Bauhaus, Barcelona and Beyond
How one ‘house’, that stood for less than a year, profoundly changed the architecture that surrounds us now…
Chances are, if an architect is asked to name the most important building of the twentieth century, the likely answer will be, “The Barcelona Pavilion”. This quintessentially Modern structure occupied the space between austere, formal minimalism and elegant, material extravagance. It’s one of those monolith moments that informed what was to follow — a ‘before-and-after’ fulcrum in the history of architecture when a fusion of eastern and western ideas was set in stone.
The arts, crafts and aesthetics of Japan were the biggest single influence on twentieth-century Modernism. They were channelled into western design during the late 1870s via the conduit of Christopher Dresser’s own output and his import and export businesses. This had a knock-on effect in fine art when painters saw woodblock prints like Hokusai’s famous The Great Wave Off Kanagawa (1830s).
The age-old traditions of Japan seemed so fresh to eyes more accustomed to European visual culture and artists such as Aubrey Beardsley, Vincent van Gogh, Gustav Klimt, and Henri Matisse all absorbed aspects of oriental styles. By the interwar period, this influence had formed the foundations of Modernism, epitomised by Russian Suprematism and the principles — indeed the principals — of the German Bauhaus design school.
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was the last Principal of the Bauhaus, before its forced closure under the Nazi regime in 1933. Just four years earlier, he’d designed the Barcelona Pavilion with his partner Lilly Reich to represent the nation at the World Fair in Spain. In 1929, the Bauhaus had been at the height of its powers, officially endorsed by the progressive Weimar Republic of Germany. We should always remember how quickly such things can change!
In the Barcelona Pavilion, Meis brought together the values of several avant-garde movements including Constructivism and Suprematism from Russia, the Dutch De Stijl, and the combined ideology of Germany’s Deutscher Werkbund and Bauhaus. It’s all about balances — between severe simplicity and expensive elegance as well as formal and structural balance.
The materials are modern — lots of steel and big panes of glass under a vast roof of reinforced concrete. Though, here, luxury marbles feature prominently where grey concrete would’ve be used in a typical building of the Bauhaus. No expense was spared in procuring and transporting four distinctive forms of marble: golden onyx from the Atlas Mountains, creamy pale Roman travertine, Alpine and Greek green marble. The finest craft-workers were employed to expertly split and polish the huge blocks into impressive slabs for walls and floor.
So, was it truly in alignment with the Bauhaus mantra of “form follows function”? Well, remember this was a ‘World Fair’ pavilion for the 1929 Barcelona International Exposition showcasing German design, work quality and craft prowess. Its primary functions were to represent and leave a lasting impression. That I’m writing about its legacy 92 years later attests to is success at serving those functions!
It does remain in keeping with the motto of “truth to material” as extra effort was made to showcase the properties and innate beauty of the marble slabs. They were precisely split and deliberately arranged to create a cohesive ‘butterflied’ pattern, a visual rhythm with the revealed surfaces.
Using natural stone, brought from various sites to be united in the Pavilion, also forms part of the dialogue between building and landscape, between space and place. In some ways, Meis was prefiguring the concept of ‘site-and-non-site’ that Robert Smithson would expound in the 1960s. The natural marble is of the land but also has historic connotations as a building material, often seen in Neo-Classical palaces and temples. The formal purity of the Pavilion boldly proclaimed the demise of such fashion.
The Pavilion itself is a composition of oblong planes that interplay through a strict regimen of horizontal and vertical. The debt to Suprematism and De Stijl is evident from the floor plans and, through cleverly exploiting the properties of the materials, an almost gravity-defying illusion is achieved where the large slab of roof seems to float. There’s a ‘house-of-cards’ vibe made possible by the slender steel columns and their cross-shaped cross-sections along with the transparency of structural glass. This also brings added value to the interior walls, allowing them to be clearly viewed from outside.
Though definitely decorative, the selection of marble also had a purely functional purpose that fitted with the locale. The off-white travertine reflects the heat of the Basque sun. As well as a subtle humidifying action, the large rectilinear pond cools the air as it passes over its surface and the long curtain wall directs this freshened breeze through the roofed portions of the structure. The slight elevation of the land beyond, causing a gentle rise, helps to pull the air away as a continuous, cooled flow of freshness.
The broad-though-shallow pool is a feature seen alongside some traditional Japanese houses. Presumably, they played a similar ‘air-con’ role. Though there was another ingenious reason to feature such wide and very shallow ponds, usually in a courtyard or the shade of long low walls...
Sheltered from the breeze, the still surface offers a decorative reflection of the ever-changing sky. In keeping with the Japanese aesthetic concept of Shibui, this added a layer of complexity to the purity of the design. The water also served a practical purpose as it would reflect light into shady recesses. Not only that, but any ripples would also make even a subtle foreshock visible, giving some warning of a pending quake. Japan suffers earthquakes of varying intensity on a regular basis and such ponds acted as effective seismic detectors.
Obviously, if your village was at the epicentre of a serious earthquake, you’d know about it soon enough but, to the expert eye, the pattern of ripples could also convey information about the severity and point of origin of more distant tremors. So, one would have a good idea which nearby villages may have been affected and so which direction to travel to find those in need of assistance. Ingenious in its simple balance between beauty and function, a perfect illustration of the key Bauhaus tenets.
The threat of quake also led to wood and waxed paper being used widely as construction materials. These were flexible and resilient to tremors and, even if the edifice were to collapse, had minimised potential to cause further damage and injury. Their cheapness and availability also meant that reconstruction was quick and efficient, as was general maintenance.
Such materials also led to simple, elegant design, with light-weight roofs allowing broad, uninterrupted spans. The translucent paper walls were often constructed as sliding screens. These could be easily moved, allowing a closer relationship between the inside and outside, and presenting a choice of views that deliberately framed the natural surroundings.
As well as echoing this Asian aesthetic, Meis picked-up on the conversation between inside and out, playing games with thresholds so one is not immediately aware when transitioning from interior to exterior. The huge glass doors revolve on pinions, effectively forming new walls as they swivel to open or close. Relationships between interior and exterior spaces are changed and those boundaries blur. A flow through the spaces is also central to the layout. The passage of people and air is cleverly managed to provide natural movement, ventilation and cooling.
Bringing the holistic design ideology of the Bauhaus to Barcelona, Meis and Reich also designed seating specifically for the Pavilion. The ‘Barcelona Chair’ is now considered an icon of design and replicas are still in production. Its formal simplicity harmonises with the Pavilion, relying on the interplay of just two angled rectangles, making up the upholstered parts, united by frame of springy steel curves.
It was inspired by an ancient Roman folding chair known as a curule which were used by high-ranking officials and military leaders when receiving audiences. This may seem at odds with the Bauhaus philosophy of functional, affordable products for the people, but served the purpose of the Pavilion in two respects. They were intended to accommodate the Royal Reception that opened the World Fair and to be suitably sumptuous for such an occasion. Also, there was a poetic link with the Roman marble that provided their backdrop, a little ironic nod to that Neo-Classicism that was suddenly so passé.
The chairs also fulfilled the role of sculpture as the Pavilion was left otherwise bare, with no exhibits except Alba (Dawn) — a single, fairly traditional bronze figure by sculptor Georg Kolbe. The female nude stands in a smaller pond within an enclosed, partially roofed space that again plays with the ideas of inside and outside. Outlined against dark stone she reaches for the open sky above as the water reflects the play of light and shadow — a balance that gradually alters with the sun’s journey across the sky… a link to something that extends far beyond the local landscape.
The placement of this single statue emphasises the function of the surrounding structure and the connected volumes it contains or delineates. Placing the entire Pavilion on one single, unifying plinth presents the whole as a sculptural work in itself. The sets of chairs and matching stools within can also take on the role of objet when looked at, instead of sat on.
I would also argue that the rounded pebbles lining the bottom of the large pool can be considered as an installation. Not only do they interplay with the reflected sky, adding an extra dimension of Shibui, they also comment on the clean rectilinear lines of the precisely cut marble. Both the structural slabs and the pebbles have all been ‘worked’ — by human hand or by nature. So, like Alba, this links to something way beyond human scale: geological time. The eternity of stone and the comparative brevity of human artifice.
The Barcelona Pavilion had been designed as a sort of flat-pack building. Its components were manufactured elsewhere and quickly assembled on site. The process was reversed shortly after the end of the World Fair and within a year, no trace other than photographs and published reportage remained. Yet it’s originality and stylistic innovations resounded trough the world of architecture. It had transcended its specific historical context to become a piece of conceptual art.
Its influence spread across Europe and beyond. The pure lines, glass walls and floating roof echo through buildings as humble as petrol filling stations and bus depots, to towering London office blocks, and New York sky scrapers. The innovations represented in the Pavilion resonated with the work of other pioneering Modernist architects and can be clearly detected in the luxury homes designed by Frank Lloyd Wright across the USA, and Alvar Aalto’s municipal buildings for Finland.
Over the ensuing decades, it acquired such import that by the 1980s Barcelona-based architects campaigned for a reconstruction to be built. Extensive research uncovered the original foundations in situ and after referencing historical documents, photographs, and the original plans, a rebuild commenced. The materials were matched as closely as possible. The marbles were sourced from the same quarries and selected to best match the original colour gradients and grains. The replica now stands on the same site and is open for visitors to flow to and through…
* All images are used with license, or presented here for educational purposes under fair usage policy. Note that some of the photographs are by the author — please credit accordingly if used elsewhere.