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date: 02 October 2022

Gropius, Walter (Adolf Georg)free

(b Berlin, May 18, 1883; d Boston, MA, July 5, 1969).

Gropius, Walter (Adolf Georg)free

(b Berlin, May 18, 1883; d Boston, MA, July 5, 1969).
  • Gilbert Herbert

Updated in this version

updated bibliography, 9 July 2012

American architect, industrial designer and teacher of German birth. He was one of the most influential figures in the development of the Modern Movement, whose contribution lay as much in his work as theoretician and teacher as it did in his innovative architecture. The important buildings and projects in Gropius’s career—the early factories, the Bauhaus complex at Dessau (1925–6), the Totaltheater project for Berlin, the housing estates and prefabricated dwellings—were all more than immediate answers to specific problems. Rather, they were a series of researches in which he sought prototypical solutions that would offer universal applicability. They were also didactic in purpose—concrete demonstrations, manifestos, of his theories and beliefs. His theories sought to integrate the individual and society, art and industry, form and function and the part with the whole. He left Germany for England in 1934; three years later he emigrated to the USA, where he continued to teach, write and design for the rest of his life.

1. The early years, 1903–18.

Gropius had only five terms of formal training as an architect. The first was in 1903 at the Technische Hochschule, Munich, which was followed by some practical experience in Berlin (1903–4) in the office of Solf & Wichards; the remainder were spent at the Technische Hochschule, Charlottenburg, in 1906–7 and were followed by a series of small independent commissions in Pomerania. In 1908 he entered the Berlin office of Peter Behrens, then acting as design consultant to the Allgemeine Elektrizitäts-Gesellschaft (AEG). Gropius had difficulty in holding a pencil, and he called himself Behrens’s ‘factotum’ rather than architectural assistant. This difficulty in drawing, from which he suffered all his life, had two positive side-effects: a shift of interest from the drawing-board as an end in itself to the process of design and construction as one integrated activity, and a sharpening of his ability to define and analyse problems in architecture and prescribe solutions in principle, with greater clarity and precision than many of his contemporaries. In Behrens’s office Gropius met fellow-assistants Adolf Meyer and Mies van der Rohe and perhaps Le Corbusier, who came to work there in 1910, at around the time that Gropius left.

One can see the effects of the years with Behrens not only through such contacts but also in Gropius’s own realization of the powerful influence of industry, both for architectural patronage and in the building process, and in his appreciation of the architect’s comprehensive role, from graphics and product design to building and urban planning. The synthesis of his enduring fascination with the industrial process and his holistic approach (‘the scope of total architecture’) was already apparent in his ideas for industrial housing outlined in a memorandum presented to the head of AEG in 1910. The following year he joined the Deutscher Werkbund; this was an organization dedicated to that synthesis of art and industry that Gropius himself so ardently advocated.

Walter Gropius (with Adolf Meyer): Fagus Factory, Alfeld an der Leine, 1911–3; © 2007 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, photo credit: Vanni/Art Resource, NY

On leaving Behrens (1910), Gropius opened his own office in Berlin, with Adolf Meyer as his associate. Their practice flourished until interrupted by World War I. Two buildings of this period stand out: the Fagus Factory (1911–13) on the Leine at Alfeld (see fig.) and the model factory of 1914. The Fagus Factory was a striking example of early modernist architecture. The simplified modular treatment of the main façades, the extensive use of glass and the dramatic omission of piers at its corners—usually stressed as a visual point of stability—made this an innovative landmark in the evolution of the Modern Movement. At the same time Gropius retained an elemental classicism, not only in the ordered regularity of its columned façade, but in the nuances of design: the entasis-like treatment of the narrow brick piers, the correction of optical illusions in the graduated spacing of the glazing bars and the precision of detail of the metal profiles. The model factory built for the Werkbund Exhibition in Cologne (1914) was equally bold: while it retained a classical discipline in the axial symmetry of its plan, the façades of the administration block were entirely original—notwithstanding some very muted influences derived from the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. The glazed, circular stair-towers at the outside corners are lyrical, and the curtain-wall theme, tentative in the main Fagus building and explored further in the Fagus machine-house, was here taken to its logical and dramatic conclusion. The outbreak of World War I brought Gropius’s career to a halt. He served as an officer on the Western Front and in 1915, while on leave, married Alma Mahler, the composer Gustav Mahler’s widow.

2. From Bauhaus to Berlin, 1918–34.

At the end of World War I, Gropius returned to a chaotic, revolutionary Germany. He joined the newly formed Arbeitsrat für Kunst, becoming its director the same year. Soon afterwards he accepted an offer to head the Kunstschule and the Kunstgewerbeschule in Saxony, which he combined and renamed the Staatliches Bauhaus, Weimar. On assuming directorship of the Bauhaus in April 1919, his main preoccupations became education and the establishment and consolidation of the institution. It was an idealistic institution, and his opening manifesto proclaimed a utopian vision of ways to build, ‘which will embrace architecture and sculpture and painting in one unity, and which will rise one day towards heaven from the hands of a million workers’. The immediate reality of the Bauhaus was more modest, its goals more realistic and its scope restricted to the theory and practice of design. Within these parameters its achievements were notable (as demonstrated by the impressive Bauhaus exhibition of 1923). But the ultimate goal, the ‘composite but inseparable work of art, the great building’, remained elusive during the early 1920s: it was not achieved at the Bauhaus, nor in Gropius’s office, which he had re-established with Meyer after the war. Up to 1922 Gropius’s work was exploratory and indecisive, with no clear line of development. It reflected the uncertainties and tensions of a Germany in political and economic turmoil, but also perhaps the personal emotional stresses induced by his divorce in 1920.

Of all his early post-war work, only the house for Adolf Sommerfeld in Berlin, the so-called ‘blockhouse’ (1920–21), showed that integration of arts, crafts and architecture at which he aimed. If there was a regression, compared to the pre-war work, then it was not towards Expressionism (as is usually claimed), for his work of this period lacked the emotional intensity and overt symbolism of Expressionist architecture; rather, it was stamped by a pervading romanticism in which traditional forms, and, as at the ‘blockhouse’, traditional techniques, were reworked in a process of innovative conservatism. By 1922 a new clarity had appeared in his work, in his and Meyer’s entry for the Chicago Tribune competition (see Nerdinger, p. 63) and their unrealized proposals two years later for a research and study centre, an academy of philosophy, which was to have been built at Erlangen-Spansdorf (see Nerdinger, p. 69). Gropius’s romantic phase had ended, and the architecture as well as the designs produced in the Bauhaus itself were now uncompromisingly committed to the avant-garde and closer in spirit to Russian Constructivism and De Stijl. Gropius’s private life at this time also became more stable, with his marriage to Ilse Frank in 1923.

Walter Gropius (with Adolf Meyer): Bauhaus buildings, exterior, workshop wing, view from south, Dessau, 1925–6; © 2007 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, photo © Allan T. Kohl/AICT

In 1925 the Bauhaus moved from Weimar to Dessau, occupying temporary accommodation while the new school and staff housing were being built to designs by Gropius. The Bauhaus buildings (1925–6) are his major works; his audacious use of glass as hanging, transparent planes, the clear spatial and functional organization of the whole and overall synthesis of architecture, interior design, furniture and equipment made these buildings a paradigm of the Modern Movement (see figs 1 and 2). They were not wholly a construction of machine-made parts, but they were totally expressive of the machine aesthetic—an appropriate symbol of the Bauhaus commitment to a unique synthesis of art and industry and of itself, as both educational institution and social microcosm. The first years in Dessau, when the Bauhaus reached its peak of international fame, were also a productive period for Gropius. His Törten housing estate (1926–8) for the city council, built in stages and comprising some 600 dwellings, made considerable advances in construction technology and site layout; his employment office (1927–9), also for the council, was a model of functional planning. For the Werkbund’s Weissenhofsiedlung at Stuttgart in 1927, Gropius built two houses; he used prefabricated techniques, stressing technological advances in house design rather than the sociological dimensions of l’habitation minimum or Modernist aesthetics. His Totaltheater project (see Nerdinger, pp. 95, 97, 99) in Berlin for the theatre director Erwin Piscator the same year expressed his search for the Gesamtkunstwerk in its most comprehensive form, a desire to embrace architecture, theatre and cinema and unite performer and audience in a rich pluralistic synthesis.

In 1928 Gropius gave up his Bauhaus directorship and returned to private practice in Berlin; he also made an extended visit to the USA. His most significant achievements by this time were in the field of public housing: Karlsruhe (Dammerstock, 1928–9), Frankfurt am Main (Am Lindenbaum, 1929–30) and Berlin (Siemensstadt, 1929–30). His typical approach to planning, with long parallel blocks of walk-up flats, efficiently planned and of a simple but pleasing appearance, provided the best possible orientation and use of space, but at the cost of an overall visual monotony and a lack of focus both in formal and social terms. He also advocated the high-rise slab building (in which he perceived a sociological validity, i.e. the ‘big’ family of cooperative dwellers replacing the individual family), for its economical construction through new building techniques and its preservation of open spaces. Examples include his project of 1929–30 for high-rise, steel-frame dwellings (see Nerdinger, pp. 137, 139, 141) and his luxury development on the Wannsee shore of Berlin’s Lake Havel (1930–31; see Nerdinger, p. 157).

Housing apart, few of Gropius’s projects were realized during this period. Two important ones were entries for international competitions: the Ukrainian State Theatre (1930–31; see Nerdinger, p. 155), Khar’kov (now Kharkiv), and the Palace of the Soviets (1931; see Nerdinger, pp. 161–3), Moscow. Both derived from his ideas for the Total Theatre, and the form of each was determined by its function; the boldly articulated, fan-shaped masses of both were perhaps less dramatic than Le Corbusier’s proposals for the Palace of the Soviets, but probably much more workable. Along with many contemporary avant-garde architects Gropius had looked favourably on the USSR, but following a later visit to Leningrad (now St Petersburg) in 1933 he was left somewhat disillusioned with the harsh realities beyond the Socialist dream.

3. England and the USA, 1934–69.

In the early 1930s economic depression caused a major recession in the building industry, and commissions were scarce. For architects, the rising power of Nazism in Germany was a further source of perturbation. Ring, Der, of which Gropius had been a leading member, was regarded as an organization of ‘Jewish-Bolshevik’ architects, and the Bauhaus was castigated in the Nazi press as a ‘Cathedral of Marxism’. Confronted by growing professional impotence and political discomfort, in 1934 Gropius went voluntarily (and he hoped temporarily) into exile. He travelled to England and went into partnership with E. Maxwell Fry. Their patron and principal client was the enlightened industrialist J. C. Pritchard, head of the Isokon company. He not only gave opportunities to Gropius, who acted as a design consultant to Isokon in 1934–5, but also extended patronage to other émigrés, including Marcel Breuer, who had joined Gropius in London in 1935.

Hopes were high, but the climate in England was not propitious for a revolution in architecture. There were many ambitious projects, but few Gropius and Fry buildings, and these, though radical for England, were of no great architectural significance. Only one, the Impington Village College (1936–9), Cambs, was a work of distinction and quality. It retained the functional clarity of the best buildings by Gropius in Germany, but it was less austere, a reflection perhaps of its English context. Gropius was aware that, although his presence was appreciated by a small group of young architects, the MARS Group, he was making little impact on the broad and overwhelmingly conservative architectural scene. He had thus kept in touch with contacts in the USA throughout his stay in England. In 1937 he accepted a professorship at Harvard University.

On taking up his new position at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, Gropius was soon joined by several former colleagues, including Breuer and Martin Wagner, with whom he had worked closely in Berlin. The next few years were professionally rewarding, despite being personally distressing for Gropius (because of the difficulties of exile compounded with tensions generated by approaching war). He was appointed Chairman of the architectural department, and he established himself in the USA as an influential teacher, although he never really became reconciled to the divorce of theory and practice inherent in a university environment. When, in 1938, he built his own house at Lincoln, MA, it was more than a desire for stability; it was a proclamation of intent and a statement of faith. The house remains one of his best works, one which integrated modern European design with the traditional techniques of New England timber construction. The rectangular prism of its basic form was enriched by a projecting screen, overhanging canopies and free-standing posts, an outrigging which reduced the old Bauhaus dependence on mass and surface and related more closely to De Stijl Constructivism. The Lincoln house was undoubtedly designed by Gropius, although formally it represented a partnership between himself and Breuer. In other work by this partnership, which included several houses in the same genre, Breuer played a more incisive role. This is particularly evident in one major project, a competition entry of 1938 (see Nerdinger, p. 197) for Wheaton College Art Centre, Norton, MA, where Breuer’s characteristic plan-forms are apparent. The only important executed project by this partnership was ‘Aluminium City’ (1941–2), a housing estate at New Kensington, Pittsburgh, PA. Designed for only 250 families in a loosely-knit group and adapted to its topography, this estate was very different in scale and character to the great Siedlungen of Gropius’s period in Berlin.

In 1941 the partnership came to an end, following disagreements both in the architectural school and in the office. In September of that year Konrad Wachsmann came as a penniless refugee to live with Gropius and his family, and he began to work on some of the office projects, notably a recreation centre (1941–2; see Nerdinger, p. 203) for Key West, FL, which initially had also involved Breuer. This and many other projects were aborted in December 1941 when the USA entered World War II. The major result of the association between Gropius and Wachsmann was the development of a system of prefabrication, the Packaged House (1942–52), which, despite its technical ingenuity and the growing need for such houses, failed to reach full production; only a small number of these houses was actually sold. Although by 1944 Gropius had distanced himself from this particular project, its eventual failure was a sad climax to his lasting interest in the factory-made house. This had started with his memorandum to AEG in 1910 and later included the combinatory Baukasten im Grossen system of 1923 (with Meyer; see Nerdinger, p. 233), Muche and Paulick’s steel house for the Bauhaus (1926–7), the Werkbund’s prefabricated dwellings for the Weissenhofsiedlung (1927) and his involvement with the Hirsch houses made from copper (1931–2; see Herbert, 1984, pp. 109, 122, 126–7, 130–31). The practical results of this struggle to put housing on an industrialized basis, but controlled by architects, were minimal; but Gropius played a major role in defining the principles. When opportunities resumed after the war he united with a group of young architects to form TAC (The Architects Collaborative) in 1945, and he continued to practise until his death. The first major work of TAC, the Harvard University Graduate Centre (1948–50), Cambridge, MA, continued the forms and many of the details of Gropius’s earlier work, a humanized international-style building related sympathetically to the genius loci of Harvard’s campus. In many other buildings by TAC his role continued to be an important (sometimes dominant) one, but inevitably his personal imprint was less evident in later years. Such works included the neo-classical US Embassy in Athens (1956–61) and university buildings in Baghdad (from 1957; see Fitch, pls 129–35) as well as projects in the USA and Germany. As a result, his 32 years in the USA were rich in achievement and honour, but the greatest achievements lay in his early life and work in pre-Hitler Germany.

Writings

  • The New Architecture and the Bauhaus (London, 1935)
  • Rebuilding our Communities (Chicago, 1945)
  • Architecture and Design in the Age of Science (New York, 1952)
  • I. Gropius, ed.: Scope of Total Architecture (New York, 1952)
  • with S. P. Harkness, eds: Architects Collaborative: 1945–1965 (Tenfen, 1966)
  • Apollo in the Democracy: The Cultural Obligation of the Architect (New York, 1968)

Bibliography

  • S. Giedion: Walter Gropius (Paris, 1931)
  • G. C. Argan: Walter Gropius e la Bauhaus (Turin, 1951)
  • S. Giedion: Walter Gropius: Work and Teamwork (New York, 1954)
  • C. Y. Kurata, Y. Nosu and M. Koyama: Walter Gropius (Tokyo, 1954)
  • S. Giedion, G. Argan and D. Haskell: Walter Gropius (Montevideo, 1955)
  • G. Herbert: The Synthetic Vision of Walter Gropius (Johannesburg, 1959)
  • J. M. Fitch: Walter Gropius (New York, 1960)
  • H. Weber: Walter Gropius und das Faguswerk (Munich, 1961)
  • H. M. Wingler: Das Bauhaus, 1919–1933 (Bramsche, 1962; Eng. trans. with suppl. material, Cambridge, MA, 1969)
  • W. B. O’Neal, ed.: ‘A Bibliography of Writings by and about Walter Gropius’, American Association of Architectural Bibliographers: Papers, 3 (1966); suppl., ix (1972), pp. 1–24
  • J. M. Fitch, intro.: Walter Gropius: Buildings, Plans, Projects 1906–1969 (Washington, DC, 1972)
  • K. Wilhelm: Walter Gropius: Industriearchitektur (Brunswick, 1983)
  • R. Isaacs: Walter Gropius: Der Mensch und sein Werk, 2 vols (Berlin, 1983–4)
  • G. Herbert: The Dream of the Factory-made House: Walter Gropius and Konrad Wachsmann (Cambridge, MA, 1984)
  • W. Nerdinger: Walter Gropius (Berlin, 1985) [Eng. and Ger. texts]
  • W. Nerdinger, ed.: The Walter Gropius Archive: An Illustrated Catalogue of the Drawings, Prints, and Photographs in the Walter Gropius Archive at the Busch-Reisinger Museum, Harvard University (New York, 1990–91)
  • É. Forgács: The Bauhaus Idea and Bauhaus Politics (Budapest, London, and New York, 1995)
  • M. Kentgens-Craig: The Dessau Bauhaus Building 1926–1999 (Basle and Boston, 1998)
  • M. Kentgens-Craig: The Bauhaus and America: First Contacts, 1919–1936 (Cambridge, 1999)
  • M. Clausen: The Pan Am Building and the Shattering of the Modernist Dream (Cambridge, 2005)
  • J. Pearlman: Inventing American Modernism: Joseph Hudnut, Walter Gropius, and the Bauhaus Legacy at Harvard (Charlottesville, 2007)