Walter Gropius

The German-American architect, educator, and designer Walter Gropius (1883-1969) was director of the famed Bauhaus in Germany from 1919 to 1928 and served as the chair of architecture at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design from 1938 to 1952.

Walter Gropius was born in Berlin on May 18, 1883. Although he studied architecture in Berlin and Munich (1903-1907), he received no degree. He then went to work in Berlin for Peter Behrens, one of several German architects who was influenced by the British Arts and Crafts movement and who attempted to go further by adapting good design to machine production.

In 1910 Gropius set up practice with Adolf Meyer. They designed the Fagus Works in Alfeld an der Leine (1911) and the office building at the Werkbund Exhibition in Cologne (1914), using a combination of masonry and steel construction, from which, in some areas, the external glass sheathing was hung. The plan of the Cologne building was axially designed in the Beaux-Arts tradition, but the major influence was predominantly that of Frank Lloyd Wright, whose “prairie houses” were widely known in Europe through the 1910 and 1911 publications of Ernst Wasmuth in Berlin. Gropius and Meyer were influenced by Wright’s style especially in the horizontality and the wide overhanging eaves, but also in the symmetry, the corner pavilions, and the whole spirit of Wright’s concept. World War I interrupted their architectural practice, and thereafter they designed only one project prior to Meyer’s death in 1924: the unsuccessful entry for the Chicago Tribune Tower competition of 1922.

The Bauhaus

During the war Gropius was invited to become the director of the Grand Ducal Saxon School of Applied Arts and the Saxon Academy of Fine Arts in Weimar, and he took up his duties at war’s end. He combined the two schools into the Staatliches Bauhaus (State Building House) in 1919. The aim of the Bauhaus was a “unity of art and technology” to give artistic direction to industry, which was as lacking in 1919 as in the mid-19th century, when the Arts and Crafts movement began. The greatness of Gropius as an educator was that he did not put forward any dogmatic policies, but rather he acted as a balance between the rational, representative, and physical on the one hand and the spiritual, esthetic, and humanitarian on the other. An artistic community of prima donnas is difficult to coordinate, but Gropius acted as choreographer and exacted the best from his faculty, from the mysticism of Johannes Itten to the Marxist socialism of Hannes Meyer.

When right-wing criticism forced the Bauhaus to leave Weimar in 1925, Gropius designed the structure for the new Bauhaus in Dessau, one of his finest works, which embodied a new concept of architectural space. When criticism mounted there against him as director in 1928, he resigned rather than allow the criticism to spread from him as leader to the whole institution. (Nazism and the Bauhaus stood for diametrically opposing viewpoints, and in 1933 under Ludwig Mies van der Rohe the school, which had moved to Berlin, was forced to close.)

Gropius practiced in Berlin from 1928 to 1934, experimenting with prefabricated housing in his Toerten housing development in Dessau (1926) and dwellings at the Werkbund Exhibition (1927). He went to England in 1934, where he worked with E. Maxwell Fry until 1937, designing mainly individual houses, but also Impington College, Cambridgeshire. This structure partially influenced the post-World War II school design program in Britain.

Works in America

When Gropius went to the United States in 1937, he collaborated with Marcel Breuer, a former pupil, on individual and group housing, including a house for himself at Lincoln, Mass. (1937). Gropius held the chair of architecture at Harvard from 1938 to 1952, a period of his life from the age of 55 to 69, when most architects would have been designing their major works. This was due to his intense commitment to the educational process. “I have been ‘nobody’s baby’ during just those years of middle life which normally bring a man to the apex of his career,” Gropius admitted, when he received the American Institute of Architects’ Gold Medal in 1959.

Gropius had, however, established The Architects’ Collaborative (TAC), a group-oriented practice, in 1946, and he retired from Harvard in 1952 to devote his full attention to the practice of architecture. TAC and Gropius designed the Harvard University Graduate Center (1949-1950); executed a project for the Boston Back Bay Center (1953), which was not carried out; and designed the U.S. Embassy in Athens (1960) and Baghdad University in Iraq (begun 1962 but incomplete as of 1971).

Gropius also designed locomotives and railroad sleeping cars (1913-1914), the Adler automobile (1930), and a host of everyday products. He believed in “the common citizenship of all creative work.”

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