The European Bauhaus, an opportunity to shift paradigms and shape our buildings

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The Staatliches Bauhaus building in Berlin was a German art school operational from 1919 to 1933 that combined crafts and the fine arts, and was famous for its approach to design. [meunierd / Shutterstock]

While the European Commission is well-positioned to initiate the development and implementation of a new European Bauhaus, it must be truly open to the ideas of a wide array of contributors and committed to supporting a diversity of perspectives, writes Oliver Rapf.

Oliver Rapf is Executive Director at the Building Performance Institute Europe (BPIE).

I had the privilege to speak at one of the very first events discussing the new European Bauhaus, organised by the Active House Alliance in late January this year. Just before on 18 January, the European Commission launched the first of three phases of the initiative.

It was reassuring to hear from Xavier Troussard, Head of Unit at the European Commission, that the EU has launched support to facilitate, convene, grow and scale up (“Design, Deliver and Disseminate” in the language of the EU) a new European Bauhaus movement, with values of sustainability, aesthetics, and inclusiveness at its core.

Citizens and organisations are invited to submit ideas to the Commission to facilitate the sharing of suggestions, in order to co-create the concept in at least five different member states, bringing together the full range of stakeholders affecting the building sector.

'Matching sustainability with style': EU lifts veil on new European Bauhaus initiative

The European Commission is inviting “creative minds” across Europe to contribute ideas to the “New European Bauhaus”, an initiative aimed at designing new ways of living to meet the objectives of the European Green Deal.

The Bauhaus of the twentieth century was borne during an unprecedented time in history. It was a response to the traumatic experience of the First World War and the social, economic and political crisis which followed.

A century later, we are facing challenges of equal, if not greater magnitude, including climate change, a global health crisis, pressing urbanisation challenging the affordability of housing, societal developments such as the growth of single households – often associated with isolation and loneliness – and the growth of precarious employment in the so-called gig economy. All these challenges have a connection to our built environment to a certain degree; it is therefore necessary to ask how changes in design, construction, operation and use, and demolition of our buildings can help us. Now is certainly the time when co-creation across disciplines, creativity, and citizen engagement needs to be mobilised.

Transferring the original Bauhaus idea to the 21st century means bringing together many disciplines to develop integral and holistic solutions to these challenges. The built environment was one of the core disciplines of the original Bauhaus, though not the only one. Buildings account for 40% of Europe’s energy consumption and 36% of GHG emissions and are indisputably at the centre of our day to day lives. They should be an integral part of the solution as we look to decarbonise while addressing changing health and societal needs.

As we have argued previously, the fragmented nature of the building sector and its value chain makes its transformation extremely complex. The new European Bauhaus could help to decrease the fragmentation, increase a dialogue and help define a common vision for our buildings across many disciplines and sectors. It could support a Renovation Wave which would transform our building stock while adding new structures to respond to changing needs. To achieve this, the new European Bauhaus should integrate these four principles:

  1. Meeting people’s needs: Architecture and design of buildings should reflect and respect our needs. We need to move to a more humane architecture which is aligned with our visual and psychological experiences of space and place.
  2. Addressing the environmental challenge and climate change: Our buildings should reflect bioclimatic conditions and integrate the principles of vernacular architecture, respecting local conditions without falling into the trap of retro-design. Just as an example, Bauhaus architecture principles developed in cold Germany were adapted to Mediterranean climate in the Tel Aviv White City. During construction and use of buildings, a well-chosen range of designs, processes, materials and technologies should contribute to dramatically reducing the carbon footprint of our buildings.
  3. Adapting to changes: This principle has two sides to it. (1) We need to make sure that our buildings can easily be adapted to changing user needs and use purposes; and (2) our buildings need to adapt to climate change and be increasingly resilient to climate change impacts.
  4. Centring on community: Buildings and spatial design should increasingly provide communal spaces for people to interact. While this may not be imminently obvious in a global pandemic which mandates social distancing, it became clear more than ever that we as the human species need, benefit from and thrive with increased social interactions. This is  supported by mixed-use buildings, which bring together different trades, services and residences. The way we design buildings and spaces should encourage and support sustainable lifestyles in its true sense, uniting environmental, economic and social opportunities.

BPIE has said since the European Commission’s first proposal of the Renovation Wave that an integrated, joined-up approach across multiple stakeholder groups is the only way forward if we are to re-shape our use of and relationship to buildings in a way that is at once beautiful, affordable, zero carbon, and that meets the needs of citizens where they are.

Now more than ever, we need to encourage out-of-the-box thinking, providing the opportunity for stakeholders to come out of their silos, brainstorm, learn from each other, and collectively shape solutions that will address persisting challenges facing buildings and homes, in both the European but also local context. This co-creation and development should ultimately result in a virtuous circle of exchange, that would contribute to shifting paradigms in relation not only to buildings but also to how we plan for the future and organise the work.

It is crucial to remember that, unlike today, the First Bauhaus was not a political initiative from the top down. It was the result of a bottom-up movement that came from society and from individuals with a vision. While the European Commission is indeed well-positioned to initiate the development and implementation of a new European Bauhaus, it must be truly open to the ideas of a wide array of contributors and committed to supporting a diversity of perspectives.

It should use its power and responsibility to support and lead the process, while transposing promising ideas into real political action, reflecting the creative work delivered by the contributors to the new Bauhaus.

If this is made possible, and the European Commission provides funding to scale up these ideas, then we are on a good path, and stakeholders should take this as a real opportunity to come together and collectively shape the buildings of the future.

EU launches 'renovation wave' for greener, more stylish buildings

The European Commission launched a renovation wave and a “new European Bauhaus” on Wednesday (14 October), aiming to rally popular support behind plans to cut emissions from buildings and reduce energy bills.

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