Walter Gropius (1883-1969)
The Bauhaus reduced even to its own door handles is considered to be Gropius’ greatest achievements.
Reyner Banham predicted bafflement in any attempt to sum up Walter Gropius. That seems an odd thing to say about such an apparently straightforward architect. Until you try it, that is.
Gropius loved a party. He was a dancer, he was a lover, they say he couldn’t draw, and he was ‘probably the most influential architectural pedagogue of all time’ (James Stevens Curl). He tops and tails many books usefully; for Tom Wolfe he’s that silver prince retrospectively responsible for something all wrong, for Pevsner he’s the glorious god of the future.
Gropius was born of an illustrious dynasty of architects, but he admitted he had difficulty drawing, working in Behrens’ office alongside Mies and Le Corbusier. This was a minor limitation. Perhaps out of necessity he relied on collaboration, which he then elevated to an art form; total cooperative design from teaspoons up. This is how we might understand the psychological genesis of the Bauhaus, which he instigated and directed first in Weimar, then in Dessau, from 1919 to 1928. Under Gropius, the Bauhaus embraced not only the new industrial design we all know, but also new sexually and socially progressive politics we are still apparently not sure about. However, there were definite hangovers, for instance Gropius stated that in the Bauhaus there would be no difference between the ‘strong’ and the ‘beautiful’ sex, and believed women thought well in two dimensions, and men in three.
Gropius had gone through a real washing machine of life before he put architecture through the mangle. He survived as a sergeant in the signal corps in the First World War, being both buried under rubble and dead bodies, and shot out of the sky with a dead pilot. He was awarded the Iron Cross twice. He’d also survived being married to Alma Mahler, reputedly the most beautiful woman in Europe, between her stints with composer Gustav Mahler, Oscar Kokoschka and novelist Franz Werfel before 1920.
He met Alma when he was 27. She was in rehab after touring with Mahler, and was prescribed dancing. She saw him as some Wagnerian teutonic knight. The sex made her giddy. Gropius was besotted; he stalked the Mahler residence hiding under a bridge. Their affair sent Gustav onto Freud’s couch. When Walter and Alma were finally married, secretly, in 1915, Kokoschka was so upset he resorted to a specially made Alma love doll.
Gropius shared a life-long antipathy with Mies. They died within months of each other. Mies considered Gropius’s greatest achievement the Bauhaus as a name and an idea. Certainly Gropius’s ability to attract such a diverse collection of artists to teach there in the first place, and then get them to embrace some apparent new objectivity, was miraculous. Paul Klee said he only signed up because the vegetables were cheaper in Weimar than Munich. Whatever the circumstances, Gropius’s team, starting out as transcendentally spiritualist and living on garlic mush, ended up, by iteration and via Gropius’s inner grit, the epitome of ruthless pragmatism within a decade. Meanwhile, Alma was a raving anti-Semite who fancied Jewish men.
Apprentice in the office of Peter Behrens where he met Mies Van der Rohe and possibly Le Corbusier
Founded the Bauhaus School of Design (1919-1928)
Founded The Architect’s Collaborative (1945)
Fled Nazi Germany under the pretext of a temporary visit to Britain with the help of architect Maxwell Fry (1934)
The Fagus-Werk Factory, Berlin (1911)
The Gropius House, Lincoln, Mass (1938)
The Pan Am Building, New York (1958)
‘Architecture begins where the engineering ends’
Despite the name, the Bauhaus was never primarily an architectural school, even in Dessau by 1926, the department occupied one modest room, and Gropius and his partner Adolf Meyer supported their poverty-stricken students by employing them just along the corridor. However, it is a building so razor sharp in intellect it can be reduced to its door handles. Gropius described it totally without hyperbole.
Others didn’t. The cultural dissemination of the Gropius machine aesthetic actually features plenty of hyperbole, including his own during the Alma years. Pevsner by 1936 already considered his prewar Fagus factory aesthetically sublime, as good as the Gothic, noting the chill, but appreciating it as a response to the machine age and necessarily anonymous. By the ’80s Reyner Banham was delighted to point out that the Fagus factory was in fact yellow, was a ‘skin job’ and still full of comfy decorative trimmings. He put the machine aesthetic down to the Americans.
However, the Bauhaus building rings with the clarity of man’s dynamism against nature and the pinnacle of that something between everything and nothing that seems the totally modern. Gropius sat in his directorial office in the middle of a pin-wheel plan on a bridge over a road. He incorporated the road − a conceit maybe, but this building would seem the embodiment of concepts drawn out of, and rejecting, all turbulent, mystical, creativity, general and personal; the built manifestation of modern humanism. It is ridiculous only in its optimism and its cutting straightforwardness.
But he didn’t sit there for long. Thinking the institution secure, and with further opportunities to build, Gropius passed the directorship to the communist Hannes Meyer in 1928. It proved very hard to fill his shoes. Meyer was theoretically more astringent than the urbane Gropius, and the political climate worsened. By 1930, Gropius had ushered in Mies for the final years.
Gropius had discreetly divorced Alma by 1920. Of her conquests she apparently declared that nothing tasted as good as the sperm of a genius. She didn’t like his designs or the reek of garlic and the one thing Gropius couldn’t collaborate on was music. Gropius, ever the gentleman, allowed himself to be caught with a prostitute to expedite their divorce. Even when his rival Werfel was in danger from the authorities, Gropius sought him out to warn him. Amid personal tragedy (their daughter, Manon, died of polio at 18, and a second child, born prematurely under excruciating circumstances, was Werfel’s) Gropius remained decent.
He irritated Mies with his endless idealism. The ethos of the famous Bauhaus parties soon found form in the Total Theatre (1928), intended to shake spectators from their lethargy. But he was championed by student Sigfried Giedion who was well versed in the destiny of metal tubing to supersede stuffed upholstery. Giedion penned the monograph Walter Gropius: Work and Teamwork in 1954. In it Alma Mahler all but disappears. Gropius had married his second wife Ise (co-author of many of his texts) in 1923.
Gropius’s instincts were unsurprisingly for prefabrication. Mies thought the prefabs he contributed to the Stuttgart Weissenhof in 1928 were interesting (but he didn’t say good). In England, by 1934 Gropius slotted neatly into Isokon and did some pleasing houses with Maxwell Fry. By 1936, even Mies had lost patience with the Nazis, and the pair found themselves competing for US professorships. Gropius won Harvard. He went on to build his own house in Lincoln, Massachusetts (1938), run a further co-operative practice (TAC), and work as a consultant on his largest piece of prefabrication, the 9,000 concrete panels of the Pan Am building.
I lost out on Bauhaus door handles on eBay recently. They looked great, but really it was the spirit, the myth, some would say the propaganda of the Bauhaus that I let slip. Everybody wants a bit of that total theatre. Generations of educators have been affected in such a way. On his death
in 1969, Gropius wanted not tears, but a party. The great pedagogue, that charming man and gallant fighter, an idealist whose work should genuinely be considered as a sum greater than its individual parts, still wanted a good time for all.