Oliver Koerner von Gustorf: Mr Akbar, you were born in Kabul and have been living in Germany since 1960. What was your first encounter with Bauhaus?
Omar Akbar: You know, my family in Kabul held very modern views. My grandfather, for instance, was a modernist, ergo in opposition to a highly conservative society. My uncle was interested in contemporary art. German and Austrian individuals who were in Afghanistan for professional reasons frequented our home. I already knew who Goethe was at the age of seven (laughs). Well, at least I knew that he was a German poet. We came to Germany as a result of our personal history-my mother died very early, and afterwards my father did his doctorate work in Stuttgart.
Our second, Swabian mother further familiarized my brother and me with European art and culture. Visits to museums were practically a daily affair, with modern art playing a particularly important role, as my mother had a special affinity for it. In 1968 there was a major Bauhaus exhibition in Stuttgart, where she also took us. This is the "early history" of my connection to the Bauhaus. Later, I began studying architecture at the Technical University in Berlin, at a time when a serious discussion was taking place concerning what modernism had brought to cities. Like many others, I had a critical attitude in this respect and considered terms like "the functional city" highly problematic. I continued to investigate modernist thought until I finally took on a professorship for urban development and architectural theory here in Dessau in 1993. Since then I've learned much more about Bauhaus, of course, and have tried to understand its conceptual fundaments properly.
The Bauhaus Dessau Foundation not only considers itself as the preserver of a museum heritage, but as a modern think tank dedicated to solving current problems in urban planning. Yet the Bauhaus spirit seems to express itself more in design classics than in contemporary discourse. And there's also a kind of nostalgia for the modernist legend.
Legends always contain an element of truth, augmented by other truths. Take, for example, the concept of "Bauhaus architecture." It's absurd to speak of Tel Aviv, a wonderful city that I really love, as a Bauhaus city. The quintessential Bauhaus architecture does not exist. There is the architecture of Walter Gropius, the architecture of Hannes Meyer, and that of Mies van der Rohe, if you take a look at the school's directors. Mies considered himself a radical modernist; he never would have called his buildings Bauhaus architecture. In this regard, notions such as these have a problematic aspect.
Furthermore, the history of the Bauhaus is characterized by breaks and turbulence. And one mustn't forget the political history: probably no other institution in the world has experienced as dramatic a history as the Bauhaus. It was founded in 1919 in Weimar and closed in 1924, not only due to financial reasons, but because the political situation couldn't tolerate the progressive spirit the school embodied. This was also the reason why, under pressure from the National Socialists, the Bauhaus in Dessau was closed in 1932. There have always been reactionary movements that have opposed these progressive institutions. The spirit of the Bauhaus is experimentation, a forward-looking attitude, and a reflective type of thinking. This is why the Foundation is both a conserver of museum tradition and at the same time a think tank.
Where did this opposition come from?
The main problem was its experimental nature, or as Mies van der Rohe formulated it: the Bauhaus was an idea. "Experimenting" means that one strives constantly for utopia, and to this end one develops and refines one's ideas accordingly. And as I've said, politics have always played a big role. Above all during the Nazi era, but also later, in the GDR in the 1950s. The National Socialists spoke of the "Bolshevist-Jewish intellectual attitude" of the Bauhaus, while in the GDR it was termed "avant-garde bourgeois." In both cases the reasoning was based on the alleged needs of the populace, whose rejection and disdain were similar. This changed in the mid-sixties. As a result, the Bauhaus building in Dessau was renovated more or less according to the original from 1926. Then came the Reunification, and in 1994 the Foundation was called into being.
What do you think is the meaning of the Bauhaus today?
I've been of the opinion from the very beginning that we have to think about how to carry modernism into the present. Where does modernism stand today? And how do we deal with this? We have to preserve a critically reflective stance towards the heritage of the historical Bauhaus. To my mind, urban themes are the most important themes of our time. On the one hand, there's the problem of the shrinking cities, and at the other end of the spectrum the problem of the mega-cities. There are experimental projects in ecological urban development. For instance, I regard Dubai as an experiment too, although as such it's not consistent enough. At the same time, millions of people live in cities in dramatic circumstances. This means that social questions have to be asked again seriously. And that is originally a Bauhaus theme. Furthermore, we can't just sleep in the face of environmental, climate, and energy problems. These issues must be implemented now in a concrete way in urban planning and design. And the issue of cities has to be approached from the global angle: what effects do global networks exert on cities? Like climate change, these are very fundamental questions.
If you think about the show in Dubai now, it's mostly about formal questions. At the same time, the exhibition is presented in a city that, according to one of the authors of the exhibition catalogue, doesn't embody the "International Style," but rather the "Global Style." What is your impression of the reactions to the exhibition?
What was especially interesting was how we from Germany travel to Dubai to make a statement with an exhibition-which was basically a way of saying "these were the experiments in Germany, and these experiments in architecture continue to exist." Sometimes I'm a bit patriotic in this sense. Presumably I can be this more easily than someone with a German name. In my opinion, we possess a kind of architectural culture here on a level far above what's happening in France or elsewhere. Yet we're unable to convey this; we're far too reserved. The Deutsche Bank exhibition in Dubai shows a small cross-section of the artistic work of the historical Bauhaus. It was interesting how many artists' groups came to the opening. Bauhaus and Germany hold a special meaning for them. When they talk about the Bauhaus, they call it "a radical institution." The artists' group Flying House, for instance, makes its own form of art ranging from photographs depicting conditions among construction workers in Dubai to artistic interventions in nature or an artistic approach to the production of garbage. To this extent, it doesn't seem all that important whether or not to make a formal appearance in Dubai with a Bauhaus show-which would be far more problematic in Germany or Europe. It works in Dubai, and it inspires curiosity. And many visitors have certain ideas about the Bauhaus or associate certain things with it. For these reasons, I think the exhibition has been a great success.
You will soon be giving up your position as director of the Bauhaus Dessau Foundation and will be succeeded by Philipp Oswalt. What feelings do you have as you look back over your ten years at the job?
I'm quite satisfied with the work I've done at the Foundation. Over the past ten years we've succeeded in establishing the Bauhaus Dessau Foundation both nationally and internationally as a respected authority in the areas of education, design, and planning. We've founded the International Bauhaus Kolleg, a one-year urban teaching program for post-graduates that now boasts participants from 39 countries. We've put on a wide variety of exhibitions on the history of the Bauhaus and its effects and went overseas with them, for instance the BAUHAUS experience Dessau, which is currently touring through Japan. We've carried out interesting design projects at home and abroad, for example a model project for a favela in Rio de Janeiro. Finally, with the IBA Urban Redevelopment project in 2010, we're developing model projects for a sustainable city design under the aspect of demographic change together with 19 cities in Saxony-Anhalt. We've completed an extensive restoration of the Bauhaus building and set up a permanent exhibition; we've greatly enhanced tourism, and we now get nearly 100,000 visitors per year. If I look at all this, I think that Mr Oswalt is taking on an institution in a very good position.
What are your plans for the future?
As a professor, I will teach again, which I've always liked to do. In any case, I will continue to participate in advisory groups, to carry out projects and curate exhibitions. I've brought two very nice ideas back with me from Dubai. I'm currently engaged in talks concerning these.