The Renovation Wave and A Cultural Phenomenon:

What European Bauhaus Could Look Like for the European Union’s Energy Efficiency Goals

5 January, 2021

President Ursula von der Leyen’s September State of the Union Address (16 September 2020) was a call to arms for the Next Generation EU recovery package – so unsurprisingly, the European Green Deal was one of the core elements of her address. Along with proposed increases for the 2030 emission target reduction, President von der Leyen also included a statement regarding Europe’s ‘Renovation Wave’ that surprised and inspired comment. She stated:

“…this is not just an environmental or economic project: it needs to be a new cultural project for Europe. Every movement has its own look and feel. And we need to give our systemic change its own distinct aesthetic – to match style with sustainability.

This is why we will set up a new European Bauhaus – a co-creation space where architects, artists, students, engineers, designers work together to make that happen.”

Bauhaus, which celebrated its 100th anniversary last year, is an iconic and influential school of design; yet, it is also an expansive, almost nebulous concept, and one that can be open to many different interpretations, as a method of design, as an aesthetic, and as a social movement . This imprecision has captured the imagination of many observers, as is apparent in the commentary surrounding this announcement. An EU official has admitted that even the Commission is unsure of what the “New Bauhaus” will look like in practice, indicating that all the speculation is not unwarranted and the opportunity exists to elevate the most promising elements of Bauhaus in pursuit of the European Union’s green goals.

So, what could the new European Bauhaus look like? How could it help meet the goals of the EU’s Circular Economy Action Plan and the associated Renovation Wave? And how can we reconcile these goals with two of the school’s most influential tenets: Bauhaus as a reform of architecture and Bauhaus as a principle for cultural reform?

Bauhaus and Architectural Reform

In 1919, Walter Gropius founded the Bauhaus with the fundamental goal of reuniting art and craft. He believed that art could not be taught, but that ‘handicraft’ (the handling of the materials to create art) could. So, he created a school to teach the techniques underlying the disciplines of painting, sculpture and architecture to reunify them in pursuit of a new form of design.

The outcome of this objective has been summarised as placing “architecture or construction as the ultimate goal of all artistic activities”.  In other words, the reunification of art and craft brought forward a new form of design, one that equally valued aesthetics and function, and, in doing so, bound the value of aesthetics to functional form. Within this lens, the focus of Bauhaus in President von der Leyen’s speech can be read firmly within her reference to an ‘aesthetic’ and the means (the ‘handicraft’) by which it could be achieved through a collaboration across disciplines.

The utility of a European Bauhaus with a focus on design can be evaluated on two key criteria: whether it aligns with the policy goals of the Renovation Wave; and, whether it addresses the core issue that this reform is aiming to achieve.

On the surface, this focus on aesthetic and design principles seems a world apart from the policy goals of the Circular Economy Action Plan; a strategy document full of measures to cut down on waste, promote the use of sustainable materials and shrink the reliance on raw material extraction. A focus on aesthetics would appear to only further complicate and potentially slow progress towards these measures.

Yet, there are currently many small pockets of good practice across the European Union and this focus on aesthetics could bring these to the fore, resulting, as von der Leyen envisions, in reforms that go beyond the economic and environmental – and to the cultural heart of our society. By elevating these pockets of good practice, and, more importantly, the sustainable methods of construction underlying them, a European Bauhaus could provide a platform to drive trends in the use of sustainable materials in European buildings and increase the effectiveness and long-term adoption of these reforms. This, in itself, would constitute partial progress towards the goals set out in the Renovation Wave.

However, when coming to the second criteria, it appears there is a gap between the main issues that the Renovation Wave is trying to address and the utilisation of design as a fundamental element of Bauhaus. Energy-inefficiency, a key driver of the Renovation Wave, is a compelling issue that needs to be addressed for decarbonization: almost 85-95% of today’s existing building stock will still be in use in 2050 and of this stock, approximately 75% is energy inefficient. Only 1% of Europe’s building go through energy-efficient renovations each year – a rate of renovation too slow to meet the Union’s decarbonisation goals. A focus on design will not increase this rate of renovation.

As outlined by the European Commission, the main goal of the Renovation Wave is to increase energy efficiency in our current buildings. Although energy efficiency is tied to the materials and design of a building, when viewed in conjunction with the fact that this work needs to be undertaken on established building stock, the focus of the Renovation Wave is not so much on the aesthetic or the disciplines employed to create buildings, but rather on the materials and funding required to boost efforts in improving energy efficiency.

The mismatch between European Bauhaus as a design focus for the Renovation Wave and the key barriers to sustainable renovations is further widened by findings from a 2019 report from the European Commission titled “Comprehensive study of building energy renovation activities and the uptake of nearly zero-energy buildings in the EU”. This report found that the most commonly perceived barriers to energy efficient renovations are complicated administrative burdens, rather than technical feasibility. The policy responses required for problems such as these are therefore technical and potentially regulatory in nature – and not a matter of art and design.

A Design Principle for Cultural Reform

As with all movements, Bauhaus has been a reflection and driver of the various iterations of our society over the years. In particular, the original Bauhaus design focused on two things: minimalism (e.g. which elements are absolutely required to make a chair a chair?) and the marriage of mass production (a new frontier at the time) with creativity and craft. Breuer’s tubular steel chair is the quintessential example of these design principles.

However, these principles can be taken beyond material outputs. In particular, Friedrich von Borries, an architect and professor for design theory at the University of Fine Arts in Hamburg, writes about how those at the Bauhaus also considered how the objects they were creating could reflect changes in their increasingly democratic society at a time when art was still closely tied to class. Specifically, they considered how minimalism (and the reduction of ornamentation seen as an aristocratic trademark) could be applied to mass-produced items to produce objects that held artistic merit and could still be shared with the masses.

In our modern context, von Borries notes that principle-infused-design could serve a similar revolutionary purpose today. Our built world can be an expression of “survival”, signalling our willingness to “fight against the destruction of the ecological basis of life that our society continues to pursue” and aim to reduce our reliance on raw materials, support the circular economy and still create buildings (or objects) that are attractive and desirable. In short, leadership in design can be both a catalyst and leading beacon to steer our wider society towards EU green goals.

With this lens, von der Leyen’s New European Bauhaus could be a school that acts as a focal point for cultural change. It is a supporting structure, guided by design principles, that focuses on how our buildings and material items can help preserve our environment. By going beyond the regulatory and the technical and by taking a principle-based approach, a new Bauhaus has the potential to build meaning and shared understanding behind the Renovation Wave. This in turn ensures that the results of this policy initiative are attractive and have a cultural buy-in, therefore increasing their chance to be embedded into society, rather than being revoked at a later time.

Here, the goals of Bauhaus as a school of design and those of the Renovation Wave are in harmony. In his opening remarks (14 October 2020) at the press conference for Building a Climate Neutral Europe, Executive Vice-President Frans Timmermans identified how the initiative will achieve both short-term and long-term goals: it will kickstart the economy in the short-term by providing work for small to medium sized businesses; while in the long-term, it will enhance the quality of life for people living in Europe’s buildings and, through improvements to energy efficiency, mitigate the risks of energy poverty. Currently, 34 million citizens are not able to adequately heat or cool their homes and if not addressed, energy inefficiencies have the risk of creating a socioeconomic divide in our society. Both the Renovation Wave and Bauhaus take artistic goals and design principles and attempt to combine these with cutting-edge technology to address aspects of societal inequality and drive cultural change.

The Influence Lives On

There are many critiques levelled against the European Union’s attempts to promote standards and frameworks for sustainable building reform to date. Although the current Renovation Wave calls for EU Member States to publish their long-term renovation strategies, a September 2020 report undertaken by Buildings Performance Institute demonstrates that less than 50% of Member States had actually presented their strategies, and of those who had, only one (Spain) was compliant with the directives set out in the Article 2a of the amended 2018 Energy Performance of Buildings Directive. Likewise, currently Europe has no less than 20 different voluntary certification schemes for environmental impact in use. The system is fragmented and a design school is unlikely to be an effective mechanism to unify these efforts.

Yet, it appears that the European Union has been softly moving towards a unified architectural culture in recent years. In 2018, European ministers of culture met to discuss a common approach to achieve higher quality architecture and adopted the Baukultur declaration as an expression of how the built environment can reflect European identity and diversity. Von der Leyen’s commitment to a European Bauhaus is the natural next step: a unifying vision that – just like the original Bauhaus – provides a vision to unify those working within various disciplines towards a common goal, one that is aligned with the Renovation Wave, and ultimately, Europe’s environmental objectives.

Still, an aesthetic or cultural movement alone will never address the technical and economic challenges that the European Union needs to overcome in its pursuit of energy efficient buildings. However, while the Bauhaus itself may have ended in the 1930s due to the challenges it faced, its design principles have lived on, influencing trends that have risen and fallen across the last century. Maybe it is this lasting influence – this impact on culture – that President von der Leyen hopes to capitalise on and grow from, so that the European Bauhaus of 2020 is one that represents an energy efficient, just and sustainable society, as well as one that goes beyond regulations and is defined by balancing both its aesthetics with the wellbeing of its citizens and its planet.

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