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.

Dr.Byron Vreeland Shows Off His Lamp

Dr. Byron Vreeland shows one of his lamps to Museum staff. Photo by Bill Fox.

Dr. Byron Vreeland shows one of his lamps to Museum staff. Photo by Bill Fox.

On a rainy morning in early October several of us drove up a narrow Los Angeles street so steep it was practically a waterfall. We were venturing deep into one of the storied canyons of the Hollywood Hills to meet Byron Vreeland, a notable collector of Tiffany-era glass work who is lending us several lamps for an exhibition in early 2012. At the end of the street was his house, one of the most sculpted works of architecture I’ve ever seen. As a young man Vreeland worked in the shops of a major movie studio for twelve years, then went on to become a dentist. How all that comes together in his house is the result of a decades-long fascination with the flowing lines of Art Noveau.

Forty years ago Vreeland began converting what was originally a rather plain 800-square-foot house into an architectural fantasy that he admits “even Gaudi would find overdone.” Combining his carpentry skills with plastering techniques learned as a dentist, he transformed a wooden post in the house into a slender and intricate white tree trunk. Stretching out from its base and running on the floor into the kitchen was a tile mosaic of the same tree blooming in full color. It was a witty reversal of shape and shadow, nature and culture, the outside brought in, and typical of a house where every wall and ceiling has been reshaped into spirals, curling branches, shells, and other curvilinear forms.

A few window frames, door jambs, and bookshelves have straight lines, but Vreeland has moulded almost everything other structural element of the house into curves, which he finds not simply more pleasing to the eye, but more conducive to a healthy life. The more than two dozen richly colored stained glass shades of the antique lamps cast a warm ambience, even on a stormy morning. A bulldozer parked below the house attested to the frequency of mudslides there, but the house has weathered earthquakes and being buried to the rooftop in mud without so much as a crack, a testament to his construction skills.

Working with collectors to prepare for an exhibition is often tedious–selecting, photographing, and measuring the objects to be included, writing down their history and provenance, then designing shipping containers and methods. It’s painstaking work for the curatorial staff–but the house was so full of surprises that the morning’s work was done before we knew it. Our only regret was that we couldn’t bring the house into the museum, as well as the lamps.

The Duffner & Kimberly Company, Lamp with Wisteria Motif, Early 20th century. Collection of Dr. Byron Vreeland. Photo courtesy Christopher Martin.

The Duffner & Kimberly Company, Lamp with Wisteria Motif, Early 20th century. Collection of Dr. Byron Vreeland. Photo courtesy Christopher Martin.