With the race on to have a new Bauhaus Museum in Dessau ready and open for the centenary in 2019 of the radical art and design school, the announcement this past Monday by the competition jury of the winning proposal seemed not a moment too soon... Except that there were two joint winners announced, their proposals as different as chalk and cheese: the coolly elegant (but slightly boring) box of Gonzalez Hinz Zabala from Barcelona, and the crazy collective of multi-coloured funnels of Young & Ayata from New York. Florian Heilmeyer who was in Dessau for the announcement, finds himself strangely unenthusiastic about all designs presented (our image gallery shows you the 30 proposals which made it to the second round) and wonders if the entire procedure needed more guidance from the client in the first place – to maybe infuse the entries with more Gropius-like iconoclasm and Bauhaus revolutionary spirit.
The Bauhaus was founded in Weimar in 1919, and with the 100th birthday approaching in four years time, all the three different institutions at Weimar, Dessau and Berlin who deal with the legacy of this revolutionary art school have big plans. One after the other they all announced their intention to have new museums ready for the centenary, but time is running out to build them, which increases the pressure on these plans. While the Bauhaus in Weimar announced that its new museum would begin construction later this year, and the results of the architecture competition for Berlin’s “Bauhaus-Archive” extension are still to be announced, this past Monday the Dessau competition ended in two equal first prizes being awarded. The jury recommended that negotations be started with both winning offices, Gonzalez Hinz Zabala from Barcelona and Young & Ayata from New York, each of whom have delivered utterly different buildings: one aiming to become a new flashy icon for Dessau, and the other striving to be a functional machine for exhibitions with obvious references to the “classic” 1920s modernism of the original Bauhaus buildings in Dessau.
The architecture competition was open and anonymous which led to 831 entries from all over the world. This was not quite as bad as the competition for the Guggenheim Helsinki in 2014 (which had 1,715 submissions), but 831 is still a pretty unmanageable number. The Bauhaus Dessau happily announced this as a success in itself, but is it really a success to simply have lots of ideas – even more than you could ever handle or judge? Even a quick glance at the proposals from the first round reveal many of them to be far from well-thought-through – a similar problem to that faced with the Guggenheim competition. It seems that with open competitions like these, with architects remaining unpaid until they make it into the prize ranking at the very end, many offices create merely striking images to throw their name into the lottery wheel. It is a game of quantity over quality, and it’s quite understandable why many established offices refuse to take part in such “mass competitions” (which explains the lack of big name entries in Dessau, too, as evidenced by our image gallery featuring all 30 proposals of the second round, where Junya Ishigami and Sou Fujimoto are the only internationally well-known names).
A key question posed to all the entrants for the museum in Dessau was: how can you express – or interpret – the revolutionary design ideas of the historic Bauhaus today? Do you aim at renewing the Bauhaus tradition of breaking all traditions as Gropius had demonstrated so fabulously with the Bauhaus’ main building and the Meisterhäuser in Dessau? Or do you rather stick to what today is accepted as the “classic Bauhaus style” in order to create a museum that clearly references and belongs to the ensemble of existing, internationally recognisable buildings? In other words: do you connect with Bauhaus tradition by keeping the revolutionary fire burning, or by preserving its ashes?
The competition jury must have had huge discussions on this topic, as the double first prizewinning designs each reflect this fundamental question, be it with almost polar opposite answers. The design by Gonzalez Hinz Zabala puts the main exhibition space in a long, black, windowless, rectangular box, raised on two stilts that contain the staircases. This box allows for a multifunctional exhibition space with almost complete flexibility. It sits in a second, larger box of glass and steel which, like Snow White’s coffin, simultaneously protects and exposes the (sleeping) beauty inside. The project combines echoes of early Bauhaus modernism with a clearly contemporary design. Yet at the same time it appears as a whole rather dry and uninspired, more well-mannered than bold, and rather quiet than daring. Its a “good” design, no doubt, but not very exciting.
With just little exaggeration one could argue that what this proposal lacks in excitement, the other has just too much of. Michael Young and Kutan Ayata having looked through Bauhaus history with its craft traditions and its experiments in materials and industrial production, decided to go wild. Referencing some colourful early Bauhaus ceramics and textiles, their building is a “collective of vessels”, each based on the same complex geometrical figure, but with their volumes rotated, mirrored and fused with each other. This creates an exhibition space of round, curvy rooms each with its own spectacular roof and skylight. If the Gonzalez Hinz Zabala design is Snow White’s casket, here come the dwarves. Young & Ayata state that production and construction of their scheme is “basically” easy as it is based around a fixed grid, with all the volumes composed of “only circles and squares”. The raised platform with its curvy feet is proposed as being made of concrete, while the “vessels” atop are constructed of timber, over which a colourful surface of “sintered glass tiles made from recycled car windshields” is applied. Why windshields? We don’t know. But that’s perhaps beside the point.
Clearly, Young & Ayata’s main design tool is the computer. Yet can what is so easily copied, pasted and put together digitally, be built quite so easily in reality? Is their design really feasible within the budget of 25 million euros? How spacious will the exhibition space be in the end, and how much flat surface will the curvy volumes offer for the presentation of the many photographs and paintings from the Bauhaus collection? What qualities does the space underneath the belly of the concrete platform really offer as part of the public park? And if this building wants so much to be an icon for the Bauhaus in the 21st century, can it actually stand up to the weight of expectations? Even if all these questions can be answered: is this idea really worth all the effort? Comments flying around the internet already prove that this design is severely provocative, and paradoxically this might be its strongest relationship to the spirit of Gropius’ Bauhaus buildings back in 1926, when they were fiercely criticised – and also difficult to realise. Yet today they are highly acclaimed icons of modernism with the city of Dessau being so proud of them that the term “Bauhausstadt” is written on every train station and every PR brochure the city has to offer. But can this be a valid argument pro Young & Ayata? For in contrast to many other cities drooling for the “Bilbao effect”, Dessau already has its icon.
But perhaps the disatisfaction with the entries could hint at a larger problem underneath. The historic Bauhaus buildings, with all their ambitions and convictions, were statements of a specific and revolutionary programme at the time. They were meant as models for the future, and that is exactly what is missing here. What exactly is the brief behind this building commission? What do the city and the Bauhaus foundation of Dessau really want to say? There appears to be a strange decision-phobia in Dessau, a fear of just anyone taking a decision of what they want. The competition brief was filled with question marks instead of exclamation marks, leaving it largely to the architects from all over the world to decide if they would rather suggest an iconic building as a statement, a functional building – or just anything which could somehow relate to the ideas of the historic Bauhaus. Perhaps a decision should have been made before asking 830 (largely unpaid) architects for their suggestions and leaving it to a heterogeneous jury to then sift through these? Icon or machine, both are legitimate responses, but both need a strong driving idea behind them to push them through all the coming troubles of time pressure, technical detailing, public controversy and budget.
In the end, bravo, the jury passed the ball back to the client to make this decision. As what this project needs more than anything else is an enthusiastic client with a clear vision of what they want. Maybe I am wrong, but the declaration to start now negotiations with both winning teams, on how their proposals could be further elaborated and realised within the budget, unfortunately promises a technocratic procedure with lots of excel sheets instead of bold decision-making. It is still a decision-phobia, a desperate search for objective criteria or consensus in order to avoid responsibilities. Claudia Perren, Director of Bauhaus Dessau, has already stated that if negotiations with both winners fail then the third and fourth prize would be evaluated.
The increasing political pressure coming from the ambitious, if not lunatic, goal of inaugurating this museum by 2019 is certainly no help in properly realising an ambitious piece of architecture. At the moment it seems like a good idea to take this competition for what it is: a pool of diverse ideas which could help to form a clearer opinion on what the city and the Bauhaus of Dessau really want. Looking through all proposals it appears that going for a bold new icon seems plausible as it would raise much more enthusiasm than all those proposals reflecting rather a dull take on the modernism of the past. It is just a thought (and a highly unlikely one), but would it be possible to step back from the silly intention to realise this building by 2019, and instead take more time? As the Bauhaus only moved to Dessau in 1925, I would suggest to aim for 2025 as the real centenary. This would make a second competition possible, this time with a more clearly defined brief and ambition of creating a new icon for Dessau, attracting a more manageable number of young architects and also inviting a handful of experienced offices, all paid at least a little in fees for working out their proposals. I am pretty sure that this would lead to many more exciting ideas, so many perhaps that it would be really hard to decide – this time not because none of them would be convincing enough, but because you'd want to build them all.