embracing schawinsky and the bauhaus

On my Christmas holiday in December 1969, I had the great privilege of seeing the landmark 50 years bauhaus exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario. It also traveled to Stuttgart, London, Amsterdam, Paris, Chicago, and Pasadena. I kept the monumental catalogue, which I’m looking at now. It was printed sans serif with not one word capitalized. I’ve done that for my title and headings but – trust me – it would offend the eye for the entire post.

schawinsky’s platonic memory

Among the many impressive paintings, the one that most resonated with me was by Xanti Schawinsky, one of the less well-known Bauhuaslers, entitled Platonic Memory. Here is an image, regrettably in black and white, as is the image in the catalogue. I reached out to Schawinsky after I saw the exhibit, and he sent me a photographic negative. The painting is in yellows, oranges, and reds, with the brightest elements in the centre and on the right.

The title suggests a memory of something that is transcendent and abstract. Are there concrete images you see in the painting? I can imagine clouds, mountains and valleys, the flow of lava, even crumpled-up tinfoil. Perhaps the Platonic transcendence and abstraction occurs because there are many interpretations of this painting.

I tried to track the painting online, but to no avail. Schawinsky died in 1979 and if he owned it, he passed it on long ago. I found sales of hundreds of his paintings on MutualArt.com and Artnet.com, but Platonic Memory was not among them. This mystery makes the memory still more Platonic.

finding identity at the bauhaus

The search for identity, theorized by Erik Erikson, is the work of teens and young adults. The search is multi-faceted, including work, religion, politics, a circle of friends, sexual identity, and a personal aesthetic. This exhibit introduced me to the Bauhaus, and it was enormously important in formulating my aesthetic identity. I embraced Bauhaus style: functionalism; integration art, design, and technology; clean lines; and the absence of ornamentation (as in the sans serif print). In the late Sixties, my generation was interested in and experimenting with communes and communal living. The Bauhaus was a quintessential artistic and creative commune, and that appealed to me enormously (not that I ever tried communal living).

My interest in the Bauhaus led me to consider architecture as a career, but I soon realized I didn’t have the artistic talent. Still, I could appreciate architecture as observer.

a lifelong influence

In the spring of my senior year (1971), a girlfriend and I borrowed her parents’ car one day to drive around the Boston suburbs. In Lincoln, we a saw a dramatic modern house, and I suggested we compliment the owner. It was the house Gropius designed for his family. His wife Ise, recently widowed, graciously gave her unexpected visitors a grand tour. I remember her showing us the external staircase leading to their daughter’s room, commenting that she deserved privacy for her visitors. How progressive!

The Gropius House is now a national landmark, with guided tours. We had our tour 15 years before the first official tour.

I’ve also been fascinated by the Frank Lloyd Wright, not a Bauhausler, but certainly a kindred spirit. I’ve toured his homes in Oak Park, Falling Water, and the Darwin Martin House in Buffalo. I look forward to returning to the latter when the restoration is finally completed.

We live in the Toronto suburb of Don Mills, recognized as Canada’s first planned community, built in the early Seventies on land assembled from the IBM country club and E.P. Taylor’s Windfields Estate. The original houses, like ours, are more functional than distinctive, and don’t fully cover the large lots. They are rapidly being replaced by monster homes with all the modern conveniences, but the external shells of British country manors, Tuscan villas, French chateaux, or ersatz mixtures of the three styles. Perhaps they are doing this to mimic the housing styles in the “old money” districts of Rosedale and Forest Hill. Or perhaps they think that modern architecture uses too much glass and would encroach on their privacy. Nonetheless, I am appalled by my neighbours’ taste.

Late in my term as chair of the Department of Management at the University of Toronto at Scarborough, Principal Paul Thompson realized that we had outgrown our space in the original landmark brutalist Humanities wing and approved the construction of a new Management building. I served on the building committee and had a wonderful opportunity to observe the practice of architecture by working with the architects. We chose Toronto-based KPMB Architects and collaborated with partners Bruce Kuwabara and Shirley Blumberg. I came to realize that the essential three-sided challenge is to create an aesthetically attractive building that meets the users’ needs within the available budget.

I find it paradoxical that, while so much private architecture attempts to revive the styles of previous centuries, most public architecture embraces the modernity of the Bauhaus, as does our building. The new Management building is sited on the edge of a hill, overlooking a treed valley to the west. (We occupied the building from 2004 until 2011. Continued growth led to another building, funded in part by the Harper Government’s Economic Action Plan.)

The day I finished packing up my office last fall was warm and sunny and in the afternoon I took a nostalgic tour around the campus. Here are photos of that Management building from the outside and of the inner atrium looking west. The natural light in the atrium shimmers, testimony to the architects’ talent.

I was able to spend my last day at the office celebrating this unexpected opportunity to pursue my passion for architecture, ignited long ago by the Bauhaus exhibit.

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