Center for Art + Environment Blog

March 29, 2012   |   William L. Fox

Book Review — From Bauhaus to Ecohouse: A History of Ecological Design

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After Nazi pressures led to the closure of the Bauhaus in 1933, leading members reestablished their lives and work outside of Germany, first in London and ultimately in the United States. During this pivotal moment of displacement, Bauhaus thinking also made a turn toward ecological design. By incorporating biological thinking about form and connectedness into their design philosophies, theories, and practices, Walter Gropius, László Moholy-Nagy, and Herbert Bayer sought a unity between art and science that would place the biological needs and conditions of the human at the center of design’s purpose and effects. Peder Anker’s latest book immerses readers in the social history of the Bauhaus outside of Germany and thus green architecture’s war-time precursors and origins.

In the first half of the book, Anker encourages readers to reconsider how the humanist projects of this period—often criticized for placing human needs above environmental considerations—have done much to expand and develop the way we debate environmental issues. The book follows the Bauhaus to the United States as its leading members widely dispersed these ideas. They did this through institutions such as the Harvard School of Design, The Chicago Institute of Design, and the Aspen Institute; through images, such as Bayer’s war-time recycling posters and his World Geo-Graphic Atlas: A Composite of Man’s Environment; and through the influential writing of Moholy-Nagy regarding “bio-technique,” an idea which intended to transform mass production by mimicking the forms and processes of nature.

The second half of the book tracks the Bauhaus visionaries’ design legacy through the cold war, analyzing what Anker calls the “second generation of Bauhaus thinking” as it now responded to ecological crisis. In these later chapters, Anker examines the life and work of Richard Buckminster Fuller, the history of planned ecological space colonization, and finally its earthly trial runs in enclosed “space cabins,” most notably Biosphere 2, completed in Arizona in 1991. Anker’s argument in this section is more critical as he suggests that the biocentric concerns of such designs came at the cost of a humanist tradition: “Human social, political, moral, and historical space,” writes Anker, “was invaded by ecological science aimed at reordering ill-treated human environments according to the managerial ideals of the astronaut’s life in the space colony” (6). Essentially, from minding the laws of ecology to envisioning humans living like astronauts, the ideal unification of art and science that environmental designers strove for radically changed in this cold war period to embrace technological idealism at the loss of historical, cultural, and perhaps ethical functions of design.

From Bauhaus to Ecohouse’s intended audience is historians of design, architecture, science, and environmentalism, but Anker’s narrative approach provides a highly readable text that will likely appeal to a much wider audience, including anyone in the field of green building. From my point of view as a student of environmental art and literature, I found the most provocative ideas in Anker’s attention to human-made closed ecosystems, their imperialist connections, and their influence on today’s environmental architecture. Imbedded in this history is a perceived rift, it would seem, between working with ecology and engineering ecosystems. Negotiating this debate no doubt will continue to affect how we decide to dwell in the future. And Anker’s history keenly reminds us: we are more human than we’d like to admit; we are more biologically animal than we’d like to admit—and our new designs will need to attend to this conundrum.