Walter Gropius's century-old school strongly influenced Hong Kong's cityscape and continues to shape a Gen Z-led future
“You can still see some really nice Bauhaus architecture in Kowloon (the exclusive Kadoorie Hill) and parts of Happy Valley, which means the style must have been very popular in Hong Kong," says Cornell-trained, Hong Kong-based architect and art collector William Lim.
"Unfortunately, with the city's rapid development, a lot of the Bauhaus buildings no longer exist. I do think the Bauhaus utilitarian concept strongly influenced the design of public housing in Hong Kong."
About that he's not wrong. The Garden Company headquarters in Sham Shui Po, Hong Kong's first bakery and confectionery maker, created its iconic masterpiece of Bauhaus-inspired design in 1956, which was subsequently rated a Grade 2 historic building. However, despite ongoing pressure from conservationists, the building's owner last year received the Town Planning Board's approval to redevelop the five-floor site into a 25-storey, HK$2.3 billion commercial and office building space, on condition that five elements be preserved; that the owner keep the clock face, the red wall behind it, the two logos and the word 'Garden' on the sign.
While acknowledging other landmarks as signature Bauhaus-influenced landmarks – Hong Kong City Hall (1962, architects Ronald Phillips and Alan Fitch), the General Post Office (1976, architect KM Tseng), Hong Kong Arts Centre, Wan Chai (Shanghai architect Tao Ho) and the rainbow-coloured, relentlessly Instagramed Choi Hung Estate (1964), many of Hong Kong's public housing estates were built quickly and cheaply in Bauhaus spirit to accommodate Chinese refugees in the 1950s. Lim cites the wet markets (Bridges Street Market, 1951, the first government-built indoor market) during the city's colonial period as being most eye-catching.
"The most beautiful is Wan Chai Market, from which only the facade now remains, and the largest is perhaps the Central Market which seems to be under a permanent form of restoration."
Although Bauhaus was always architecture-related, it was a spirit of ideological thinking about art, craft and design during the age of industrialisation, Lim says. "Many Bauhaus theorists, like [Wassily] Kandinsky and [Paul] Klee, were important artists rather than designers. That seems very relevant today, when architecture, art and design have become so whimsical in the last decade that people are going back to search for its essence, and to look at architecture and design again as artistic expression with a spirit and good intention, not just a mere obsession with forms and whims."
The Staatliches Bauhaus school of art and design, founded 100 years ago and developed between the two world wars by Walter Gropius, was an attempt to generate a holistic concept of architecture (clean lines and minimal aesthetic) which consolidated all trades and experts from multiple nations, all working together in a flat hierarchy of masters and pupils. It was fuelled by an idea called Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art) in which all arts would be combined, and whose 'form-follows-function' mantra would be invoked in architecture.
"Architects, painters and sculptors must relearn to know and understand the complex form of the construction as a whole and in its element," wrote Gropius in his original Bauhaus manifesto. "Then their works will be filled again with the architectonic spirit that they lost in the art of the drawing room."
Gropius assembled a stellar inventory of founders and contributors during its brief but highly resonant 14-year existence (1919-1933): Anni Albers (director of the Bauhaus weaving workshop), Wassily Kandinsky (Russian artist and head of painting), Oskar Schlemmer (sculptor and choreographer), Marianne Brandt and Marcel Breuer (industrial product designers, the former the first woman admitted to the Bauhaus school's metal workshop), Lyonel Feininger (illustrator), Herbert Bayer (graphic designer, typographer), and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (architect, who replaced Gropius in 1930). And on the movement's 100th anniversary this year, a new Bauhaus Museum opened in Weimar, Germany and another in Dessau.
Gropius felt the old art schools were incapable of such unity, that they must turn again to workshops. "The universe of model draughtsmen and of those who work in applied arts, a universe where one limits oneself to drawing and painting, must finally rediscover the universe of building," he said.
The international style developed and evolved. The Bauhaus masters considered the needs of people, families and communities to achieve affordable, sustainable and practical design of apartments and buildings, and later, furniture and objects for daily use. It pervaded everything, and its new objectivity spread beyond mere architecture, as a pioneering fusion of fine art, craftsmanship, and technology applied across painting, sculpture, design, film, photography, textiles, fashion, typeface design, ceramics, and even theatre.
Today more than ever, and nowhere in the world more than Hong Kong, the issue of affordable housing is preeminent. "Housing and living is the first and most important need of humans," says Christophe Schuhmacher, vice president of RIB Software, a Stuttgart-based company that pioneers the digitisation of the construction industry via the planning of smart cities on cloudbased technology platforms. RIB is also the producer of a documentary, Bauhaus Meets Hong Kong, showing as part of Projekt Berlin festival at Hong Kong's Tai Kwun in November.
"Bauhaus elaborated on this premise with the incoming technologies of the last century, which was rebar-enforced concrete, steel, metal furniture (bending lightweight steel tubes). An entire concept, forced out of Germany by dramatic political changes of anti-modernists at that time, lead quickly to an unprecedented impact on global planning and building on the level of single houses, apartment buildings and high-rise technology, shapingthe modern cities of this planet, all based on the Bauhaus idea," says Schuhmacher.
The universe of model draughtsmen and of those who work in applied arts, a universe where one limits oneself to drawing and painting, must finally rediscover the universe of building
And much like then, technology is at the forefront of Bauhausian aspiration. "We are asking in our documentary, what would have been possible 100 years ago and what is possible today when the Bauhaus vision meets the latest digital technologies," says Schuhmacher. "The age of industry 4.0, artificial intelligence and cloud is leading to optimised resource planning and allows digital modulation, multiple virtual model testing which will lead to optimised buildings and support innovative construction technologies."
Call it the next Bauhaus revolution: "Moving fast in active collaboration with the global IT powerhouses Microsoft and Autodesk for this most important construction vertical, the Bauhaus 4.0 is ready to support all owners, designers, builders, tenants, nations, people, governments (all stakeholders) with out of-the-box cloud solutions.
"Through Bauhaus 4.0 (Bauhaus Meets Hong Kong) we will open the thinking process to use the digital technology of our century, to overcome the issue of the lack of affordable living space for Generation Z, and provide smart living conditions."
On the subject of smart living, fashion label COS – part of the H&M Group – has created Archive Editions, a 13-piece capsule collection inspired by and celebrating, 100 years of Bauhaus and its affiliated artists. The range is currently available in stores.
While it might not be the course Gropius had foreseen for his utopian school of architecture, he would have applauded such collective spirit.