It’s no secret that Edmonton is a city that loves its ‘out-there’ architecture—just take a look at the newest downtown library some have dubbed the “Bibliotank.” Anyway, if you walk down Jasper or anywhere downtown, you can see some prime examples of brutalism, minimalism, and bauhaus design, and a recent exhibit inside the Harcourt House’s Art Incubator and Main Gallery pays homage to the latter.
For a little background, the Bauhaus School of Design was founded in 1919 in Weimar, Germany by Walter Gropius, a modernist avant-garde artist who wished to reimagine the material world under the term Gesamtkunstwerk (the unity of all the arts, architecture, and design). Simply, anything that was used in a person’s day to day—no matter their socioeconomic background—could be considered art if it was functionable: chairs, sinks, beds, etc.
Edmonton and the Bauhaus is both parts a fascinating lesson in Bauhaus art history and an appreciative look at how the school of design has influenced Edmonton architecture post Second World War. The exhibition—curated by Harcourt House’s executive director Jacek Malec—uses scanned architectural prints, photographs, and a few quintessential Bauhaus chairs to show the progression of Bauhaus and its ever-lasting influence.
In the first gallery, wall-mounted prints that explain and detail the Bauhaus School of Design are aligned in order. If you’re a fan of significant art history, then you will revel in this bit of the exhibition.
A replica of Gerrit Reitveld’s “Red and Blue Chair,” an elaborate piece of furniture that looks surprisingly comfy, sits on a mantle in the middle of the exhibit. In the corner, a replica of Josef Hartwig’s “Bauhaus Chess Set,” minimalist, but functional. On another wall sit prints of rarely seen archival photographs by Lucia Moholy of the Bauhaus era. You can see first hand how the school looked inside and out before the Nazis regime led to its closure.
The Bauhaus School of Design shifted its focus to architecture in 1927 when the school moved to Dessau, Germany and that’s sort of where Edmonton comes in. The Bauhaus movement stressed that “a building’s form was derived purely from its function and every form of decoration was regarded as useless or even harmful to its design, for it interfered with mass production,” Malec says.
It’s a very German form of thought, but many countries jumped on it due to it being the most cost effective. Buildings relied on inexpensive materials, something many countries would be all for after playing cleanup from the world wars.
Scans of the floor plans of four Edmonton buildings—the Ellis Building, the AGT Building (now the Legislature Annex Building), the Northwest Utilities Building (now the Milner Building), and the Harcourt House itself—are wall mounted in the Main Gallery. The layout of the room is like an architect student’s wet dream and from an outsider perspective, the amount of detail that went into every design is quite staggering.
“Here we are looking at the pencil drawings of the architecture that are so deliberate and exact that we consider them art,” Malec says.
Each of the buildings still stands today, even though their uses have changed, making the prints somewhat of a love letter to their designs and their many architects.
As a whole, for someone whose knowledge of Bauhaus design was not much farther than the English post-punk band, Edmonton and the Bauhaus was an enjoyable snapshot into a time where art was still radically evolving.
Jacek links the exhibit to the centennial celebration of Bauhaus and is quick to point out that Harcourt House is the sole visual arts organization across Canada to celebrate and commemorate Bauhaus’ big one hundred.
“It’s really a shame that more attention has not been accorded to the Bauhaus by galleries/museums across Canada,” Malec says. “The Bauhaus really was an amazing institution with a profound influence on art and design in the world.”
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