Here on ViaRETRO magazine we often feature articles, which celebrate car jubilees – and for that matter also 35th birthdays, as that is when Danish legislation considers a car to be classic. But we rarely celebrate 100th birthdays. But now that we’ve entered 2019, this is indeed the year where the “Bauhaus school” enters its 100th year… and that’s definitely a jubilee worth celebrating.
But what does the Bauhaus school have to do with classic cars? Well, continue reading as I dig deeper into the link between the automotive industry and Bauhaus design.
In 1919, the Bauhaus school – or “Staatliches Bauhaus“, as it was rightly named in German (the German term Bauhaus literally means “building house”) – opened in Weimar, Germany approximately at the same time as the Weimar Constitution was adopted. As we of course all know, Germany had just been defeated in World War I, and now something new and different needed to happen after the fall of the empire. It was a period full of contradictions and challenges, but also many opportunities. Leading up to the First World War, Germany had undergone the second industrial revolution (also known as the Technological Revolution), in which especially electrical engineering and chemistry had undergone major development. It was the age of the masses, where people left the countryside and moved in to the cities in order to work within the industry – and at the same time, city life made them consumers.
In order to enable rational large-scale production, standardisation was necessary to achieve reproducibility. The times were over, where each and every part was made and adapted by the local blacksmith, so to speak. However, it was one thing to develop the individual product so that it was suitable for mass production, while it was a totally different thing to develop its shape… Traditionally crafted products had often appeared decorated with their own individual touches and detailing. It wasn’t that this had gone out of fashion as such, but as a manufacturer, it now became more and more important to differentiate the product from the competitors through the overall design of the product rather than just by its function. Thus, there was a need to develop designs suitable for industrial mass production – and the Bauhaus school was a perfect fit for this need. Despite the fact, that the Bauhaus school largely originated from architecture – due to the school’s first principal, Walter Gropius, being an architect – the school attempted to embrace a broader approach, where the intention was to educate designers within different disciplines. The aim was to create a “total” work of art (Gesamtkunstwerk) in which all forms of design, including architecture (though there wasn’t an actual architectural department as such), would eventually be brought together in unison.
How much influence did Bauhaus then end up having on car design? Initially not so much, but Walter Gropius was a friend of the brothers, Erwin and Otto Kleyer, who were the founders of the company Adler which (among other things) produced cars. Through this connection, even though Gropius was an architect rather than a car designer, he was assigned the task of designing some of the coachwork for their new Adler 6 saloon.
During this process, Gropius even designed his own cabriolet version in 1929.
However, the Adler/Bauhaus collaboration was not the greatest success, as the cars were generally perceived as quite outré among most people in the market.
The buildings of the Bauhaus school did not live a successful life either… partly because of internal disputes about the Bauhaus school’s strategy, but especially because of the Nazi takeover of power in 1933. The new rulers did not approve of the school and the mindset it represented, which was considered frivolous and Bolshevist; in stark contrast of course to their grandiose classicist thoughts and general style. But these issues merely drove Walter Gropius – and other distinctive personalities behind the Bauhaus school such as a certain Mies van der Rohe – out of Germany and towards the USA instead. Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe had more in common than just the Bauhaus school, as they had also worked together with the house architect at AEG at that time, Peter Behrens. Yet another designer with a background there was Le Corbusier, who represented much the same mindset towards design and architecture as his colleagues. Le Corbusier is perhaps best known for his buildings and furniture, but he actually experimented with car designs as well, since Le Corbusier was genuinely fond of cars – especially the French brand Voisin, which was owned by a good friend of his; one of the Voisin brothers, Gabriel Voisin. As early as the late 1920s, Le Corbusier had already made some sketches, but it was not until 1935 before it proceeded beyond that. The reason was that the Société des Ingénieurs de l’Automobile (SIA) had presented a competition to stimulate the French car industry, with the given topic: To design a practical city car that would cost a maximum of 8,000 francs. Le Corbusier took up the challenge, and the following year – in 1936 – his concept called “Voiture Minimum” (which translates to The Minimum Car) was ready.
The car was quite interesting with its distinct “cab forward” design (see photo below, which exemplifies this expression very well). A width of 1.8 m enabled three people to sit side by side in the front seats, while the space behind the front seats left room for another passenger and luggage.
However, the rather special shape of “Voiture Minimum” dictated that the engine could really only live one place – namely in the back. Le Corbusier triumphantly claimed that both Ferdinand Porsche and Citroën had with their KdF-Wagen (later VW Type 1) and 2CV respectively, both copied him. Although the “Voiture Minimum” concept was exciting in many ways, it is clearly a claim that can be refuted; e.g. the engineering company Porsche had already designed the Type 12 for Zündapp in 1932, which had both a similarly sloping rear end and not least a rear-mounted engine.
And even though Citroën had started the development of 2CV in 1936 – thus after the “Voiture Minimum” – and there might have been some common features mainly around the rear and the firewall, the similarities really end there… The Citroën 2CV, as we of course all know, had its engine mounted in the front and was even front wheel drive too.
Of these three examples, it is Le Corbusier’s “Voiture Minimum” which has the most direct connection to the Bauhaus style, and Porsche’s KdF-Wagen which has the least. To be honest, at least the individual who originally assigned Porsche the task of designing and developing the German people’s car, i.e. Hitler, would have no doubt preferred not to be linked in any way to the Bauhaus school. So at least all is well in that regard. In fact, Hitler considering himself quite an artist as well, had equally created a few sketches of his own where he imagined how a people’s car should look.
The Bauhaus style would nevertheless play a major role for the Porsche company, since Ferdinand Porsche’s grandson, Ferdinand Alexander “Butzi”, had been a student at the Ulm School of Design (in German: Hochschule für Gestaltung Ulm). The school was set up in 1953, and several of the school’s teachers – including the principal, Max Bill – were all former Bauhaus students from the school in Dessau. Besides taking on the role of principal, Max Bill was also one of the original founders of the school in Ulm along with others such as Inge Aicher-Scholl. She happened to be the older sister of the siblings Sophie and Hans Scholl, who were both executed by the Hitler regime in a draconian manner, as they were responsible for hanging up protest posters at the University of Munich. As little as only one year later, “Butzi” Porsche was thrown out of school due to: “lack of ability”. This was the official reason, but was this the true reason? After all, the student came from a family which had collaborated with the same regime which had both closed the Bauhaus school and of course done what was a lot worse! “Butzi” Porsche returned to the family’s car company, where he and Erwin Komenda completed the design of the Porsche 911 model. In retrospect, this was perhaps not the worst thinkable outcome…
Later, “Butzi” Porsche went self-employed, with the company Porsche Design – or Studio F. A. Porsche as it is called today. “Butzi” always maintained that he had learnt a lot during his time at the school in Ulm.
Bauhaus represented modernism and functionalism, in which the individual elements emphasised that form should always follow function. The various materials that were included should not be hidden, but on the contrary appear clear. It’s a philosophy which in terms of car design had a major break through as late as the late-1970s and up through the 1980s – with the FIAT Ritmo/Strada as a perfect example…
In recent times, especially Audi has utilised Bauhaus as a source of inspiration for its design. Indeed, in some cases there might be some similarities. I personally think that it is perhaps most obvious in the 1st generation Audi TT coupé and not least the A2 model.
There is hardly any doubt that throughout 2019, in connection with the 100th anniversary, we will be attempted convinced about many more cars – both new and old – where the Bauhaus inspiration apparently played a major role in the design process. Some might actually be true, while others will obviously just be a crude marketing exercise.
Dear ViaRETRO reader, besides those already mentioned, do you have any good examples of other Bauhaus-inspired cars?