I suppose the most convenient thing about encyclopaedias, anthologies, dictionaries, or any categorised depository of knowledge is that they don’t require the loving deliberation of the fireplace reader, the couch reader, the reader propped up by pillows on a bed, closing the day with a fond and focused opening of a book. These compendiums are quick run-throughs, succinct sediments of information that are easily accessible and referable. For a mind that is easily distracted and easily bored (and that is many a modern mind), these are slick little companions. Of course, if they’re written with even a bit of anecdotal flavour, they lose the anonymity that otherwise makes such texts close-shuttered and cold.
With B is for Bauhaus, Deyan Sudjic does exactly that. The title may drop like dead weight on you (especially if you are as intimidated as I have always been by what I irrationally see as the totalitarianism of Bauhaus), and you may wonder just how formidable a read it will be, but it is neither entirely about Bauhaus nor as coolly minimalist as you may presume. Its steel-and-glass structure is softened and lent colour by the ivy and graffiti of Sudjic’s personal recollections, which may itself come as a surprise, considering his repute as one of the leading architecture and design theorists of the modern world. Do design museum directors have memories of angsty red adolescence too?
It’s interesting, isn’t it, how your mind stereotypes, how even names and titles, mere letters, lead you to assume precociously? The book, divided into chapters like ‘A is for Authentic’, ‘B is for Bauhaus’, ‘C is for Car’, and so forth, begins without preamble with an anecdote involving Sudjic and a green parka. With almost breakneck speed he takes you through a plethora of examples and connections, ranging from Bugatti to Cafe Delaunay, Warhol’s Brillo boxes to the origins of the Gotham typefaces, exemplifying ‘authenticity’ in a way as personal as it is journalistic.
In the eponymous chapter – B is for Bauhaus – he sets about deconstructing what he refers to as the ‘myth’ of Bauhaus, stating, “In fact there is rather less to the Bauhaus story than the myth suggests.” With a sardonic matter-of-factness, he takes apart this myth, explaining how the Bauhaus was, in many ways, “a hothouse of squabbling exhibitionists, philanderers and egotists struggling for a position”. But then passages like this betray a side not wholly made planar by years of design:
“I was a schoolboy in 1968 when I saw my first Bauhaus exhibition at the Royal Academy in London. I could not afford the 658-page catalogue at the time. I got mine three years later, and it is still on my bookshelf. It is a kind of sacred text, rarely opened but always there…The catalogue has a massive three-inch-thick spine that is taken up entirely by a single word rendered all in capitals as BAUHAUS, in three overlapping colours. It looks like a fading banner proclaiming its cause to the whole room from the shelf on which it sits.”
With the almost annoying dexterity of a magician, Sudjic shuffles and deals his examples, compelling you to make many mental notes for Googling a certain name or item of information later. Having been in the thick of some of the things he writes about, like Blueprint – a magazine he himself launched with architectural journalist Peter Murray in 1983 – Sudjic takes it somewhat for granted that the reader will nod with a knowing smile and a puff on his pipe at every allusion made and every example cited. Readers like myself may not do that, but they will certainly emerge smarter people after going through this dictionary.
The title of the book extends to An A – Z of the Modern World. So although a few chapters centre on ideas that have been imported from the past (‘F is for Fashion’, ‘O is for Ornament’) , most are about relatively recent phenomena, like YouTube or Grand Theft Auto. In his characteristically analytical way, Sudjic details the circumstances surrounding the evolution of YouTube into what is it today. “Every hour, months of content are uploaded to YouTube – so much material that nobody could ever see even a fraction of it in a single lifetime. It has created something analogous to the storerooms of a major museum, on a vast scale. When an institution has a collection of four or five million objects, it’s impossible for any individual to make sense of it without the help of a catalogue.” He adds, There is no YouTube catalogue. YouTube makes sense of content through the relentless driver of popularity.”
If the account of the birth of YouTube does not fascinate you, you can always skim through the thick but portable little book to a chapter that does. These chapters, moreover, have title-leafs decorated creatively with the alphabets and words they are about. For example, the title-leaf for ‘D is for Design Art’ has a large and loopy D on it, in a font simulating a brushstroke. And the page numbers correspond to that. Now that is commitment to a cause, you think. There is abundant history, too, for the reader who likes to think of the term ‘modern’ as carrying more meaning and trailing more baggage than a throwaway use of it would indicate.
B is for Bauhaus is published by Particular Books, 480 pages, 2024.
Dua Abbas Rizvi is a visual artist and writer based in Lahore, Pakistan.