The Crystalline Vision: Bauhaus and the Bible

“What is in the nature of these materials?”

The Bauhaus, founded in Germany in 1919 by architect Walter Gropius, had a profound influence in every area of design, from graphics and typography to clothing, furniture and architecture. The institution was not so much a style as a method, its philosophy based on the idea that if something is well-designed it will be beautiful of its own accord.

The means to this end involved the founding of an art school where every student was also a tradesman, and every tradesman was also an artist. The Bauhaus manifesto expressed Gropius’ desire to unite the trades and the arts that their works might possess the grace of an inseparable marriage, a union of function and form.

“Let us therefore create a new guild of craftsmen without the class-distinctions that raise an arrogant barrier between craftsmen and artists! Let us desire, conceive, and create the new building of the future together. It will combine architecture, sculpture, and painting in a single form, and will one day rise towards the heavens from the hands of a million workers as the crystalline symbol of a new and coming faith.”1

The original publication of the manifesto includes a crude impression of this “crystalline symbol,” a woodcut which has the appearance of a cathedral of glass filled with beams of light.

The name Bauhaus was derived from “hausbau,” which means construction, although inherent in Bauhaus thinking was not only the encouragement of new methods of design and construction but also the task of reconstruction. The Bauhaus process thus begins with a cleaning of the slate, paring things back to the basics and starting from scratch. Reconstruction necessitated a degree of deconstruction, and the rejection of the ornamental clutter of the 19th Century resulted not only in greater efficiency in design and production, but also in the subsequent affordability of mass produced items for the common man.

Raw materials became scarce during the Great Depression, so scavenging for scrap and redeeming it in the production of art was initially part of Bauhaus training. The student was to look afresh at objects which had outlived their usefulness and ask, “What is in the nature of these materials?” A stress was laid on texture, even in drawing, with the utilisation and imitation of wood, glass, wool and even hair.

The training was likewise “holistic,” designed to deconstruct and reconstruct the entire craftsman. The compulsory foundation course included breathing exercises and introspection, with an emphasis on the nature of the individual student as a raw material to be understood that it might be employed and appreciated.

A new beginning flows from a new logos, so new languages of construction were also required. “Color theory” and “design grammar” were formulated, codes with which we are familiar today, even if only subconsciously. The new vision was simplified without being folksy, functional without being industrial. Frequently relying on basic shapes — circles and squares — and on primary colors, its outcomes are both childlike and sophisticated. Ornament was eradicated. An austere geometrical “nakedness” was the new beautiful.

We know today that the simpler a tool appears to be, whether hardware or software, and the easier it is to use, the more thought and effort has gone into its design. Gropius’ shoe factory, with its walls of glass instead of brick, was designed to remove not only the mystique of manufacturing but also to communicate the hope of a new transparency, a world where the removal of compartmentalization and complication from life might also remove the disenfranchisement and limitations of class from society.

Paring things back to the basics was also an expression of the removal of history, cleaning the cultural house of its demons. For Bauhaus, the past was complicated and dirty and the future was found in clear lines of steel and glass. The Dessau Bauhaus, restored since the reunification of Germany, still stands as a testimony to his clear, though not always entirely practical, vision. The building lets in too much sunlight.

This philosophy, with its practice of submitting people, materials, form and color to scientific laws, was a child of the scientism of the times, but as with any form of self-discipline, voluntary constraints led to prolific innovation. However, the freedom of expression encouraged by the Bauhaus was a shock to the working class people in its industrial locations, and its cultural openness was a concern for the Nazis, whose new world was in reality a deification of the old country.

The Second World War meant that the benefits of the foundations laid in the brief fourteen year history of the Bauhaus were not initially reaped by Germany but by the nations into which many of its creators fled. The steel and glass skyscrapers which grew first in America and now beautify every major city owe their existence to the “crystalline vision” of Walter Gropius.

The German “higher criticism” of the Holy Scriptures was born of the same desire to deconstruct and reconstruct, though with less honorable motives. Moses was considered a part of the history which needed to be cast off that there might be a brighter future. The immediate consequences of the abolition of Adam were eugenics, tyrannies and genocides.

Although these bitter fruits are now condemned, their doctrinal foundations still underpin modern secularism. Much like the Bauhaus, the rejection (or clever revision) of the past is considered to be a clean slate for the future. Postmodernism is an unwitting acknowledgement that the “crystalline vision,” though effective in architecture, is ineffective when it comes to people with a corrupt nature.

Modernism deconstructed the cultus and attempted to reengineer the culture. But true culture flows only from cultus. Deep breathing and introspection are helpful, but they fail to deal with corruption of heart, the true nature of the raw materials. Deconstruction through conviction of the Spirit, expressed in repentance and faith, is the only truly clean slate. The Law of Moses cuts us to our hearts that God might then bring us to Christ. The knife of God is indeed unpleasant, and often brutal, but it is only ever a temporary measure, that the waters of the crystal sea might stand up as the walls and gates of righteous judgment, a crystal city for the people of God.

The attempt by higher critics to deconstruct Moses is thus an ironic reversal. Seeking to discern the means by which the Scriptures were assembled, as though they were recycled parts of other documents haphazardly cobbled together, they failed to recognise the careful “Covenant-literary” architecture of the Words of God. The text of the Bible does indeed appear to be a shambles to varying degrees to the modern mind, but the Bible is constructed organically. These “scientists” of literature mistook the design for ornament. The Bible has many parts yet its apparent randomness is not evidence of tampering. Like the best of the Bauhaus, its varied facets are one in function and form, and I believe Walter Gropius would likely have appreciated it very much if it were explained to him.

The structure of the Bible is fractalline, and it is so because it is crystalline, a haus capable of infinite growth whose every part is a miniature of the whole. This crystal city, established on a foundation of circles and squares, is constructed of Spirit-filled artisans like Aholiab and Bezalel, and the carpenter-Christ. These men understood not only that every material could be redeemed to glorify God, but also that the leaven of a soiled history could only be cut off through the shedding of sacrificial blood. The world can only be reconstructed with guidance from a holy man with a vision from God. The eternal city is a city with a soul, and its heart is the purity of the lamb.

The crystalline vision of St John is the only true way forward. A culture of clean lines must begin with a clean heart, the “nakedness” of transparency, the knife of God rather than the swords and scalpels of men. The present might be postmodern but the future is postmillennial, a city where function and form are united in the beauty of holiness.

The wall was built of jasper, 
while the city was pure gold, 
clear as glass. (Revelation 21:18)

Mike Bull is a graphic designer in the Blue Mountains of Australia, and author, most recently, of Sweet Counsel.

References   [ + ]

1. The Bauhaus’s incantatory ‘Manifesto’ formed part of the prospectus in which Walter Gropius presented the programme of the newly founded college of design in 1919, using Lyonel Feininger’s ‘Cathedral’ woodcut as the title image. The Bauhaus Director’s proclamation focuses on the need for the fine arts to be unified under the primacy of architecture and for a return to craftsmanship in order to reveal the ‘craft quality’ as the ‘ultimate source of creative design’.