Bauhaus in Denmark: modernism and funkis

2022 update: Realdania event

Last updated: 31 July 2018; KB Hallen? American Embassy? Nan Dahlkild (again) companion piece to Fiona MacCarthy; vid & another; Carsten Thau

Famously, there is no Bauhaus in Denmark. The works of Edvard Heiberg and (early) Arne Jacobsen come closest, although a 2022 Realdania event also cites PH and Viggo Møller-Jensen‘s own houses.

While there are links between Bauhaus and contemporary movements in Denmark, the latter tended – and tend – to take a less utopian and internationalist approach, being rather more design led.

Vi lader os ikke imponere af Størrelse, Tempo, det grandiose, det gigantiske.

(Trans: “We will not allow ourselves to be impressed by size, pace, the grandiose, the gigantic.”)

Well, quite.

The reception of inter-war modernism in Denmark was fairly clear-cut at the time. Between 1926-28 the journal Kritisk Revy, edited by Poul Henningsen (of PH lamp fame, but also a formidable cultural commentator), published a series of articles critical of the Bauhaus, Le Corbusier and De Stijl in the Netherlands, accusing them of formalism and the lack of a human (or even practical) dimension. The 1928 visit to Copenhagen of Hannes Meyer, soon to succeed Walter Gropius as director of the Bauhaus, and publication of his manifesto på dansk gave rise to an article in Arkitekten likening Gropius’ house in Dessau to a dentist’s waiting room.

Notes:

  • more of this from Kaare Klint (Bo Bedre; more), who explicitly built on Danish tradition in his designs rather than “throwing the baby out with the bath water”; see eg the Faaborg Chair; it’s even taught in the grundskole
  • reviews of the Design Museum exhibition from Berlingske and Politiken stress the point that Denmark rejected the Bauhaus’ (and Constructivists) revolutionary modes of thinking in favour of evolution; too radical for Weimar, too radical for Denmark? more refined, or less honest? Mies’ 1929 Barcelona chair, or Kaare Klint’s wooden number? at the time the museum bought only one item. Mies’ Barcelona chair
  • modernism only really took hold in DK after WW2, as industrial production took the place of håndværkeri 
  • directors: Meyer vs Mies

There were some exchanges on the ground. Edvard Heiberg, who had previously worked in Le Corbusier’s studio, taught at the Bauhaus for three months in 1930, lending his expertise to designs for housing in Tørten and the furniture for the Trade Union School in Bernau. He lodged in one of the masters’ houses, which he described as “badly insulated and undemocratic in form”. (Both points contain more than a grain of truth.) Heiberg resigned shortly after Meyer was deposed and returned to Denmark.

Artist Vilhelm Bjerke Petersen was a student at the Bauhaus from autumn 1930 to spring 1931, where he was taught by Kandinsky and Klee. This influenced his graphical style in particular. Petersen later adopted surrealism. That’s all we know.

The clearest link between the Bauhaus and Denmark can be seen in their mutual stress on good craftsmanship, as seen in the early days of the Bauhaus in Weimar and in the Danish Cooperative Movement’s popular range of wooden furniture. Launched in 1942, FDB chairs and tables ceased production in 1983, before making a return in 2013. But ever since PH put down his poison pen a tendency in Danish discourse has castigated the Bauhaus, and modernism more broadly, as just not Danish.

A 2008 booklet on inter-war architecture has portraits of 20 buildings. It’s a little book with a big agenda; the language often feels subjective, utilising words such as “naked”, “sober”, “factory-like”. At the foot of each entry is a carefully chosen contemporary quote, reinforcing the impression that Bauhaus buildings are cold and clinical, ‘ungenerous’ and lacking ‘human scale’, features frequently extolled as exclusively Danish in parts of the architectural press.

The 2019 Bauhaus centenary attracted a mixed reaction. CAFx’s comprehensive Bauhaus anniversary stream was counterbalanced by the Design Museum’s Bauhaus – #itsalldesign (EN) exhibition, while no holds were barred by Politiken, who enquired (Kultur, 19 Jan): “er [Bauhaus] menneskefjendsk?” I think we know where this is going.

Highlights from the six page feature, headlined Bauhaus, Metal. Form. Farve. Frisind. Rædsel. included a full page photo of Mies’ Seagram Building from err…1958, noting that Arne Jacobsen copied its curtain wall for his Royal Hotel in Copenhagen. A selection of picture spots focused on desirable objects (Walter Gropius’ door handle, Peter Keler’s cradle, Marcel Breuer’s B3 chair, all from the Weimar period), with buildings represented by inter alia Mies’ Barcelona Pavilion (1929, prior to his short stint at the Bauhaus) – and Edvard Heiberg’s house in Virum (1924, ditto).

Several contemporary pundits were asked for their views. In short, much was made of the industrialisation of architecture and its processes, plus the (perceived) junking of national traditions:

  • Dorte Mandrup: “Vi står alle på skuldrene af Bauhaus for ideen om, at arkitektens rolle ikke bare er at skabe det skønne”
  • Carsten Thau (KADK) cited Henningsen at length: “der var kommet en ingeniørmæssig kulde ind i projektet. Der var en teknokratisk ånd…de kulturradikale ville ikke opgive ideen om, at vi også havde en hjemlig kultur. Der skulle være en kontinuitet i forhold til byggeskik med brug af mursten og vingetejl i dialog med leret i den dansk undergrund”
  • the director of the Design Museum, while conceding Bauhaus influence in Erik Magnussen’s termokande and Arne Jacobsen’s lænke i rustfrit stål; felt that Børge Mogensen’s folkestol “siger bare ikke: Se mig, jeg er lavet på en fabrik”

The Bröhan Museum’s Nordic Design. Die Antwort aufs Bauhaus (again; event & again) exhibition in Berlin, supported by the Nordic embassies, came up with Kindheit, demokratisches Design und Hygge as core values for modernist architecture, together with a complete break with Funktionalismus, but again, the focus was on the post-WW2 period. Meanwhile a Byrummonitor column made the point that the Constructivists were at least as influential in the inter-war period, along with a whole range of other national movements.

There seems to be a level of talking past each other and reinterpretation going on here, with the Bauhaus standing in for modernism up to PoMo and beyond. Inter-war modernism in Denmark was even known as funktionalisme (funkis for short), and consisted of two main styles:

  • international functionalism; buildings similar to those found outside Denmark, often in white cubist style with flat roofs, experimenting with concrete and other new materials; see Arne Jacobsen’s white factory (1935)
  • national functionalism; rather more widespread; buildings incorporating Danish traditions and materials, making use of brick and tiled roofs, such as Virum Torv (1937)

The first funkis house was built as early as 1924 by Edvard Heiberg, prior to his 1930 visit to the Bauhaus. The 1930 Stockholm Exhibition really kickstarted things in the Nordics, with new housing complexes, built in parallel blocks rather than around an internal courtyard, built during the 1930s and early 1940s; see for example Arne Jacobsen’s Bellavista.

The importance of the vernacular can be seen in the design for Aarhus University, now part of the Danish Cultural Canon. The design follows the Bernau Trade Union School layout in a freer form, with staggered blocks built of yellow brick and curved roof tiles following the undulating terrain.

Happily though on the ground it’s a different story from the prevailing discourse. We often go funkis spotting, and there are some gems to be found, both in Copenhagen and beyond – not least in Næstved; see Farimagsvej 10, which I was unable to photograph but would look quite at home in Gdynia, and the spectacular Staalgaarden from 1934.

Sources and notes: ‘Bauhaus og Danmark: fra eksperimenterende håndværk til industrielt design’ (in Architectura 2006:28:23-52) | Edvard Heibergs eget hus | Den store bog om Brugsens møbler og historien om Det Gode Liv | FDB-stolen: Folkets klassiske møbler genoplives | Ideernes Kobenhavn: en guide til mellemkrigstidens byggeri (Golden Days 2008) | Rasmus Friis: Rentemestervej 14 (extensive doc in Dropbox)

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