The “Roaring Twenties” are generally associated with a period of unbridled excess after the traumatic experience of the First World War. While young Americans revelled to the syncopated rhythms of jazz music, two groups of European philosophers and artists were desperately searching for new meanings after the annihilation of all previous moral certainties.
The first group, led by the German architect Walter Gropius, set out to redefine the rules of architecture as well as craft and design. Their vision of a different world, founded on practicality instead of style was the product of a new way of seeing and interpreting reality into a total work of art or Gesamskuntswerk. The experimental nature of the extensive Bauhaus programme echoes Descartes’ initial project of ‘systematic doubt’, devised to lay the foundation of a new science. The aim of the Bauhaus members was to reach an aesthetic neutrality where clear, unadorned geometrical patterns could give rise to a simple, universal language. Its ultimate vocation was to propose building and artistic models in consonance and harmony with the universal order. Through its buoyant spirit of constant experimentation and open internationalism, the Bauhaus School paved the way to new forms of thinking, well beyond the immediate architectural preoccupations of its founders.
The Vienna house that Ludwig Wittgenstein co-designed for his sister Margaret Stonborough between 1926 and 1928, illustrates his desire for pure, spare forms as formulated by Adolf Loos, precursor of the Bauhaus in his belief in the endless possibilities of functionalist design. Four years after the opening of the Weimar institution in 1919, a group of scientists and philosophers met in the Chemistry Building of the University of Vienna, around the charismatic personality of Moritz Schlick. Mathematicians like Hans Hahn, Rudolf Carnap or Kurt Gödel set themselves the task to eradicate metaphysics from philosophical conceptions of knowledge and elaborate a new theory supported by nothing but empirical criteria of meaning, expressed in clear logical propositions.
Like the pioneers of the Bauhaus, the Viennese circle were keen to question the presuppositions of existing theories in their quest for clarity and simplicity. If functionalism was the key concept of the former, ‘verificationism’ became the byword for these critics of metaphysics, soon to be joined by A.J Ayer who was to become the English spokesman for Logical Positivism through his study ‘Language, Truth and Logic’, published in 1936. By then, the Berlin Bauhaus School had long been closed down by the Gestapo and in June 1936, Moritz Schlick got gunned down by one of his former students. The founder of the ‘Vienna Circle’ had been vilified as representative of ‘a new and sinister strain of philosophy’.
By their courageous stance against exhausted traditions and weakened conventions, the pioneers of both movements proved that new ways of seeing and thinking are always possible, whatever the obstacles standing in the path of new aesthetic and philosophical truths.