Walter Gropius (1883-1969)
American Architecture Series
One of the best-known names in 20th century architecture, Walter Gropius was a German-American architect who, together with his countryman Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969), the Frenchman Le Corbusier (1887-1965) and the Brazilian Oscar Niemeyer, is considered to be one of the pioneers of modern architecture. He first came to the attention of American architects after he founded the renowned Bauhaus Design School (1919-33) in Weimar. The school became synonymous with functional design and noted for its avant-garde art and architecture. Gropius's work was also featured in the "International Exhibition of Modern Architecture" (1932), New York, and identified - along with J.J.P Oud, Mies van der Rohe, Erich Mendelsohn, Alvar Aalto, and Richard Neutra - as a leading exponent of the International Style of modern architecture. Like his fellow modernists, Gropius's main concern was to create "modern" buildings for "modern man": meaning, a functional type of building, without any old fashioned historical decoration with Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance or Neoclassical motifs. He therefore designed geometric-style buildings, devoid of all ornamentation, but with creative elements inserted at key points in otherwise repetitive designs. Based on his teaching success at the Bauhaus school, and the innovative quality of his own designs - including the Fagus Factory (1911-25) in Alfeld on the Leine, his Pavilion for the Werkbund Exhibition at Cologne in 1914, and the Bauhaus Complex (1925) at Dessau - he was invited to come to Harvard University to head the Graduate School of Design just before World War II. In America, he continued both his academic and practicing career, in which he was a leading architect for a full half century before his death in 1969. An important contributor to American art of the mid-20th century, his famous designs, most of which were executed in partnership with other architects, included: Gropius House, Massachusetts (1937); Harvard Graduate Center (1949-50); the Pan Am Building, New York (1958-63); and John F. Kennedy Federal Office Building, Boston (1963-66). Until his late 30s, he was married to Alma Mahler (18791964), widow of Gustav Mahler.
Walter Adolph Georg Gropius was born in Berlin, the son of Walter Adolph Gropius, an architect, and his wife Manon Auguste Pauline Scharnweber. After studying architecture at technical colleges in Munich (1903-4) and Berlin (1905-7), he toured Italy, Spain and England for a year, before joining the architectural office of Peter Behrens (1868-1940), one of the first members of the modernist school, and a founder of the Deutscher Werkbund (1907-33). (See also: Arts and Crafts Movement.) Among Gropius's fellow employees, were Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Dietrich Marcks and Le Corbusier.
In 1910, Gropius left to set up his own firm in Berlin, in partnership with Adolf Meyer (1881-1929). Two of their most successful commissions included the Fagus Werk (1911-13), a factory in Alfeld on the Leine in Germany, whose design was strongly influenced by Peter Behrens's AEG Turbine factory; and the model factory building for the German Labour League Exhibition (1914) in Cologne, influenced, it is said, by the American architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959), whose revolutionary designs later impressed several Bauhaus instructors.
The early success of his designs, his activities with the Deutscher Werkbund, and his assimilation of innovative architectural concepts, all testify to his growing intellectual maturity. In 1913, in a further sign of his dedication to the promotion of his own creative agenda, he published an article on "The Development of Industrial Buildings," featuring photos of factories and grain elevators in North America, which had a significant influence on other European modernists, like Le Corbusier and Mendelsohn.
In 1919, after serving as an officer during the war, he succeeded the Belgian Art Noveau architect Henry van de Velde (1863-1957) as the head of the Grand-Ducal Saxon School of Arts and Crafts in Weimar, which Gropius rapidly transformed into the world renowned Bauhaus, attracting outstanding teachers like Paul Klee (1879-1940), Johannes Itten (1888-1967), Josef Albers (1888-1976), Herbert Bayer (1900-85), Laszlo Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946), Otto Bartning (1883-1959), El Lissitzsky (1890-1941) and Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944). The school was associated with a number of modernist design movements in Europe, including De Stijl and Elementarism (Van Doesburg), Neo-Plasticism (Mondrian) and Constructivism (Lissitzky). For comprehensive details, see: Bauhaus Design School.
In 1923, Gropius designed his famous "door handles", see today as an icon of 20th-century design and often cited as one of the most influential items of applied art produced by Bauhaus. (See also: Crafts: History & Types.) Also, when the Bauhaus relocated from Weimar to Dessau, Gropius himself designed and built the school building and faculty housing. It is probably his best known design. In addition, during the period 1926-1932, he completed several large-scale housing designs in Berlin, Karlsruhe and Dessau. In 1929-30, he designed part of a housing colony in Berlin-Siemensstadt.
In 1934, following the enforced closure of the Bauhaus by the Nazis, the previous year, Gropius discreetly left Germany, via Italy, for exile in England, where he worked as part of the Isokon design group until 1937, when he emigrated to America. He promptly built his own house - Gropius House - in Lincoln, Massachusetts, which soon became famous as an early example of International Modernism, albeit one which sensibly included a number of New England architectural features. In 1938 he took up his post as Head of the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University, which he kept until his retirement in 1952: his Bauhaus protege Marcel Breuer also joined the faculty.
In 1944, Gropius became a citizen of the United States, and in 1945, together with six of of his ex-pupils from Harvard, set up The Architects' Collaborative (TAC), based in Cambridge. Other founder members included Jean B. Fletcher, Norman C. Fletcher, Sarah P. Harkness, John C. Harkness, Louis A. MacMillen, Robert S. MacMillan, and Benjamin C. Thompson. TAC would become one of the most well-known and respected architectural firms in the world. Gropius himself, although a supremely talented designer, always preferred teamwork. Thus even at TAC, he preferred to be known merely as a member, one among equals.
Active in domestic, commercial and skyscaper architecture, Gropius and TAC went on to design a number of notable buildings, including: the Harvard University Graduate Center (1949-50), Cambridge, Massachusetts; the Pan American Building (1963), New York (now called the MetLife Building), which he designed with Pietro Belluschi; and the John F. Kennedy Federal Office Building (1966), Boston. See also: Second Chicago School of Architecture (c.1940-75), led by Gropius's Bauhaus colleague Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969).
Among TAC projects abroad in which Gropius played a key role are four in West Germany - the factories for the Rosenthal Ceramics Factory (1963), Selb, and the Thomas Glass Factory (1967), Amberg, as well as Gropiusstadt (1962), a large housing project in West Berlin - and the US Embassy (1956), Athens, Greece, and the National University (1957), Baghdad, Iraq.
All of these projects are notable for their sobriety, rejection of historicizing ornament and disdain for the idiosyncratic formalism that characterized Nineteenth Century architecture. Functionalist design, of which Gropius was at once a great pioneer and a great practitioner, had become the dominant idiom of world architecture by the time of his death. It had radically altered the appearance of every city on earth. But it had also become what Gropius himself had warned against - a style itself. As such, it was vulnerable to many of the charges that Postmodernist art has hurled against it. However, it permanently altered the direction of world architecture, and a new eclectic revival is not apt to alter this fact.
In 1959, the American Institute of Architects awarded its Gold Medal to Gropius, and in 1964 gave its Architectural Firm Award to The Architects Collaborative. Gropius died in 1969 in Boston, aged 86.
Renowned as one of the greatest architects of the early 20th century - not least for his contribution to Bauhaus - Gropius had a long and prestigious career on both sides of the Atlantic. Even so, the number of constructed buildings that can be securely attributed to him is surprisingly limited. One reason is that many of his projects were never built. Another is his preference for collaboration and partnership, which tends to obscure his personal contribution. That said, he was an authentic pioneer of the modernist style, who influenced a whole generation of designers around the world. On the other hand, like many modernists, he comes across as slightly utopian with an obsession for functional aesthetics. This is the only problem with the architecture of Gropius, Le Corbusier and their school: one feels as though they are producing architecture which is "good for us", rather than "beautiful". Many Brutalist structures, for instance, now resemble ugly concrete ghettos. And in 1987, the magazine New York published the results of a poll, which stated that Gropius's MetLife/Pan Am Building was the building that New Yorkers would most like to see demolished.
For more about modernist architecture in the United States, see: Homepage.