Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen’s State of the Union speech this week pitched at least one extraordinary proposal: the establishment of a new cultural aesthetic, a ‘European Bauhaus.’
History tells us that that twentieth century cultural movements arise from distinct political or social conditions.
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Modernism and her numerous offspring sought an authentic response to burgeoning industrialization, urbanization and consumerism in the West, while postmodernism charted a departure from the ideologies that had buttressed the modernist cause, seeking to prioritize the experience of the individual, in all its absurd guises.
Regardless of their theoretical backgrounds, such cultural movements are bearers of a fearsome and insatiable creative spirit, attempting to find an outlet for their responses to the contemporary world. They are all reactionary.
In her State of the Union address this week, Von der Leyen championed a new cultural movement to emerge that would respond to the social and existential catastrophe that plights the modern age: the climate crisis.
“Every movement has its own look and feel,” she told members of the European Parliament on Wednesday. “And we need to give our systemic change its own distinct aesthetic – to match style with sustainability.”
“This is why we will set up a new European Bauhaus – a co-creation space where architects, artists, students, engineers, designers work together to make that happen,” she added.
The use of the term ‘Bauhaus’ here is perhaps somewhat misplaced – being as it is associated with the pioneering German art school which existed until 1933 and was conceived under the umbrella of modernism, in response to its own specific social and political conditions.
The school was eventually disbanded by Hitler, with many of its proponents emigrating to the US and the UK. Many Bauhaus designers and architects fled also from Nazi Germany to the British mandate of Palestine, Israel today. Tel Aviv has largest number of buildings in the Bauhaus style in any city in the world and was proclaimed as the “White City” and a World Cultural Heritage site in 2003 by UNESCO.
The Nazis considered Bauhaus a ‘degenerative’ aesthetic. It was labelled as ‘un-German’ and an example of a certain cosmopolitan modernism to be reviled.
The principles behind this movement, which bore some of Europe’s finest designers of the 20th century, included the mass production of furniture and household items produced in adherence to the ‘form follows function’ trope. An example of this is Marcel Breuer’s ‘Wassily Chair,’ which became one of the most recognizable emblems of Bauhaus design.
In the context of Wednesday’s speech, the motif that Von der Leyen employed which is comparable to Bauhaus’s ‘form follows function’ theme, was her pledge to ‘match style with sustainability.’
The zeitgeist of the contemporary period – responding to an ecological crisis invoked by unsustainable methods of industrial production, should therefore be embodied in this ‘distinct aesthetic’ that Von der Leyen refers to. But what would such an aesthetic look like?
Reflecting on the current ‘climate crisis’ narrative, Gitte Zschoch, director of the EU National Institutes for Culture, has some ideas.
“In taking to the streets in a public show of solidarity with the climate cause, it’s a very visible culture,” Zschoch told me earlier this week.
“It’s also a movement that’s not aggressive or violent, even though it’s very strong in its demands. Moreover, it’s an informal collective, but there are clear leaders – young women like Greta Thunberg, who express themselves in calm but confident ways.”
Von der Leyen’s marriage of style and sustainability in design and architecture would in this respect acquire a certain set of characteristics. It could embody, for example, a harmonised, composed, but resolute and firm style, in a way that is environmentally friendly and sustainable.
A practical model of this, Zschoch says, could be in the urban planning space and the way our cities are redesigned in the future.
“Take Brussels, for instance. Even today in 2020, it’s city that is built entirely around the car,” she said.
“As a pedestrian or a bicycle rider in Brussels, you feel oppressed by the traffic in the city, like you’re not in power at all, as if you’re at the very bottom of the ladder.”
“This is an aesthetic that needs to change. We should have an approach that puts the human being at the centre and not the car, in our modern European cities.”
But it’s not just about environmental sustainability. A broader trend towards sustainable and equitable modes of living has also been charted across gender, race and class relations in the West.
Urban development should therefore reflect such movements, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the way Europe faces its colonial history.
How Von der Leyen adopts a stance on the plague of colonial statues that remains on the European metropolitan landscape, will be telling to the sincerity of her ‘style meets sustainability’ pitch.
But despite understanding the concerns here, the Commission is reluctant to tell EU member states what to do with their colonial furnishings.
“I come from a place where we really didn’t like seeing Stalin’s statues. So, I have an understanding for this,” Commission Vice-President for Values and Transparency, Věra Jourová, told me earlier this week.
“But it’s for the people to decide, there should be a debate and it should be the part of a wider public discussion about our recent history.”
That which comes forth from Von der Leyen’s ‘European Bauhaus’ and the ‘style meets sustainability’ concept will certainly be pioneering in the sense that world leaders tend not to be associated with imploring a creative aesthetic borne from a generational, social movement.
And while this ‘top-down’ approach may be unsavoury to some, that very fact makes it a revolutionary and unique enterprise that many across European cultural, artistic, and environmental sectors have high hopes for.
BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, The Brussels Times’ Samuel Stolton helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels.If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.