It’s not often that the European Commission, a sprawling bureaucracy housed in an ugly building, triggers my aesthetic imagination. But it happened last year, when President Ursula von der Leyen declared that she wanted to bring into life a “new European Bauhaus.”
What, I began wondering, might this look like? I think I’ve now had a first glimpse.
Von der Leyen meant the phrase as a catchy shorthand for a wholesale cultural change to accompany her biggest goal: making the European Union climate neutral by 2050. This undertaking will require far more than reforming our energy industry. It also means reimagining our buildings and entire cities.
Inevitably, such changes will become associated with their own aesthetic. So it was with all other movements in history. And among the most famous — hence von der Leyen’s reference to it — was the original Bauhaus, which was founded in Weimar in 1919 and thrived for 14 years until the Nazis shut it down.
The Bauhaus was an interdisciplinary design school that attracted architects and artists, craftspeople and carpenters, typographers and ceramists. Guided by the principles that form should follow function and that nothing should be wasted, they designed new stuff: chairs, lamps, type fonts, buildings, you name it.
Many Bauhaus alumni became famous, from architects like Walter Gropius or Mies van der Rohe to artists like Paul Klee or Wassily Kandinski. After the Nazi takeover, they became a diaspora that carried their stylistic vision across the world. If it’s hard to notice today, that’s because it’s almost everywhere, from the streets of Tel Aviv to, yes, your local Ikea store.
The word Bauhaus visually defined an entire era: modernism. Sleek, simple and always functional, it stood aesthetically for a century of industrialization and urbanization.
So what could Bauhaus 2.0 look like? Our era, if all goes well, will hopefully not be one of de-industrialization, and certainly not one of de-urbanization. But if it is to be “green,” it should at least reconcile economic prosperity with a new ecological humanism.
As I listened to von der Leyen’s speech, my mind conjured an imaginary cityscape that looked suspiciously like a Tolkienesque Shire, with grass-covered Hobbit holes and such. That, I quickly realized, won’t scale and won’t work.
What will work remains to be seen. Ideas are now being dreamed up in the budding movement of the New European Bauhaus, at conferences like this upcoming event organized by Future Architecture, a cross-disciplinary network of artsy types. But one concrete expression — though its conception predated von der Leyen’s labelling — could be a project just approved here in Berlin (pictured above and below).
Called WoHo (for Wohnhochhaus, or “residential tower”), it’ll be a skyscraper made of wood. In fact, it’ll be the tallest wooden tower in Europe, with 29 stories rising 322 feet (98 meters).
This wood, of course, isn’t sticks or plywood. It’s state-of-the-art “engineered timber,” whose layers are cross-laminated for each purpose — beams, walls and so forth — so that it has almost the strength of steel but at a fraction of the weight.
Whereas cement and steel are, in terms of greenhouse-gas emissions, among the dirtiest materials to produce, wood is the cleanest. Making it — that is, letting trees grow — actually captures carbon dioxide from the air. The timber in the buildings then stores this carbon practically forever. So wood is sustainable and “green.” Obviously, we’ll need massive reforestation to have enough of it around.
Wood also offers other delights. Running your hand over wooden walls feels “more human” than touching cement or plaster, says Jonny Klokk, one of the Norwegian architects who designed the WoHo. Wood, like people, ages; it lives and tells stories. It has an aroma and radiates warmth. In a word, Klokk told me, it’s koselig. That’s Norwegian for “cosy” — the analog of the famous Danish hygge or the German gemuetlich.
The WoHo embodies the vision behind the New Bauhaus in more ways than that. Thomas Bestgen, boss of UTB, the German developer behind the project, told me that buildings should be sustainable not only ecologically but also socially. They should help “mix” our cities — between rich and poor, businesses and families, work and culture, and so forth.
The WoHo will do a lot of mixing. It’ll have commercial and retail space, owner-occupied units for the well-heeled and subsidized housing for the less well-off. There’ll be apartments for families; studios for the young, hip and single; housing for older people in nursing care and kindergartens for toddlers.
The complex combines high-rise and low-rise buildings, and lots of open and shared spaces. Why, Bestgen asked me rhetorically, should every unit have its own washing machine? Residents could instead do their laundry in communal areas, and trade some gossip while folding.
The hope is that projects like this will rejuvenate entire parts of Berlin. The area — I used to work just up the street — is centrally located but depressing, like a lot of neighborhoods that were bombed out in World War II, then forgotten in the shadow of the former Berlin Wall. But nearby are parks and play areas, as well as the business and cultural life of Potsdamer Platz, analogous to Times Square. All this will be walkable, bikeable and scooterable. Sustainable all the way.
If we are to succeed in slowing global warming, we’ll need to rethink our buildings, cities and societies. But we’ll only accept these changes if things are also handsome. As Klokk told me, “The most environmental thing you can do is to build a building so beautiful, nobody wants to tear it down.”
It’ll take decades for a new and green aesthetic to develop. But I’m hopeful now that it’ll be, shall we say, koselig.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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