Last year Monoskop delighted the architecture and art community by making many of the Bauhaus publications available to freely download. As a perennial fan of all types of architecture communication, I had previously written about the exceptional qualities of Bauhaus-produced books and journals and how these visual teaching tools ultimately influenced more recent, canonical publications. Below we share an edited excerpt from “Architects’ Books: Le Corbusier and The Bauhaus,” a chapter from the larger research project, Redefining The Monograph: The Publications of OMA and Rem Koolhaas.
As the Bauhaus operated in a generally experimental and revolutionary status, the information taught was not unified in any particularly accessible form. The Bauhausbücher were produced in order to expose the elements of the Bauhaus education to the original, small student body. These books later proved invaluable when the school was closed by the National Socialist Government in 1933, their contents holding authentic records of Bauhaus education. Merging theory and practice, the books, designed by Moholy-Nagy, are a testament to his creative ideas. He saw traditional forms of information dissemination as supplying information to students without stressing the relevance and relationship to the world in which they were living. His books sought to clarify these relationships through stimulating images and insightful (though at times lengthy and ethereal) text.
Much of Moholy-Nagy’s work drew influence from the futurist poets, Dadaists and the Russian Constructivists. Their use of imaginative expression embodied the idea of a unified experience of textual media with visual communication. In these avant-garde works, harsh diagonals and bold text suggest the style of contemporaneous advertisements. The futurist emphasis on youth, speed and technology reflected the changes that the Bauhaus sought to incorporate into its style. Futurist typography communicated movement and captured dynamic thought processes.
Whereas earlier prominent book designers, like William Morris, saw mass-production, typesetting and standardization as a detriment to the quality of publications, others embraced the new technology as an opportunity to take the art of book making to a more technological level. In his discussion of the “new typography” Moholy-Nagy explains,
The new book production, which has to be understood on the scale of a library rather than a single volume, must and will utilize the pertinent findings of publicity and propaganda where the communication has to be measured in terms of economical effectiveness. Catalogs of merchandise, illustrated advertising, posters on billboards, front pages of tabloid newspapers, move toward inventive visual articulation.
Dull or low-quality typography was avoided through the use of devices such as position, size and pictorial composition. The Dadaists and futurists ascribed to these methods, abandoning traditional horizontal typesets. Moholy-Nagy warned however, that typological shorthand easily loses meaning and becomes merely decorative; thus it was important to understand the fundamentals of typography. He lauded the modernist magazines and advertisements for achieving the right blend of simultaneous action with refined organization.
In his book Bauhaus, Modernism and the Illustrated Book, Alan Bartram suggests that the Bauhaus indeed operated with the language of advertising. Stationery, posters and the Bauhausbücher all exhibited the “aggressive” Bauhaus style and typography. This provocative style, however, was not necessarily always accessible or easy to read. In many of his books, Moholy-Nagy used strange notations and dismissed the convention of using indents to mark new paragraphs. As futurist poetry demonstrated, however, the “expressive presentation of content” the Bauhaus artists held so important did not always result in clear communication.
The trademarks of the “Bauhauserie” include heavy rules, large numbers and headings, shapes (arrows, circles and squares) and vertically or angled typesets. While the main text of the books did not always follow these trademarks, some of the illustrations in the books, particularly charts, display this dynamic aesthetic. These books are meant to be picked up, opened to an arbitrary page and flipped-through. The inclusion of many photographs leaves the text as secondary to the image. In Moholy-Nagy’s book Malerei, Fotografie, Film (Painting, Photography and Film), he explained that unlike traditional books (in which illustrations supplement texts) the text in his book supplemented the image. This is striking, but yet understandable. The Bauhaus designers maintained that the connections made visually between images in a book, or what one experiences in quotidian life are more important than the text that illuminates it. The purpose was not to instruct what to see, but how to process that which is seen.
The new concept of space developed by the Bauhaus was not limited to three-dimensional built space. Moholy-Nagy and other important teachers in the school played with traditional page layouts and created new designs that manipulated and challenged established conventions of book design. Emphasizing the visual qualities of a page, the books edify through textual content as well as through the principles of design expressed in the layout.
The publications put forth by the Bauhaus reflected a revitalized take on the collaboration between the visual and built arts. In von material zu architektur and later in Vision in Motion, Moholy-Nagy incorporated photography, literature, poetry and other forms of art to create a novel design teaching tool.
Whereas books in the traditional sense are carefully read for their textual content, art and architecture readers will scan and look, arrested by things that are literally (and figuratively) bold. The importance of the images is underscored by the general weakness of the Bauhausbüchermain body texts. At times lofty and repetitive, the passages occasionally act merely as filler. When these books are read critically however, it is apparent that they are true works of complete art. The deliberateness with which they were designed is the ultimate testament to the design principles contained within. Pushing the limits of book design, Moholy-Nagy and his contemporaries set the stage for the publication of the elaborate, intricate architecture books which Koolhaas brought to the mainstream.