Walter Gropius, an émigré architect whose International Style and social insight helped define the aesthetics of the 20th century, would undoubtedly grasp and give vital form to the 21st century if he were alive to see it today. The strength of Gropius's vision lay in his humanistic ability to comprehend the essentials of the world in which he lived and to design the basic forms and metaphors that would give meaning to those essentials.
In the prewar Germany that Gropius inhabited for the first half of his life, Sigmund Freud, a fellow intellectual émigré, had defined the essentials of human life as "work" and "love." In the contemporary milieu of Gropius's Bauhaus, one might make the analogy of Freud's theories of "work" to Gropius's theories of the machine and of Freud's "love" to Gropius's concepts of the house and housing. These essential elements of life were given architectural expression by Gropius in the factory and in the housing projects for workers, respectively. Gropius modeled the total environment for the common man, from the public place in which he toiled to the private place that he came home to. Thus, in the utopian new world of the decent factory environment and the humane housing for its workers, Gropius, too, expressed modern man's search for work and love.
Gropius has developed an almost mythic, monolithic reputation as the founder of the German Bauhaus and functionalist architect of American high modernism, but in many ways, he was a complex, contradictory man. Whereas he worked passionately for the causes of the proletariat, he conversely represented the dispassionate ideal of die Neue Sachlichkeit (The New Objectivity). Although he developed conceptual repetitive type forms for architecture, the quality of his own work was highly variable. Even Gropius had to have been cognizant that his early creativity was unmatched in his later life. He was a true believer moving through turbulent times, forced from his homeland and relentlessly driven by politics and war, and yet Gropius prevailed where others would have fallen to despondency. When the Bauhaus was closed by the Nazis, Gropius moved as a refugee from Germany, through Britain, and on to the United States, leaving buildings and theory behind as his legacy.
Although Gropius had been born in Berlin to a prominent intellectual and artistic family, he chose early to identify not with the privileged but with the common man, believing that he could build a better world through architecture. He was a visionary but also a clear thinker. Unlike many German architects of the early 20th century, Gropius was not seduced for long by impractical theories such as postwar Expressionism; he sought a concrete way to integrate his humanism and his art. If disillusionment with the old world of art, architecture, and societal inequity brought Gropius pain, he used this discontent as an impetus toward a new pragmatic idealism.
Gropius found his salvation in the machine. As he moved theoretically from the early utopianism of the 1910s into the realms of the practicable and buildable by the 1920s, his interests in factories and mass housing were already dominating his work. Gropius joined the Deutscher Werkbund and began his architectural career in the office of Germany's leading proponent of total industrial design, architect Peter Behrens, in whose office design objects ranged from typography to factory buildings. Gropius, at 00, would soon articulate the gospel of total design within the Bauhaus, the “building house,” that was at once a school, a style, and a way of life.
The Bauhaus, originally established at the confluence of fine art and craft, under Gropius was refocused toward the synthesis of artistic design with machine production. For Gropius was a synthetic thinker, a multidisciplinary agent, who felt that all the arts must be united under architecture. The world was changing with industrialization, and as Gropius understood that man might be either degraded or uplifted by mechanization, he chose to see man as master of the machine. Machine production, not Handwerk, was the way of the future to ensure that good design would reach the proletariat. The role of the architect, as the avant-garde of a new civilization, was to design the prototypes for the machine, and thus models of metal furniture, light fixtures, tea sets, and industrialized housing were drawn at the Bauhaus workshops. As the director of the Bauhaus, Gropius's intention was to assemble artists and craftsmen under one roof, to end the class struggle of artist over craftsman. Together, this unified design school, expressing Gropius’s tenet of “unity in diversity,” worked toward the common goal of creating type forms, or models, for the modern world, for the machine was manufacturing the future.
Many of the masters whom Gropius appointed to direct the Bauhaus workshops themselves achieved major reputations in their fields, and quite a few of them followed Gropius's path to the United States: Marcel Breuer and Mies van der Rohe continue to be famous for furniture and architecture, Herbert Bayer for typography, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy for photography, and Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee for painting. As much a dynamic group leader as an architect, Gropius always surrounded himself with an artistic circle through which he simultaneously helped to advance and then relied on the creativity of a wide variety of colleagues. This creative group effort he called “work and teamwork.” Later in his career, Gropius sought to continue this pattern of cooperative work in his architectural partnerships, in Britain with Maxwell Fry (1930s) and in the United States with Breuer (late 1930s to 1940s), later with TAC (The Architects Collaborative; late 1940s to 1960s), and at the Harvard University School of Design, where he was named director and professor of architecture after his immigration to America in 1937.
Had Gropius’s Bauhaus career not been interrupted by the Nazi interference that forced his resignation in 1928, had he been able to carry on the work of the Bauhaus, one can only speculate on the heightened state that modern design would have reached. Had Gropius done no other work than the years he spent at the Bauhaus, had his oeuvre contained no other works than his designs for factories and the Dessau Bauhaus, he would be a famous architect even today. He did, however, push on, dedicating the latter half of his career to the design of housing and schools, working at the scales of architecture and urban planning. The early years of Gropius’s career were spent coming to grips with the architecture of work, through factory and prototype design, and were highly charged symbolically and aesthetically. In later years, Gropius’s aim was toward finding solutions to social problems and standardized housing, and thus aesthetics were de-emphasized.
Certainly, Gropius’s greatest period of architectural creativity and symbolism was his early factory aesthetic. He had foreseen man and machine in synergy, through a utopian vision of a mechanized world. Our contemporary interpretation of the machine has changed since Gropius’s time, for the machine has since been put to devastating use in two world wars; however, there are those who today apply metaphors to the computer that were earlier reserved for the mechanical machine. Gropius went further than simple rhetoric in his time, inventing symbolic form for the machine world through design prototypes and a series of factory designs.
The first and one of the most significant of these factories was Gropius’s Fagus Werk (1911) at Alfeld-an-der-Leine. Here, Gropius designed the glass curtain wall that was to become so influential a theme throughout his career. In this building, glass is used in opposition to masonry, the glass wall at once dissolving and ever present, confirmed and reconfirmed via its gridded iron structure in a taut design. Thus, very early on Gropius was exploiting and refining the crude elements of the factory into an aesthetic comment on itself. The beauty of the factory and the machine was understood to be inherent within their own elemental forms.
The Model Factory for the Werkbund Exhibition (Cologne, 1914) shows Gropius exploring his vision of the factory, here in a theoretical setting. In this context, the factory is allowed to be expansive, to be divided into its functional parts, each function in a separate form, the array of interconnected parts influenced by Constructivism. Some of these buildings are glass, some are masonry, and some combine elements of both. The Model Factory is memorable for the variation in elegant geometric forms in a complex functional plan in which each part is a complete architectural composition in itself. Most outstanding are the powerful shapes of the triangular roofline of the machine hall and the cylindrical extruded-glass staircase.
Following the expansive design for the Werkbund Model Factory, Gropius designed an even looser Cubist, Constructivist composition for the defining work of his life, the Bauhaus (1925-26) in Dessau. Here, Gropius's glass curtain wall attains its greatest mastery in the workshop building, a giant crystalline vision of architecture, a worthy last link of the German theoretical gläserne Kette, the glass chain of architecture. In the Bauhaus, Gropius played the aesthetics of glass—its transparency, reflectivity, and dissolution—against architectural oppositions, no longer against masonry but now against the white stucco cube of high modernism. The Bauhaus in plan is dynamic, an asymmetrically counterbalanced composition. What makes the Bauhaus complex so endlessly fascinating is not only that it is one of the progenitors of the International Style but also that it is a many-layered symbolic form in itself. Formally, it is a machined building; functionally, a factory for the design of machine prototypes; thus, the facade is a self-referential metaphor for the work that goes on within the structure.
With the Dessau Bauhaus complex, Gropius at last had the opportunity to design not only the working buildings but also the housing in a unified ensemble. He constructed living quarters for students, Bauhaus masters, and for himself, and these dwellings can be read as early models of his theories of mass housing in microcosm. In the Bauhaus complex, he was able to test the architectural theory that he was developing. Gropius was committed to designing the Typisierung, or type forms for a modern society: the Wohnungstype, or standardized apartment type, for the Siedlung, or mass housing project, based on his research into Existenzminimum, or minimum living standards.
Throughout his long career, Gropius applied his theoretical type forms, ranging from factories to housing to schools, in Germany, Britain, and the United States. In buildings for education, Gropius's influence continues to be felt in his type forms for modern school design in England and the United States: at Impington Village School (1936) in Cambridgeshire; in the Harvard Graduate Center (1949) in Cambridge, Massachusetts; and in the numerous TAC (The Architects Collaborative) schools of the 1950s to 1960s throughout suburban New England. In housing, he is remembered internationally for major works, including the German Siemensstadt Siedlung (1929) in Berlin and Weissenhofsiedlung (1927) in Stuttgart, for his British project for Windsor Hill Flats (1935, unbuilt plans) in Windsor, and much later, while living in the United States, for Gropiusstadt (1955) at the Interbau Exhibition in Berlin, for which he was able to return to his homeland to see his early housing concepts again constructed and justified by time.
In Europe and in the United States, Gropius designed not only public housing but personal residences as well, and these works may be read as highly individual statements and memories of his emigration. The Director's House (1925) at the Dessau Bauhaus and the Gropius House (1937) in the Woods End Colony in Lincoln, Massachusetts, are important works for understanding Gropius. The houses that Gropius built for himself and his family show both a continuity of design and a contrast of meaning. In design, both are white, asymmetrical, volumetric boxes in which the ornament is inherent in the design: glass voids against flat, white, geometric facades articulated with factory elements. The German house, however, is a cool Cubist, abstract stucco, very polemical design, whereas the American house is a much quieter synthesis of the International Style white box with the American white wooden vernacular house. The houses, intensely personal statements, beckon us to interpret the man as well as the architecture. The first is a confrontation with modernism, the second more a reflective refuge. These two houses stand, with his Bauhaus and his factories, as Gropius's testament to a lifelong search for work and love.
Les Humm Cormier
Sennott R.S. Encyclopedia of twentieth century architecture, Vol.2 (G-O). Fitzroy Dearborn., 2005.
18 May 1883 Born in Berlin;
1903—04 father Walter and great
uncle Martin were architects. Attended the Humanistisches
Gymnasium, Berlin; studied at Technische Hochschule, Munich;
1903-04 apprentice, Solf and Wichards, Berlin;
1904-05 Served in German Army;
1905-07 studied at Technische Hochschule, Charlottenburg, Berlin;
1906-07 traveled Europe;
1907-10 Chief assistant to Peter Behrens, Berlin;
1914-18 Served in German Army;
1915-19 Director, Grand Ducal Academy of Arts and
Grand Ducal Saxon School of Applied Arts, Weimar, Germany
(schools merged in 1919 to become Das Staatliche
1916 Married 1) Alma Schindler Mahler
(widow of composer) (divorced): 1 child; married 2); Ise
Frank 1923: 1 child;
1919-25 director, Bauhaus, Weimar;
28 director, with
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Marcel Breur et al., Dessau;
1928 Graduate School of Design, Harvard University, Cambridge. Founder,
1928-33 private practice, Berlin;
1929-57 vice president, Harvard University, Cambridge;
1934 immigrated to England;
1934-36 partnership with E, Maxwell Fry, London;
1937 CLAM; vice
president, Institute of Sociology, London;
1937 honorary member, Royal Institute of British Architects, London;
1937 immigrated to the United States;
with Marcel Breuer, Cambridge, Massachusetts;
1937-52 professor of architecture;
1938-52 chairman of Department
from 1945 founder and partner, TAC (The Architects’ Collaborative), Cambridge;
ary member, Royal Society of Arts, London;
1950 fellow, Society
of Industrial Artists and Designers, London;
from 1952 professor emeritus;
1956 member, National Institute of Arts and Letters. Royal
Gold Medal, Royal Institute of British Architects, London;
1959 Grand Cross of Merit with Star, West Germany 1958; Gold
Medal, American Institute of Architects;
1962 fellow, American Institute of Architects 1954; honorary senator, Hochschule
fiir Bildenden Kiinste, Berlin;
1967 Honorary Royal Academician, London;
1967 associate, National Academy of Design;
5 July 1969 Died in Boston, USA.