New European Bauhaus: How to build a European Sentiment? Back

New European Bauhaus: How to build a European Sentiment?

For some, the word “Brussels” conveys the image of a grey concrete bunker for European Union bureaucrats. And there is some truth to that, at least when it comes to the architecture of EU bureaucracy. But now the European Commission wants to bring some colour into Europe. It wants to get away from its grey image of concrete, steel and glass by adding a serious splash of green. And this is not just a question of rebranding, a new logo and some clever PR. At least so it seems.

Europe has set itself the task of a green transformation through a European Green Deal. This is much needed. However, this green transformation cannot just be dealt with as a “grey” scientific or technological task. For Europe to become the first climate-neutral continent by 2050, the interest, imagination and creativity of people across Europe will need to be triggered. It needs a cultural movement, a process that is nurtured and shaped collectively and that engages people from all generations, sectors, territories – from big cities to small localities and rural areas – emotionally and pragmatically. The Green Deal needs a Culture Deal too.

The New European Bauhaus wants to make this connection and embed culture throughout the transformation process. Recognising the value of culture and the interconnectedness of culture with politics, systemic change and radical innovation is essential to the success of the initiative. There is a vision and a narrative but how should this be realised? Let’s look at some historical experiences.

The original Bauhaus was all about the spirit of renewal. It is the Bauhaus method – the notion of radically changing our way of thinking, to question how things work and reinvent them for a more humane society – that provides us with a useful model for tackling the most pressing issues of today. The original Bauhaus was Walter Gropius’s brainchild and grew out of the historical momentum of 1918. At that time, Gropius had, by his own account, a feeling that he was witnessing a turn of eras. Upon returning home from the war, he was initially convinced that sooner or later “things would snap back to the way that they had always been”. Eventually it dawned upon him that, instead of a returning to normality, the post-World War I period marked the beginning of something profoundly different, something new.

In a similar spirit of renewal, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt launched his New Deal (1933-39) upon which the concept of the European Green Deal is based. Not many people know that the mother of all new deals included an important cultural dimension, Federal Project Number One, which brought the nation together and laid the foundations for an exceptionally strong American culture where previously it had looked to Europe. The US developed a soft power, which is still a fundamental dimension of its international agenda and strength nine decades later.

After World War II, there was undoubtedly a strong need for economic, societal and cultural renewal in Europe. The Schuman Plan provided a far-sighted, new political vision for Europe and a sense of common purpose and destiny. The building of a European Community could only succeed by pooling resources and winning the hearts and minds of Europe’s citizens. The Schuman Plan was the blueprint that led to the European Union of today. And it was also through this belief in cultural renewal that Robert Schuman and friends created the European Cultural Foundation in 1954.

Today there is also a certain human desire that things should snap back to how they were before the coronavirus crisis. But was our pre-corona normal really so desirable? Do you remember? Trump denied the existence of climate change. Despite the Greta Thunberg impact, CO2 emissions had reached another peak. California was burning yet again. The “old normal” should not be our reference point. Like Gropius, Roosevelt and Schuman, we realise that − instead of a return to an outdated, increasingly self-destructing normality − the post Covid period could mark the beginning of something profoundly different, something new, something less grey and most certainly with a big splash of green.

In this spirit, we believe the New European Bauhaus has the potential to ignite and take forward the green transformation of Europe by making use of the power of culture. Culture needs to be placed at the very heart of the green transition. There is no return to “the old normal” but an opportunity, and a necessity, to rethink the value and centrality of culture to our lives and ways of living together. This includes a new approach to sustainability and inclusivity. Here are some initial points of reflection:

Growing a European sentiment: The recovery of Europe from the coronavirus crisis, the green transformation and a strong and resilient Europe are not separate tracks but should be thought about together. All these tracks need the belief and support of the European people to succeed. They depend on a strong sense of purpose, of working together towards a better future. This is what the founding fathers of the European Cultural Foundation called a “European sentiment”.

Connecting the Green Deal to the Cultural Deal: The Green Deal echoes the ambition of a Cultural Deal for Europe that the European Cultural Foundation and partners launched in November 2020 calling for a positive transformation of Europe through culture. This transformation concerns all aspects of our living together. From the green transition to living our European values fully, from the digital transformation to the creation of a truly European Public Space. The New European Bauhaus initiative has the potential to connect the green transformation of Europe (Green Deal) with a cultural movement for Europe (Culture Deal). And we need alignment of the post-pandemic finance package with the Green Deal and the Cultural Deal.

Building the European dream: Where is the architecture of contemporary Europe? There isn’t really much to speak of. If the EU were to fall apart tomorrow, there wouldn’t be much left to remember it in terms of architecture. We need a debate on the status of architecture and public spaces in the European narrative, on how the new Europe should present itself today and for posterity, in a way that is sustainable in every respect. This new European architecture that is contributing to our tangible identity ought to be an EU objective. Let’s set up a European Case Study House Programme, similar to the one declared in the US in the mid-1940s, to design inexpensive but decent houses for huge parts of the population. Let’s have a big architecture competition for EU embassies around the world. Let’s build or upcycle European houses across Europe that are not just representations of bureaucracies but creative workspaces with open exhibitions, workshops, theatre performances, coffee houses to meet, discuss, imagine Europe. Let’s build a European Pavilion for the Venice Biennale, and indeed all over Europe, which should pose the question of how to represent Europe in a poetic way.

Growing a cultural movement: You can try, but you cannot be sure you will succeed. It’s a bit like gardening. Plan, plant, let it grow, water, fertilise, protect, replant, fertilise, eventually harvest. You will need love, dedication, persistence, good weather and some luck too. In any event, don’t force it. The EU can stimulate, promote, sponsor the idea, but it cannot run it. A cultural movement out of Brussels will be perceived as bureaucratic, or worse, propaganda. You cannot create a movement, but you can provide the conditions for such a movement to unfold. Showing trust in the capacity of others to mobilise, grow and lead the movement is a start, providing tangible support and incentives is a must.

Learning from Erasmus: The Erasmus programme is incredibly successful at building a better Europe. Perhaps more so than anything else. So, what lessons can Erasmus teach us? First of all, keep it simple. Take something tried and tested, Europeanise it and don’t be stingy. Too many things in Europe are too complicated. Second, build on existing institutions and networks; help them connect with each other, and facilitate the creation of a pan-European infrastructure. Erasmus is successful because it is embedded in a wider context and existing infrastructure, namely European universities. Third, Erasmus invests rather directly in people and has a lasting effect on their lives through education, friends, love, language and much more. The direct investment in people is successful because it can be experienced, touched, it can almost be grasped. You can see it, feel it, hear it. You can fall in love. It gives rise to European stories, which you can write books and make films about. If there were such a thing, Erasmus would have one of the highest “European identity factors”. Fourth, invest real money. Size and money matter. Erasmus is by far the largest student exchange programme in the world. For the coming seven years, the EU will invest more than €26 billion in Erasmus+ . Sometimes size does matter.

Innovating governance and funding: COVID-19 has shown that emergency measures and funding instruments are key but they are not sufficient to respond to the new challenges. All stakeholders, public, private, philanthropic, civic actors need to rethink their contribution to making Europe a better, greener and more inclusive place. We need alignment of strategies for greater impact, pooling of resources, and the experimentation with new models of cooperation and partnerships. The philanthropic sector in Europe amounts to a €60 billion annual budget. We could achieve much more if the EU, governments and foundations worked strategically together for Europe to mitigate the damage caused by the pandemic and to build an attractive future. So far, however, the EU lacks such an instrument. There is no legal framework, provision or incentive. The EU needs to show its own innovation capacity and adaptability and devise flexible tools for strategic cooperation and partnership with the philanthropic sector, for the benefit of all (see recommendations of Imagine Philanthropy for Europe).

The European Cultural Foundation was founded in 1954 by Robert Schuman and other great Europeans with the aim of promoting a European sentiment through education, culture and science nourishing a European sense of belonging based on more than coal and steel. A great step in this direction was the Erasmus programme that emerged thanks to a strategic partnership between the European Commission and the European Cultural Foundation. Could the New European Bauhaus project become the next Erasmus?

Let’s imagine and do it together.

André Wilkens, Director
Isabelle Schwarz, Head of Public Policy