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Bauhaus Revisited

Anthem’s new building reminds us what modernism is all about.

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By the 1930s, however, Germany was far ahead of the United States in the industrial arts. The Bauhaus, established in 1921, was an influential school that taught all the industrial arts — electronics, textile design, architecture, furniture design, engineering and crafts. The German modernists believed that the combination of aesthetics, technology and production would improve the welfare of the average person: Cost-effective and intelligent design could be a secular religion.

Architect Walter Gropius, the director of Bauhaus, designed a sleek, new interconnected Bauhaus campus at Dessau in 1926. But by 1933 the Nazis had made life miserable for the design reformers, and the school shut down. Gropius fled Germany to London in 1934 and later landed on his feet at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard. There, he tossed out old, often classical methods of design and taught modernism to new generations of Americans.

Ironically, it was corporate America that most fully embraced the Bauhaus tenets and techniques. Office buildings and retail operations were spit out cookie-cutterlike: A Burger King in Richmond looks like a Burger King in Minneapolis. The Arboretum looks like an office park in Dallas or Dayton, Ohio.

The Anthem office building, however, is not cookie-cutter. This four story, 309,000-square-foot structure is connected to the older Anthem (formerly Trigon Blue Cross and Blue Shield) building and is reminiscent of the crisp, almost virginal lines and intent of the original, Gropius-designed Bauhaus campus in Germany.

This may or may not have been the intent of Commonwealth Architects, the designer of the complex, but the architect has moved modernism into reverse with this building. The lack of extraneous detail and decoration is almost radical. This building has none of the junk — false pediments, horrendously proportioned columns, swooping entrance canopies or other marks of general fussiness — which marks almost every so-called modern building constructed here during the past decade.

This building (although the overall complex is still under construction) is intelligently thought out, beautifully scaled and refreshing in its use of materials.

It is linked to the southeast of the old headquarters (whose familiar blue bricks will be removed, its interior gutted and exterior recovered) to form an L that gestures toward the intersection of Broad Street and Staples Mill Road. From this high-trafficked vantage point, passersby see a long, curtain wall of glass on the west fa‡ade and an off-white, prefabricated concrete-clad front on the south (Broad Street) side.

The fa‡ade is divided into 16 bays of slightly gray-tinted glass. Fortunately, this glass is transparent and allows views of activity within the building (mirrored glass is one of the most insulting materials ever applied to a building since it creates a sentrylike situation where one can be observed, but doesn’t know who’s doing the watching).

On the southern, concrete-clad, three-bayed side of the Anthem building, the architect has punctuated the top floor with a shallow balcony to create an implied entablature or shadow line. In other words, massing was removed, not added, to achieve a pleasing line.

This is a work in progress. Some 1,200 Anthem employees are at work here. The old building is empty while the considerable work of gutting this 265,000-square-foot, 1966 building (designed by Ballou and Justice) continues. The reworking of this sturdy but clunky original building should be complete by the end of next year. Although there will be challenges in linking the old and new parts, the former is as heavy-handed as the latter is remarkably light. But if current results are any indication, there is little doubt that Commonwealth Architects and its client, Anthem, which advocated a strong modernist approach, will make things work.

And yes, there is a daunting expanse of parking lot between Broad and Staples Mill and the complex itself — yikes, 1,539 parking spaces. But long-term plans call for building another structure on some of this space.

In the interim, take note of the Anthem complex and consider how purely modernist it is compared to what modernism has become. It’s not a throwback, but a reminder that over time, well-intended architectural ideals can got lost in translation. S

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