instance, deserves more than just these few short sentences: “The Bauhaus masters, Gropius included, pushed the majority of female students towards the weaving workshop. Marianne Brandt was the only one who managed to get a place in the [Moholy-Nagy-led] metal shop, where she produced wonderful work.” Not only are these simplistic comments far from the whole story – women also managed to gain places in other workshops – they are also plain wrong. Brandt may be the school’s best-known female metalwork student, but she was by no means the only one.
Also misleading, or at least open to misinterpretation, is the way the film cuts from historical images of the Gropius-planned estate of terraced housing in Törten, Dessau, to a commentary in which Stephen Kovats, who himself worked at the Bauhaus Dessau Foundation as a media expert from 1990 to 1999, is seen flicking through Ernst Neufert’s “Architects’ Data”. To the unschooled eye, it suggests a contemporaneity that has no basis in fact. Neufert may have been the senior civil engineer on the development, which was built between 1926 and 1928, but the first edition of his “Architects’ Data”, a book that, with its standardised depictions of human bodies and patterns of movement, deserves to be viewed with a distinctly critical eye, wasn’t published until 1936, three whole years after the Bauhaus had ceased to exist. Similarly, the film deems the circumstances of and political background to the school’s closure by the Nazi regime in 1933 worthy of little more than a voice-over comment: “The new director – Ludwig Mies van der Rohe – was very well renowned and politically neutral.”
Nor is it apparent to the viewer why the film makes great play of the Black Mountain College as a US counterpart to the Bauhaus, yet doesn’t once mention the HfG Ulm. The overlap in personnel alone, with various former Bauhaus students and teachers on the faculty, not to mention HfG Ulm’s critical examination of the earlier institution, would have been worthy of exploration.
In the film’s defence, you could argue that the point is less to critically examine the Bauhaus’s place in history and more to trace how it still resonates today. It’s certainly true that the film’s strengths lie in its attempts to offer a contemporary reading of Bauhaus ideas, to report on the shaping of the future, as the film’s title has it. Torsten Blume, currently a Bauhaus Dessau research associate, thus illustrates with great clarity how the grounding in colour, form, material, and space provided by the school’s preliminary courses are still relevant today, especially to current generations of students. Another positive contribution is computer scientist, choreographer, and dancer Christian Loclair’s interpretations of the subject via mathematics and dance. Not only does his exploration of a home on the aforementioned Törten estate via dance immediately convey its practicality, the body and space measures mapped on top of the film image also emphasise the spatial constraints associated with such industrialised construction.
A significant chunk of the film is spent looking at the work of Urban Think Tank, an interdisciplinary design practice founded in Caracas, Venezuela, in 1998. The practice specialises in offering new hope to slum-dwellers in South American urban centres by developing infrastructure that is carefully incorporated into the existing fabric, such as small local community centres as well as elevators or cable cars that provide a link to and from the rest of the city – a concept that eschews demolition, displacement, and standardisation in favour of mutual dialogue and respect.
It’s this section that serves up one of the film’s more surprising moments: a short performance by the Colombian rapper Reymund. Recorded by a main road in the middle of a Medellín slum, it sums up – almost incidentally – the interdisciplinary idea of the Bauhaus in a single sentence: “I’m still singing and taking my time, because rap is gonna give us the space back.”
Space, time, language – you could hardly wish for a better summary of the process of design – of the shaping of the future. For that alone, the film deserves kudos.