The founder of the Bauhaus design school, a promoter of New Architecture movement, an architect of several prominent projects, many of which are now the UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Walter Gropius would have turned 139 years old on May 18th.
Photo by: Gropiusstadt in Berlin,Neukölln, Clemens Franz, 2006
You, probably, heard the words Bauhaus and Gropius many times walking the streets of Berlin. There is Martin-Gropius-Bau, a museum named after Gropius’ famous architect uncle, and a Bauhaus Archiv, a collection giving a detailed overview of all things Bauhaus. You also, perhaps, heard many city guides and your friends pointing to a building as Bauhaus, referring to a style, which took its name from a school of design and architecture founded by Walter Gropius in 1919, in Weimar, Germany.
Aside from keeping with the Bauhaus traditions, there are many city projects designed by the great architect himself: a nine-story residential building in the Hansa district and Siemensstadt, a large housing estate and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, for example. You cannot but notice these spectacular modern marvels. The time has not erased the ideas of Bauhaus with its functional shapes, simple color schemes, and a holistic style. It popularized the “modern wave” and industrial materials, like glass, concrete, and steel.
Photo by: F51 armchair by Walter Gropius, Made for Bauhaus in 1920
Walter Gropius was born in Berlin in 1883. Apparently, Walter never even learned how to draw properly (he left the Konigliche Technische Hochschule in Berlin after two years, without taking a diploma), but was already then designing buildings for family and friends. In 1908 he started working in the Berlin office of Peter Behrens, a fascinating figure who influenced Gropius greatly and directed him in defining modernist architecture. He left Behrens in 1910 and together with Adolf Meyer established a practice in Berlin. By 1914 Gropius had made his own major construction, the Fagus, a shoe last factory in Alfed.
Undoubtedly, the most important episode in his career was his founding of the Bauhaus in 1919. The school was created to unite fine arts (like painting and sculpture) with applied arts (like industrial design or building design). While the Bauhaus school existed only for 14 years, the Bauhaus movement continued, birthing a new form of architecture that produced simple designs that are beautiful, functional, and can be mass-produced. It unified many approaches and voices, and there was a place in it, at different times, for everyone, from mystics and poets to Marxist ideologists and industrial fetishists. After four years it had to move from Weimar to Dessau, where Gropius built the single most persuasive case for the Bauhaus idea. The campus today is a must see. The school and the idyllic line of masters’ houses in a peaceful surrounding of pine grove symbolize a compelling vision of a life where work, communal existence, private spaces, creativity, and natural beauty can exist harmoniously and concisely.
Photo by: Walter Gropius, 1919. Louis Held
Photo by: Six assistants of Peter Behrens at their workplace - (from left) Mies van der Rohe, Meyer, Hertwig, Weyrather (behind), Krämer, Gropius (with plan) Source, C. Arthur Croyl
Closure of the school in 1933, ironically, spread the ideas of Bauhaus geographically, as its exiled students moved out of Germany, away from a Hitler’s regime to many corners of the world. Being uprooted and exiled numerously throughout his life, Gropius carried out his work wherever he landed. He first left for England and then, joining the great exodus of German intellectuals, to the USA, where he taught at the Harvard Graduate School of Design for many years.
Many biographies have been written about Gropius, though, sadly, it is very hard to get a feel of what he was like as a person. It’s clear that he achieved most of what he planned and did not permit his private life to impinge on his public mission. We know he was married twice. His first wife (of 5 years) was a very vivid character - Gustav Mahler’s widow Alma, an empress of the Jugendstil creativity and a wife and/or a lover to many (outside from Mahler and Gropius), including Klimt, Kokoschka, Franz Werfel, Zemlinsky and Paul Kammerer. To his second wife, Ise, Gropius was married for 46 years. She was equally creative and collaborated with her husband on many projects, wrote essays on fashion and design, and (after Walter died) ran their house like a museum with an idea to share Gropius’ legacy with the public.
We know, he was an efficient manager, a well-balanced, sensible, decent, and admired by everyone. Great architects, after all, must be pragmatic and efficient. So, we will leave it up to our imagination to picture Walter Gropius as a person, and instead, while appreciating his greatest works in and outside of Berlin, we will first and outmost admire him as a visionary.