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With gorgeous images, diagrams that actually are clear and explanatory, and stories off the beaten track that feature little known places, Google’s recent effort to show us (rather than tell us) what made the Bauhaus so great is a remarkable example of how the internet can be used as a teaching tool. High school teachers and their wards around the world should delight in the power of this site, which is part of the digital octopus’ Arts & Culture “channel.” So why does the site leave those of us with graduate degrees (and probably some of us who are still enrolled) and, I assume many others, feel so empty and unsatisfied?

It has always been difficult to communicate architecture and design. Part of the reason is the basic problem of translation: How do you not only put into words a complex form that you experience in time and space, but also communicate that design is actually an ongoing process of assimilation, projection, and reception in which the finished building is only a monument of intentions and aspirations? In other words, how do you describe both the building and the larger issues embedded in that structure? Part of the issue is also that the language we have developed is, like that of any professional field, a highly technical one.

For these reasons and, I am sure, many others, most descriptions and criticism of architecture have taken place within the academic realm. Although there have always been attempts by critics and architects to communicate with a wider audience, they have remained limited and these days have disappeared almost completely. Only a few major newspapers in this country, for instance, such as the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Dallas Morning News, still employ architecture critics. “Shelter books,” as the home and design magazines are called in the trade, are disappearing.

The architecture room in the Bauhaus as seen on the Arts & Culture site
Google Arts & Culture The architecture room in the Bauhaus as seen on the Arts & Culture site

In their stead, we have seen the proliferation of websites, zines, and other digitally based publications. The problem here is that these sites usually reach a specialized audience that is already part of the discipline—again, a problem not limited to architecture. Few of the general interest outlets feature architecture with any regularity–I can think of only Curbed, Fast Company, and Bloomberg News. At the same time, there are few general critics or cultural commentators who seem to concern themselves with design on a regular basis. It makes you miss even the rhetorical overkill of Tom Wolfe: At least he got us thinking about architecture with his infamous 1981 book From Bauhaus to Our House (Farrar, Straus & Giroux).

Which brings us back to Google’s valiant attempt to make us see—if not quite understand—why we should still care about a small school in Germany that lasted for only a few decades and closed more than 80 years ago. The Google project does make the institution seem pretty exciting. What I enjoyed most about the site were, first, those diagrams. Created in collaboration with the Illinois Institute of Technology, the Getty, and five other institutions, they pull apart both the Dessau Bauhaus building and chairs and teapots designed there into their geometric components, so that you instantly understand their formal properties.

A Bauhaus video from the Arts & Culture site

Nor is the site only concerned with such basic properties. One of my favorite sections shows images and tells, albeit it again very briefly, the story of the campus the Bauhausler Arieh Sharon designed in Nigeria for Obafemi Awolowo University. With historic photographs by Alfred Eisenstadt and Google’s own panoramas, you are able to get a very real sense of Sharon’s achievement and maybe even intuit why it mattered to both the university and the society in which it was constructed.

On the Google site, you can also trace a student’s path to and through the Bauhaus, from application to arrival to the courses they had to take. You can understand bits and pieces of the curriculum, and see what students and faculty wore. Unbuilt projects are on display, as are some obscure artifacts from the school. Cruise around the site, and you almost feel as if you were there.

Google Arts & Culture/Ayobami Oke

Obafemi Awolowo University as shown on the Arts & Culture site

What is missing is any depth. With no texts that are more than few sentences long, no analysis, and no way to understand the relation between design, social issues, and skills, the Bauhaus appears more than anything else as a continual design party, filled with selfie-ready moments. Would it really have been that difficult for Google to build the site in layers, with more in-depth information, which they obviously collected, more description or analysis, and more of images available by clicking through links? In that way, those of us who want to know more can make use of what is obviously a huge amount of hunting and gathering the staffers and their university collaborators have performed?

What is missing is any depth. With no texts that are more than few sentences long, no analysis, and no way to understand the relation between design, social issues, and skills, the Bauhaus appears more than anything else as a continual design party, filled with selfie-ready moments.

Ah, but where’s the audience for that? Apparently not enough of a crowd for Google to bother. That is especially interesting to me because the Arts & Culture channel is an ad-free zone presented as a kind of public service. You would think that collecting data on design nerds, who usually will shell out a lot of money for specific products and services, would be enough of an enticement for Google to set up rabbit holes for us aficionados where all our data could be neatly stripped and sold.

Google did not, but it does make me fantasize. If academia is, for better or worse, the home of architecture criticism, and if companies such as Google do see some incentive to provide a means of very effectively communicating design to what could be potentially a vast audience, would it not be possible for a school or schools to collaborate with a tech company to pair their depth of archives and interpretation with the gloss, condensation, communicative expertise, and reach the internet behemoths can offer?

The only problem might be that, at least according to some, architecture criticism is dead. Then again, that is an obituary we have read too many times, along with the death notices about architecture, art, God, and democracy. I would not give up so soon. The internet is out there—let’s use it to strengthen and spread the debate about why design matters.

Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.