With his first major commission, which he received at the age of 28 through the agency of his uncle from the industrialist Karl Benscheidt, the young architect Walter Gropius succeeded in creating an early masterpiece. The historical significance of the Fagus Factory lies in its remarkable modernism compared to the standard office building of the times. Begun in 1911 and extended in 1913, it has shaped the image of the shoe-tree factory down to the present day. After the functional concept for the various parts of the complex had been drawn up by an architect versed in the technical requirements of the plant, Benscheidt made Gropius responsible for the “artist building design” and requested him “to give the entire plant a stylish appearance.” With the experience he had gained in the office of Peter Behrens, the artistic adviser to the AEG , Germany’s General Electric Company, Gropius was ideally equipped for this task.
To lend the factory a “worthy appearance,” Gropius chose a leathery, yellow brick commonly used for industrial bindings. Against all expectations, however , he hid not design a solid brick block, but a dematerialised , transparent enclosure. The stability of the reinforced concrete structure of floor slabs and internal columns enabled Gropius to dissolve the façade as he wished. The openings he formed in the traditional brick work were so large that the remaining wall areas represent little more than a skeleton framework, and the building is reduced to its bare outlines. The solid external structure, consisting of a low plinth, slender piers , and a horizontal parapet wall at the top, is closed with panels of glazing that extend over all three stories.
In his first factory building, Gropius emancipated himself from his mentor , Peter Behrens. The Fagus works can be seen as the architectural antithesis of the latter’s best-known building, the AEG Turbine Factory in Berlin. Gropius did not build a temple of labour, but a regular cubic block in which work is objectified. The various functions of the building and the internal production process are made visible. Nevertheless, the factory had a number of different faces, depending on the view point. Gropius designed a structure with an outer skin that , seen from an angle, as it normally is when one approaches the building, congeals to a glazed curtain wall. Viewed frontally, on the other hand, it is articulated by arrow of receding piers. Gropius thus reverse the concept of the Turbine Factory. For a moment, one had the impression of a self-supporting curtain wall wrapped around the corners.
Here, for the first time , the façade provides some indication of the great degree of transparency that skeleton-frame structures were to make possible in the future. At the corner, where the observer would expect the greatest loading to occur, the building gives an impression of weightlessness.
Although iron floor girders had long enabled structures to be cantilevered out at the corners, Gropius was the first architect to draw formal conclusions from this. Where Behrens resorts to architectural history, Gropius is radically modern. On being attacked on the press for his daring, Gropius replied that by leaving out the corner pier, his had saved not merely a column, but money, too.