Plastics in the Bauhaus: Preserving Modernism
Twice a year, a man takes the train from Berlin to Dessau with some resin in his briefcase. The man, Dietmar Linke, walks past exhibitions and tour groups at the Bauhaus building, going straight to Walter Gropius’ old office on the bridge. Once there, he uses the resin to treat marks and cracks on the floor. The surface has stress lines like leather that is too dry. It is a material that shows its wounds.
The floor in Gropius’ old office is an early polymer composite. Triolin flooring is made of nitrocellulose, better known as Celluloid, a filling material such as cork, sawdust, or turf, and a plasticiser or softening agent. The composite was laid on a woven fabric mesh.
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The material’s identification was straightforward. Monika Markgraf and Bettina Lietz, two conservations for the Bauhaus Dessau Foundation, were repairing the main building’s floors in 2004. They found a label in Gropius’ old office with the words, ‘Triolin flooring,’ and a maker’s mark for Köln-Rottweil AG. The two conservationists sent Dietmar photographs and samples of the material. Chemical tests and library research confirmed what the label had suggested.
The circumstantial evidence that has come to light about the materials is thanks to their inquiries. We know that, when the First World War concluded, vast stocks of nitrocellulose existed in Germany. It is evident that plastics producers began exploring other avenues and, by the early 1920s, the market was flooded with Celluloid home fittings. It is clear that plastic flooring was consciously marketed to designers and proved popular with Bauhaus architects. Georg Muche used Triolin for the kitchen at Haus am Horn (1923). Gropius opted for it in the Meisterhäuser (1925-26), as well as for his office on the bridge. Both Bauhäusler associated plastics with Fordist mass production and with progress.
Late last year, I went to visit Monika in her office on the fourth floor of the Bauhaus building to ask her about Triolin, a subject which she is always enthusiastic to talk about. If the public can now appreciate concrete which is weathered and worn, might conservationists permit plastics to age too? Monika took up the point but applied reasonable limits. “Yes, conservationists should allow polymers and composites to age, but not if it causes lasting damage to the object.” That is where Dietmar, one of only several plastics conservationists in Germany, comes in with his restorative resin.
And what does she think of public perception of plastics as sterile and artificial? “Actually, Triolin has some natural ingredients such as cork and yields to other materials that we may see as organic. Some of the marks and lines in Gropius’ office have been caused by the presence of small stones under the sheets of flooring.” With each visitor’s footstep, the composite compresses above the grit, causing it to blacken and marble over time. Triolin flooring’s surface appearance is then responsive to natural materials it is placed in contact with in much the same way as woodgrain impressed on in-situ concrete.
The materials of the Bauhaus are responsive to empirical knowledge too. Encountering early polymer composites such as Triolin through building research allows conservators to plan procedural or physical interventions, sometimes calling upon specialists such as Dietmar. When specialists from Germany and beyond take the regional train through Sachsen-Anhalt to Dessau, it is not only physical objects like resin that they bring with them but years of accrued experience about material behaviour. Specialists enliven certain facets of the buildings previously overlooked or imbue them with greater longevity.
It is the notion that architecture and conservation are both physical and metaphysical that the theme specially chosen for the centenary – “Originals Retold” - sets out to explore. For the Bauhaus Dessau Foundation, a building’s narrative negotiates ideals of history and politics with contingent factors such as the people who end up inhabiting buildings. In this view, a surprisingly laissez-faire approach to guiding visitors is permitted. Having gained considerable floor space thanks to the building of the new Bauhaus Museum, curators in Dessau evidently want visitors to revel in an achievement which in certain ways is even more impressive than the opening of the new museum: improved public access to twelve original Bauhaus sites. Even the iconic curtain wall plays its part in this great opening up process. The partition walls used for exhibitions which long darkened the glass have now been dispensed with. It is transparent again.
One seemingly-modest physical intervention which has enabled this freedom for visitors is the improved air-conditioning system, which now allows a greater proportion of the air’s moisture to be vacated from Gropius’ “Direktorzimmer.” The last characteristic bears obvious significance for conservators at the Bauhaus-Dessau, who may in the future need to don their overalls less often and manually intervene. Their ability, however, to see things that the rest of us overlook will no doubt endure. It is unlikely, but not wholly outside the realms of possibility, that when Dietmar returns to repair the floor next year, it will be an ever so slightly smaller pot of resin that he brings with him in his suitcase.
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