EDMONTON AND THE BAUHAUS
The Centennial of the Bauhaus (1919-2019)
Presented for the 2019 Design Week at Harcourt House + the 2019 Alberta Culture Days
The Main + The Art Incubator Galleries. September 20 – September 29, 2019
Opening Reception: Friday, September 20, from 7 pm to 10 pm. Free Admission.
Harcourt House Artist Run Centre, 3rd floor, 10215 – 112 St, Edmonton
Project presented in partnership with the Canadian Architectural Archives, University of Calgary
+ Maltby & Prins Architects
+ Debicki Speta Design + Henderson Inglis Partridge Architects
+ KRP Kingston Ross Pasnak LLP Chartered Accountants
The Bauhaus School of Design 1919 – 1933: Historical Background
The Bauhaus School of Design had a decisive influence on international Modernism and is regarded as one of the most important educational institutions of the 20th century. Founded by an avant-garde architect and thinker, Walter Gropius (1883-1969) in 1919 in Weimar, Germany, the Bauhaus School included workshops for crafts, architecture, and graphic arts. The German school represented the quintessence of modernity and the functionalist ideal. Gropius’s goal was to overcome historicism through a clear formal language and to forge a unity among architecture, arts, craft, and industry.
Architecture became part of the Bauhaus curriculum in 1927 when the school moved from Weimar to Dessau. The typical Bauhaus style with its clear, unornamented forms, soon gained worldwide recognition, and contributed to the formation of an International Modern Style in architecture in the Bauhaus tradition. In this style, 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 industrial mass production. Building methods relied on inexpensive materials and pre-fabricated concrete components to address the need for inexpensive living quarters – a pressing problem confronting architects between the wars.
The Bauhaus School attracted several legendary artists of the times to its teaching faculty, among them Wassily Kandinsky, Lyonel Feininger, Paul Klee, Oskar Schlemmer, Georg Muche, and Marcel Breuer. The teaching strategies developed at the Bauhaus by Johannes Itten, Josef Albers, and László Moholy-Nagy, were adopted internationally into the curricula of art and design institutes and are still flourishing today.
The development of the Bauhaus unfolded in tandem with the history of the first German Republic. Walter Gropius founded the Bauhaus in 1919 in Weimar, where the National Assembly had met to draw up a democratic constitution. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe – an internationally renowned architect, designer, and the last director of the Bauhaus – dissolved the school in Berlin in 1933, under heavy pressure from Hitler’s National Socialists who seized power just a few months before.
The suppression of the institution was not, however, enough to contain the influence and ideas it had stood for, particularly since some of the most important Bauhaus teachers subsequently rose to the international prominence outside Germany, and mainly in the United States of America. Thus Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer became architects and the professors of architecture at Harvard University, and likewise Ludwig Mies van der Rohe at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago; Josef and Anni Albers continued their teaching careers at Black Mountain College in Black Mountain, NC, while László Moholy-Nagy founded the ‘New Bauhaus’ in Chicago in 1937. Other Bauhaus members worked in various parts of Europe and the Middle East. Yet, even without a formal school, this style of architecture and design endured and is still in use a century later.
Today, Bauhaus is often credited as the catalyst for Modern architecture and design, and as an important influence on mid-20thcentury painting and sculpture. Some Bauhaus buildings – including Bauhaus Dessau, a UNESCO World Heritage Site – have been turned into tourist destinations and house museums, while many major museums of Modern art incorporate Bauhaus works of art into their permanent displays and popular exhibitions.
Edmonton and the Bauhaus
The Bauhaus and the International Style principles in design played a critical role in the post-World War II architecture in Edmonton. Like many cities across Canada, Edmonton has a wealth of Modern architecture that is often under-appreciated locally but is nationally significant.
Two Edmonton-based firms: Rule Wynn and Rule Architects and Dennis & Freda O’Connor Architects were the leading and progressive architectural firms in the 1950s in this city – and the first to embrace the Bauhaus’s ideals and the International Modern Style in their architectural projects. Their architectural projects from the 1950s and 1960s reflect the Modernist ideas in architecture and innovative design, which are showcased in this exhibition.
Established in 1938, Rule Wynn and Rule Architects is noted for its prominent role in bringing modern architecture to Alberta. Eventually, the architectural firm went on to become a ‘made in Alberta’ success story. According to Dr. Geoffrey Simmins, a prominent historian of modern and contemporary architecture and a Professor Emeritus of Art History at the University of Calgary, “The firm of Rule Wynn and Rule was unusual for several reasons. It was Alberta based, when most of the leading Canadian firms operated either from Ontario or Quebec. Even more unusual, it was headed by principals who had obtained degrees of Bachelor of Science in Architecture from the University of Alberta in the 1930s”.
Rule Wynn and Rule’s the Alberta Government Telephones Building (presently known as the Legislature Annex Building) designed by H.W.R. MacMillan and constructed in 1953, was the first “curtain wall” building in Alberta, completed just after the Lever House in New York City. The curtain wall refers to steel and glass exterior cladding, which was attached to the structural frame like a curtain. The building employed a light-weight non-structural glass frame around its structure which reduced construction costs and allowed natural light to permeate deep into the structure. The pure Early Modern look of the AGT Building is typified by the use of square tower composition, horizontal emphasis in the expression of the floor levels, use of colour spandrel glass, and integral screens for sun control. With these elements it seems inspired by Bauhaus. When it was opened in 1953 with these innovative features and the first underground parking facility in an Edmonton building, it was the city’s most daring building of the 1950s, marking the beginning of the Modernist design movement in Edmonton’s architecture.
Rule Wynn and Rule Architects (currently: Henderson Inglis Partridge Architects) – The AGT Building (presently known as the Legislature Annex Building) in Edmonton; designed in 1952-53 for the Alberta Government Telephones. View of the south and east elevations. Photo by Jacek Malec.
The firm’s other significant project: the Northwest Utilities Building (now called the Milner Building) was designed and built in 1957. The building was innovative in many ways: it was the tallest office building in Edmonton until the beginning of the 1960s, the first building in Alberta to use Styrofoam insulation, and equipped with an automatic sprinkler system, which was still rare at that time. Its lobby included an optimistic mural depicting Edmonton’s growth from a frontier fort into the era of a jetliner. The exterior of the tower is not a true curtain wall but a hybrid design, maintaining many principles of International Style towers but retaining significant visual solidity. An offset two-story podium completes the modern composition that included a recessed garden at street level. The podium is designed as a ‘floating’ box clad in limestone on prominent black granite columns, providing a ground-level covered walkway with storefronts recessed from the façade. The box acts as a frame for tall, adjustable sun louvers that face east. The vertical louvers, a direct International Style influence, were not an uncommon element in the 1950’s Edmonton architecture, and could be seen in the Edmonton City Hall from 1957, the Edmonton International Airport, and a few other buildings from the period. (source: “Capital Modern: A Guide to Edmonton Architecture & Urban Design 1940-1969; published by Art Gallery of Alberta, 2007)
Rule Wynn and Rule Architects (currently: Henderson Inglis Partridge Architects) – The Northwest Utilities Building (presently known as the Milner Building) in Edmonton; designed in 1957. View of the east and north elevations. Photo by Jacek Malec.
One of Rule Wynn Rule’s modestly sized, yet very elegant, and Bauhaus-directly influenced architectural projects, The Ellis Building, is in Edmonton’s Oliver District at 10123 – 112th Street NW, one block south from Harcourt House Artist Run Centre. Completed in 1950-51 for the Barber-Ellis of Canada Ltd. , the modest, handsome Ellis Building is a fine example of Edmonton’s post-World War II foray into the Modern Vernacular. The building distils some of the principles and ideas of Europe’s interwar Modern Movement, putting them to work for every-day, practical use in main-street urban North America. With its distinctive flat roof, clean horizontal and vertical lines and composition, and single colour yellow brick exterior, the Ellis Building represents Edmonton’s architectural break from its Victorian and Edwardian past and its embracement of the post-war International Style rooted in Weimar Republic sensibilities. The balanced interplay of horizontal and vertical window design, together with its entrance canopy and industrial corner windows, is reminiscent of Walter Gropius’s well-known Fagus Factory in Alfeld on the Leine, Lower Saxony in Germany. The Ellis Building also features a Bauhaus School-inspired spirit with its use of locally produced, low-cost materials, elemental forms, and almost complete absence of ornamentation.
Rule Wynn and Rule Architects (currently: Henderson Inglis Partridge Architects) – The Ellis Building; designed in 1950 for the Barber-Ellis of Canada Ltd. in Edmonton View of the front and south elevations. Photo by Jacek Malec.
The architectural designs by Dennis & Freda O’Connor Architects are represented in the exhibition by the minimalist form of the Harcourt House Building. Established in 1957, the firm is credited for its several innovative, award-winning architectural projects in Edmonton and Alberta. A transplant from the U.K. who earned an architectural degree in 1946 from King’s College at Durham University, Freda O’Connor, became the first woman to be admitted to the Alberta Association of Architects in 1966. In 1974, she was elected president of the Alberta Association of Architects – the first female architect in Canada to be so honoured. Designed and built in 1964 for Decury Supply Ltd., the Harcourt House Building is an excellent example of the International Style with its distinctive flat roof and elegant, minimalist form balanced by vertical and horizontal lines with tall vertically composed windows. The use of the single colour brick exterior and complete absence of ornamentation reinforce the building’s minimalist form. The building was designed to appear as a ‘floating’ box on a low podium with the underpass to dematerialize the building’s structural mass. The main entrance is offset, creating an asymmetrical form at the front of the building. Though Dennis and Freda O’Connor’s architectural projects reflected the avant-garde, International Style, they tailored this style to the Alberta landscape by making the buildings low, flat, and horizontal. In line with the Bauhaus tradition, their commercial and residential projects are extremely functional with a great deal of flowing space.
Dennis & Freda O’Connor & Maltby Architects & Planning Consultants – Office Building for Decury Supply Ltd. in Edmonton (currently Harcourt House Visual Arts Centre + Art Galleries) – Building Elevations, 1964. Collection: Maltby & Prins Architects, Edmonton. Image courtesy of Maltby & Prins Architects.
The Legacy of the Bauhaus: Looking Back, Walking Ahead
Without a perspective on the past, particularly with our Modernist legacy, it is difficult to strive for an improved future. Modern design can still provide inspiration and direction for innovative, environmentally conscious, contemporary architecture. The Bauhaus’s ideals of universality and affordability, along with its key principles in modernist architectural design, are still worth striving in today’s architecture and urban planning. A century later, the “modern look” of contemporary architecture remains indebted to the Bauhaus and its equation of innovative, progressive technology with the ideals of Modernism in design.
The exhibition projects, “The Bauhaus 1919-1933: Toward Modernism” and “Edmonton and the Bauhaus” were curated by Jacek Malec, Executive Director of the Harcourt House Artist Run Centre.