Walter Gropius - Biography and Legacy
Biography of Walter Gropius
Walter Gropius was born in Berlin to Walter Adolph Gropius, a government official and Manon Auguste Pauline Scharnweber, the daughter of the Prussian politician Georg Scharnweber. His parents were wealthy and well connected and Gropius spent his summers on the estates of landowning members of the family. Walter Gropius Senior had a keen interest in architecture and Gropius's uncle, Martin Gropius, was also an established architect, his biggest commission being the design for the Museum of Decorative Arts in Berlin (1881), consequently Gropius's interest in architecture was encouraged from a young age.
At the age of twenty, Gropius enrolled to study architecture at the Technical School in Munich and then the Konigliche Technische Hochschule in Berlin. His education was cut short when he inherited a substantial sum of money from a great aunt. Although his studies at the Hochschule were almost complete, he dropped out without taking the final exam, reflecting an early disregard for traditional methods of education.
In 1908 Gropius joined the office of the renowned architect Peter Behrens, one of the leading figures in industrial design and a creative consultant for large German industrial company AEG. Here, Gropius formed connections with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier who were based in the same office. Under the tutelage of Behrens, Gropius worked on the innovative AEG Turbine Factory and factories for the Krupp company. Working on industrial projects opened Gropius's eyes to the possibilities of new materials and construction techniques, ideas that he later applied to the design and manufacture of many buildings including mass housing projects and the Bauhaus building in Dessau.
In 1910, Gropius left Behrens's practice with fellow employee Adolf Meyer to set up their own architecture office in Berlin. The same year Gropius also began his decade-long love affair with Alma Mahler, the wife of the composer Gustav Mahler. Alma had married Mahler, 20 years her senior, in 1902, when he was director of the Vienna Court Opera, and they moved in creative circles in Vienna and, later, America. Gropius and Alma conducted a secret affair through liaisons and letters until her husband's death in 1911. They continued their intense relationship until 1913 when Gropius visited the Berlin Secession exhibition and saw Oskar Kokoschka's painting The Tempest. The painting depicts a man and woman embracing during a storm, and Gropius immediately recognized the female figure as Alma. Having discovered Alma's affair with Kokoschka, Gropius ended the relationship.
Gropius and Meyer joined the Deutsche Werkbund (German Workers' Federation); an association of designers and architects who promoted the integration of new industrial mass production with traditional art and design. During this period they designed objects such as furniture and wallpaper, as well as completing larger projects, most famously the façade of the Fagus Factory in Alfeld-an-der-Leine, Germany. This combined the modernist principle of form reflecting function with a desire to provide healthy working conditions for employees. Gropius also explored these ideas in an influential article, The Development of Industrial Buildings, published in 1913.
Their work was interrupted by the outbreak of the First World War and Gropius was drafted into the German army in August 1914. He served as a cavalry officer on the Western Front where he was wounded and received the Iron Cross for bravery. He could not forget his love for Alma and the couple reconciled, marrying in 1915 in Berlin in between Gropius's military postings. In 1916 their daughter, Manon, was born (she died in 1935). The marriage was as tumultuous as their earlier relationship and eventually ended in divorce in 1920 when Gropius discovered Alma had begun a relationship with the novelist and playwright Franz Werfel.
Following the war and the dissolution of his marriage, Gropius threw himself back into his architectural work. Despite previously staying out of politics, he now sympathized with the Left and became an advocate for the role that architecture and design could play in post-war social reform. In 1919 he became master of the Großherzoglich-Sächsische Kunstgewerbeschule (Grand Ducal Saxonian School of Arts and Crafts) in Weimar, which he renamed Staatliches Bauhaus Weimar. This was the beginning of the famous and important Bauhaus school.
Despite only being 36 when the Bauhaus opened, Gropius's reputation was already distinguished enough to attract a highly regarded faculty. The teachers came from a variety of countries and design backgrounds and included Paul Klee, Johannes Itten, Josef and Anni Albers, Herbert Bayer, László Moholy-Nagy, and Wassily Kandinsky. All were united in Gropius's aim of using workshop-based education to experiment and contribute to post-war society through art and architecture. The school's experimental approach was outlined in Gropius's 1919 founding manifesto. He wrote of all arts being equal and he consequently sought to reunite art forms that had been separated in traditional art and design schools. The teaching programme aimed to develop its students as well as provide technical skills, combining the disciplines of art, craft, and technology into a Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art). All students completed a preliminary course before specialising in workshops directed by a craftsman (Master of Works) and an artist (Master of Form). They studied fine arts and crafts, as well as the technology of materials and production. Collaboration was encouraged and students were taught to consider the larger context of society and environment when designing.
The mid-1920s marked a pivotal period for Gropius and the Bauhaus. In 1923, he initiated a change in the school, turning away from a craft-based, handmade output to one "adapted to our world of machines, radios and fast cars". To achieve this aim, he placed a new focus on functionable, affordable design and industrial production. The move was catalyzed by a number of incidents including the arrival of Theo van Doesburg, a Dutch artist associated with De Stijl and the constructivist El Lissitzky in Weimar, both of whom were proponents of industrial design. Most prominently, however, was the fact that in 1922 a condition of the school's renewed funding was that it start to publicly demonstrate its accomplishments. This change in direction caused a rift amongst the faculty, resulting in the resignation of the tempestuous Expressionist painter and director of the preliminary course, Johannes Itten whose mysticism and emphasis on personal artistic journeys came into conflict with Gropius's new vision. Gropius's decision to replace Itten with the Hungarian artist and designer László Moholy-Nagy further signalled the change towards a more technological curriculum. The same year also saw Gropius marry again, this time to Ise Frank - the couple remained together until his death.
In 1925, under pressure from a newly elected right-wing government in Weimar, Gropius moved the Bauhaus to the industrial city of Dessau. This created an opportunity for him to design a new school building and professors' housing complex, creating a campus that itself was a Gesamtkunstwerk. The move, however, did not save the school from increasing tensions caused by Gropius's change towards industrial design. These disagreements came to a head in 1926, when the Bauhaus found itself in financial difficulties. This prompted Gropius to ask his faculty to accept a 10% pay cut. Kandinsky and Klee refused, with the latter writing to Gropius: "I look gloomily ahead to further negotiations and am afraid of something that was avoided even during the worst phase at Weimar: an inner disruption". They eventually compromised on a 5% salary contribution. Alongside discontentment within the faculty, Gropius also had to contend with increasingly right-wing politics in Dessau and the country as a whole. He came to have strained relationships with local politicians, not aided by the lack of support from within his own school. Ultimately, in 1928, Gropius left the Bauhaus and moved to Berlin to open a private practice. He was succeeded as Bauhaus director by Hannes Meyer.
Between 1926 and 1932 Gropius worked on a number of large-scale housing projects in Berlin, Karlsruhe and Dessau. In these he sought to combat the lack of affordable housing in the inter-war period by creating cost effective pre-fabricated concrete building parts which were mass produced and assembled on site. Despite the industrial nature of the production, his housing designs focused on creating better living conditions for poorer families through the incorporation of well-equipped, light interiors and external green spaces.
The changing political landscape in Europe during the early 1930s began to affect Gropius's career. The Gestapo closed the Bauhaus in 1933 and Gropius's designs for government projects were continuously rejected due to his Left-leaning ideas. With Nazi condemnation of modern art and architecture as 'un-German' and degenerative on the increase, those associated with the Bauhaus scattered, emigrating all over the world. In 1934, with the help of the English architect Maxwell Fry, Gropius and his family (they had adopted the young daughter of Ise's sister after her untimely death) escaped Germany for Britain, relocating to Hampstead in London. Here, he worked as part of the modernist Isokon group with other similarly-minded émigrés. During this time he designed a school in Impington, Cambridge and a house for playwright Benn Levy in London.
The Dean of Harvard's Graduate School of Design, Joseph Hudnut, visited Gropius in London in 1937 and subsequently offered him a job. Inspired by Gropius's innovative approach to arts teaching, Hudnut tasked Gropius with reorganising Harvard's traditional design curriculum. Gropius accepted and moved to the United States, along with Marcel Breuer. In 1938 Gropius was appointed Chair of the Department of Architecture and the same year he built a house for himself and his family in Lincoln, Massachusetts. Now known as Gropius House, this building was hugely influential in introducing international modernism to America.
During this time Gropius co-founded The Architects' Collaborative with a new generation of young American architects. Building upon the teamwork-based ethos Gropius had fostered at the Bauhaus, the Collaborative went on to become one of the most distinguished post-war architectural practices in the United States. In 1944 Gropius became a naturalized citizen of the United States and over the next two decades continued his architectural output, receiving numerous accolades, including election into the National Academy of Design and the AIA Gold Medal. He died in Boston, Massachusetts following a short illness in 1969.
The Legacy of Walter Gropius
Although he is remembered for championing architectural mass production techniques and as a key figure in introducing modernist architecture to the United States, Gropius's most lasting achievements were as an educator. The Bauhaus challenged and redefined the way in which art, design, and architecture was taught, moving towards a more collaborative and interdisciplinary mode of operation as well as incorporating technological innovation and mass production techniques into the syllabus. It also brought together a fascinating and hugely influential group of teachers and artists who worked alongside each other and together left a lasting legacy despite only existing for just over a decade Gropius was fundamental in shaping this approach, and in continuing its development through his teaching in the United States. This legacy was recognized during Gropius's lifetime and, along with Herbert Bayer, he co-curated Bauhaus 1919 - 1928, a retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1938.