The Spiritual Vision of the Bauhaus

Katy Payne spent decades listening to long living mammals as an acoustic biologist to discover the songs of whales and the passions and deep empathy of elephants. She draws on the Quaker tradition for her understanding of the world of the social lives of animals as her church.

The Bauhaus began with the metaphor of a church and the Lyonel Feininger depiction of a modern cathedral as a symbol for a new faith in the synthesis of art and technology. It continues to be a powerful symbol of the influence of ideas about art and science through cultural evolution and social physics. One hundred years since Walter Gropius published the founding manifesto, the idea of the Bauhaus holds hope for a new iteration of the movement in a renaissance of its original focus on metaphysical design.

Cathedral for Program of the State Bauhaus in Weimar, Lyonel Feininger, 1919

Cultural Evolution

In the past five decades that I have been listening to humans as a sort of armchair cultural anthropologist exploring human spirituality with a particular interest in the spread of ideas about art, design, education, and faith, my focus has been on the influence of design on human populations.

When I speak of design, I am referring to the representation of an idea. Structure is ideology made manifest. The Bauhaus has been central to the story of the past century of design. The success of the school as a major influence on human culture is its foundations in the diversity of the people who were drawn to the vision of remaking society by finding ways to simplify the complexity of life.

At the heart of the endeavour was a curiosity that found its expression through the embodiment of experience and ideas in the spaces and objects that modern life afforded through the synthesis of art and technology.

The whole of human experience was considered in the creation of a Gesamtkunstwerk, a total work of art, that realized the social utopian vision of the Bauhaus. The human spirit had been crushed by the monstrosity of technological warfare that had devastated the world, constructed by nation states into a dehumanizing industrial death factory. In a defeated Germany, the solution to rebuilding society out of the ashes of the Great War was to focus the effort on unity as a corrective to the social divisions that had destroyed their civilization.

Symbolically, the Bauhaus was the amalgamation of the arts and crafts into a new unity in Weimar, the city that became the centre for Germany’s first experiment in representational democracy.

The world had lost faith in the goodness of humanity and in the progress of human civilization. When everything has been lost, you begin with the thought that you are grateful to be alive. Then you search for ways to find meaning, purpose, and belonging. It takes time to dismantle and deconstruct the old architecture to prepare the foundations for reconstruction.

bauhaus: zeitschrift für bau und gestaltung, eds. Walter Gropius and László Moholy-Nagy. Dessau, Bauhaus, Feb 1928. Monoskop

The Bauhaus was an idea to rebuild the world through the collective effort of all the separate disciplines by working together on the art and science of living. It was called, literally, the building house.

In the spirit of social democracy, the manifesto called for people to explore how we imagine, design, and build the future together.

Together let us desire, conceive, and create the new structure of the future, which will embrace architecture and sculpture and painting in one unity and which will one day rise toward Heaven from the hands of a million workers like the crystal symbol of a new faith.
Wassily Kandinsky’s “Untitled” (1922), The Lonely Palette. Radio Open Source: The Bauhaus in Your House

The spiritual vision of the Bauhaus was a faith in people’s ability to transform society for good by breaking down divisions and working together toward a common purpose.

If it was possible to use human ingenuity to turn the world into a killing machine, was it also possible to flip the narrative to instead build a living machine?

The school embraced diversity and inclusion, inspiring artists and architects to gather and explore ideas, physicality, movement, materials, science, and psychology to better understand the human experience and its relationship to the physical environment.

In that sense, the Bauhaus, as a synthesis of science and art, represented a recognition of both the physical and that which was beyond the physical: the metaphysical. Human consciousness and experience are beyond what the physical sciences are able to understand. Art is the way we explore the senses, the mind, the heart, and the body. Jesse James Garrett of Adaptive Path expands the artifacts of design to include perception, cognition, emotion, and action to correspond with this four-fold conception of human experience in his talk on design for engagement.

Social Physics

For the past century, however, humans have been struggling to achieve mastery over the physical world, but we have tended to neglect the metaphysical.

A matrix for understanding human experience: from the physical to the metaphysical

As a species, we are experiencing an apocalypse, in both senses of the word. The term has come to mean the end of the world as we know it. But the original sense was that of an unveiling, a revelation of things of which we had been unaware, unable to perceive, or willfully ignorant.

Over the past one hundred years, our eyes have been opened, and we have become like gods, knowing good and evil.

The ethics of design is at the forefront of our discussions as we have again come to realize that technology is not a neutral force in the world. Rather, technology is the means by which humanity gains the power to destroy or to create.

Marshall McLuhan expanded our understanding of the media as extensions of human abilities that amplify their interactions to a global scale.

Yuval Noah Harari reflects back to us our aspirations and active efforts to achieve immortality and deity through the fusion of humanity with technology in his book Homo Deus.

Mike Monteiro articulates the argument that our world has been ruined by design. “Let’s destroy Silicon Valley,” he says, in order to build a new ethical framework for design.

Chamath Palihapitiya says that social media is ripping society apart.

Tristan Harris is blowing the whistle on tech companies built on the business model of captive audiences and the monetization of attention and behavioural prediction.

Shoshana Zuboff describes this time as The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.

Jenny Odell is facing her own disillusionment in global politics and a digital culture built to create monopolies of attention by learning how to do nothing as a form of resistance against the attention economy.

Naomi Klein is advocating for a deeper understanding of the social, economic, political, and ecological implications of climate change that should bring us to the realization that this changes everything.

Douglas Rushkoff is helping this generation realize that the trade offs that we have accepted to build our technological infrastructure are undermining the human project.

Greta Thunberg is resolutely admonishing the adults that they have failed in their responsibility to respond to the climate emergency. She wants us to panic because our house is on fire. If the adults won’t do anything, then the children will.

The media are reporting some of the most pressing problems facing humanity as movements rise up to challenge crumbling institutions, charging them with intransigence, corruption, abuse, criminality, negligence, apathy, and indifference.

Democracies are falling to fascists and demagogues as fear of technology and the exponential acceleration of change is undermining the fragile foundations of the neoliberal economic order.

The legacy of the Bauhaus can be interpreted as both the cause and the cure for this moment of cultural malaise.

Episode 1: The Bauhaus Code
Episode 2: The Bauhaus Effect
Episode 3: The Bauhaus Utopia

I take the more optimistic perspective that the collaboration of a creative community can transform the world through unity and diversity and a culture of inclusivity.

The Nazis tried to destroy the Bauhaus, closing the school in Berlin in 1933, but the idea lives on today because of the collective effort of the diaspora of students and mentors who spread around the world to become the evangelists of a modern way of living, based on an understanding of the design constraints of the limitations of human experience, bounded by time, energy, and matter. The Nazi propaganda effort, the manipulation of a population through coercion and misinformation, was a victim of the unintended consequences of social physics, the science of how good ideas spread.

Walter Gropius with Chicago Tribune Competition drawing, 1922, Harvard Art Museums
Gropius House (1938), Historic New England. (Listen to Radio Open Source: The Bauhaus in Your House)

Metaphysical Design

As design is evolving from the physical artifact to living systems, we need the permission to engage in the language of the metaphysical, by which I mean the social, economic, and political.

A philosopher and theologian once mused about the path of ideas as they spread through a culture. He traced that path from philosophy to art to music to culture and then, finally, to theology.

Adapted from The God Who Is There, Francis Schaeffer, 1968, for The Acceleration of Culture Shift.

As noted earlier, it takes time for people to go through the process of metaphysical transformation. In progressive theological circles, the process is described as construction, deconstruction, and reconstruction.

Richard Rohr - A Conversation On Order, Disorder, to Re-Order

And it’s only now, one hundred years after the genesis of the modernist Bauhaus movement that the faithful are going through this process. Our seven day week is a daily reminder of the process.

Pardon me while I draw from the religious experience of my early childhood, which is Krista Tippett’s typical approach to breaking down barriers by approaching her explorations of dialogue and conversation with empathy and curiosity.

To me, the Bauhaus represents the genesis of modern design education and practice.

Three: progress and the evolution of ideas

In the biblical Genesis, the first iteration for the creative process is three days. There are three days involving separation, but also increasing complexity: light, water, land. These basic materials of life are the foundation for the biological processes that will be built on them. The evolutionary process culminates in the emergence of vegetative life. These three days set the stage for what comes next.

The second iteration is another set of three days that correspond to the expansion and proliferation of the activity and life within the constraints of the possibilities afforded by light, water, and earth. The separation of life forms is described in relation to the three distinct domains of life: water, air, and land. The creative process culminated in the emergence of self-conscious sentient life: human beings.

The seventh day was a day of rest, to contemplate the work of creating.

Did not the hero of the story say, “Destroy this temple and I will raise it in three days”? One could say that the nation of Israel was another design iteration, involving greater complexity, the formation of a unified nation. There was a time to build, a time to tear down, and a time to rebuild.

The Elementary Forms + Primary Colors: Construction, Deconstruction + Reconstruction

The second temple set the stage for the next design iteration: a global community connected through the technology of print technology to a common narrative of overcoming the coercive power of empire through faith, hope, and love. Yet, the very ones committed to preserving the traditions perverted these core tenets of the faith into an ideology that united religion, commerce, and state into a theocratic empire that made a farce of their belief systems. The state, defined as a monopoly on the use of force, makes a mockery of faith, hope, and love, and takes the name of its God in vain. Religion co-opted by the state has been transformed into yet another industrial death cult, manufactured to be beautiful on the outside, but on the inside full of dead men’s bones.

faith hope love

Language is the expression of ideas by transforming electro-chemical signals in the brain into verbal symbols in the form of sound vibrations. Humans learned to communicate abstract ideas through physical representation as sound, then drawings, pictographs, paintings, pottery, sculpture, architecture, coins, alphabets, books, photographs, newspapers, magazines, radio, film, television, computers, digital networks, mobile devices, and cryptocurrencies. Design is the representation of an idea.

Sara Hendren: using design to manifest ideas in the world
BauType: Bayer Universal Type Family (a work in progress)

We often describe what came after the industrial revolution as the information revolution. For a time, as we were building the infrastructure for the internet, we were engaged in the creation of information architecture.

In the age of user experience design, we have been engrossed in the development of applications that build on top of the information and data we have collected so far to build the digital infrastructure and networks for our modern social architecture.

The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1563)

However, we now realize that the fascists and demagogues have been using our social architecture to rebuild the Tower of Babel that brought about the divisions that are now in the process of dismantling our illusions of democracy and economic progress. They were only ever designed to benefit a select few at the pinnacle of the pyramid scheme of market domination. In that sense, Gropius was prescient in his vision of a crystal symbol of a new faith. One might say that the symbol of our faith in world trade was burned to the ground in a single day.

What is our faith based on? Communism? Capitalism? Democracy? Theocracy? Architecture is ideology made manifest. But we have no idea what we are doing.

Nice Try! Germania: Architecture in a Fascist Utopia

Maybe, after millennia of design iterations, we need to rest and contemplate what we have created and reimagine a social architecture that is not about anthropocentrism and human-centred design, but on earth-centred symbiosis with the interconnected living systems of the planet.

Design systems are not limited to visual and typographic guidelines for screen-based technologies. We are living on a planet that is on fire because of human activity that is destroying the only life support system that we know of in this universe.

To get back to basic design principles, we need to reframe our problem by first answering the question, How might we find a way to live together without destroying each other?

BLDRS Collective: building leaders to design a resilient society

In the effort to build leaders to design a resilient society, we need a builders collective who are thinking through our most pressing design challenges to realize the kind of world we actuality want to live in. This means thinking about the effects of exponential change as we face the reality of the social arc, the curve that describes our trajectory as a species, in terms of population growth and consumption of the finite resources of the planet. To do so will centre our discussions around ideas for social organization that align with what we are finding works best in engaging the best of what it means to be human, to value humans far beyond the fictions we tell ourselves about capital, corporations, and nation states. This will mean reimagining our social architecture by learning from our failures.

Social Arc
Social Architecture

Let’s be clear that fascism, demagogues, patriarchy, misogyny, xenophobia, bigotry, violence, war, and genocide are failures that have been designed into the systems that we currently have. A simple history lesson should make this plain to the most reasonable of observers. For others, we must be patient, as they may not be as far along in the process of maturity to fully grasp reality. Willful ignorance can be a pernicious characteristic of our cultural biases, and I say this from experience. Our constitutions, no matter how much they have been amended are failures of imagination, since we are only now waking up to our failure to observe, listen, and reflect on how we got here.

Resilience: Reimagining our social architecture

I want to believe that humans can do better than this. The Bauhaus gives me hope that it is possible to reimagine our social architecture. The vector of time moves only in one direction: forward.

Bauhaus to tiny "haus": micro-home village in Modernist Berlin: Tinyhouse University
Bauhaus Book from the Bauhaus Movement

Design is evolving and after 100 years of modern design inspired by the Bauhaus, we are only scratching the surface. To further explore the evolving language and practice of design, listen to Jarrett Fuller’s conversations with Sara Hendren on inclusive design, Bruce Tharp on discursive design, and Mark Foster Gage on aesthetics.

For further reading, I have documented my journey in building a philosophy of metaphysical design through intellectual, emotional, and spiritual curiosity: The Language of Empire: Learning to speak the lingua franca of oppression.

For anyone interested in exploring the indigenous path of initiation into the spiritual life of those who were resisting the oppression of empire, I have been listening to Nomad Podcast and felt enlightened and inspired by a reframing of ancient sacred narratives based on a modern understanding of the historical context: Alexander John Shaia – The Four-Fold Path of Transformation.

The builders collective is exploring how we can imagine, design, and build the future together. It’s the human project, inspired by finding the others and building a world where we can all live together. For inspiration, get involved with the Green New Deal, the Sunrise Movement, International Living Future Institute, Buckminster Fuller Institute, Center for Humane Technology, A Rocha, and Project Drawdown.