50 years to the day since the death of Walter Gropius, Hamish Robinson reviews Fiona MacCarthy's book about the founder of Bauhaus
If you wanted to identify the individual who did most to influence and exemplify changes in design, style, ethos and habitat in the 20th century, you could point to the subject of Fiona MacCarthy’s splendid biography: the German architect Walter Gropius.
Gropius was born in 1883 into a well-established Berlin family. His great- grandfather, a silk manufacturer, had been a patron of Schinkel, and his great-uncle, Martin Gropius, was a leading architect. In 1908, after studying in Munich, Gropius joined the Neubabelsburg office of Peter Behrens. From Behrens, Gropius received a grounding in industrial design. His first iconic building as an independent architect – he left Behrens’s office after only two years – was a factory for Fagus, a company manufacturing shoe lasts.
The originality of this severely rectilinear building in brick, steel and glass is liable to be lost in the welter of its influence. The building survived because, when American troops occupied the site in 1945, the caretaker showed them the plans to prove that it had been designed in 1911.
These promising beginnings were overtaken by two cataclysmic events: Gropius’s meeting with Alma Mahler at a sanatorium in the summer of 1910 and the outbreak of the First World War.
The initially rapturous affair with the older Alma, in the course of which her composer husband died and she entertained various other suitors, including the painter Oskar Kokoschka, ended in an oddly insubstantial marriage largely conducted, on Gropius’s part, from the Western Front.
The union did not last. Alma seems to have regarded Gropius as a star of insufficient magnitude to be her husband. It is striking that Gropius’s emphasis on collaboration at the Bauhaus entailed a rejection of the Viennese cult of artistic genius.
Though mismatched, both were marked by the marriage. The estrangement and early death of their daughter Manon left Gropius grief-stricken. For the overbearing Alma, her sickly child became a living shrine to angelic potential.
Free of Alma and full of post-war fervour, Gropius entered the most productive phase of his career. In 1919, he accepted the position of director of an amalgamated Kunstgewerbeschule in Weimar. This was to be the Bauhaus (literally ‘building house’), the art school in which disciplines would no longer exist in ‘complacent isolation’ but would be joined in the higher purpose of ‘building’: architecture conceived as ranging from the smallest detail of design to city-planning.
This guild-like ideology was reflected in the organisation of the school itself. ‘Professors’ became ‘masters’, ‘art’ and ‘craft’ were equalised and all students inducted through technical foundation courses.
If the good life was the aim of this new Gesamtkunstwerk, play was not to be neglected: the school became famous for its entertainments and parties. Gropius gathered around him a team of exceptional ‘masters’, many of whom, such as László Moholy-Nagy or Marcel Breuer, remained lifelong collaborators.
The force and bent of Gropius’s personality is seen in his capacity to maintain loyalty: when his second wife, Ise, had an affair with the graphic designer Herbert Bayer, he was able save his marriage and keep Bayer without any of the three severing contact.
In 1925, the school moved en bloc to a site in Dessau. With exemplary new buildings designed by Gropius, including a director’s house, this was the Bauhaus fully formed.
However this flourishing did not last long. In 1928, Gropius resigned to seek out new projects. Already weakened by internal dissension, the school was driven from Dessau and briefly reopened in Berlin in makeshift quarters before being closed by the disapproving Nazi authorities in 1933.
In 1934, Gropius felt constrained to leave Germany; first for England, then America, where he joined the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Thereafter he led the life of a lecturer and working celebrity architect, riding the waves of renewed interest in his architectural theories.
If he did not produce as many great buildings as his contemporaries Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier, or even his protégé Breuer, Gropius was the most active and engaging ideologue of architectural modernity. History laid waste to the Bauhaus, but not to its ideas – above all, not to those ideas embodied in particular designs and applications. These ramified and ramified to become the commonplaces of the contemporary world.