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Who was Walter Gropius, and what was his impact on design

Walter Gropius is synonymous with the Bauhaus period of Modern Design, and has become iconic for various chair designs. His work, however, spanned artcitecture and industrial design, having a massive impact on the period and the design at large. 

German American architect and educator who, particularly as director of the Bauhaus(1919–28), exerted a major influence on the development of modern architecture. His works, many executed in collaboration with other architects, included the school building and faculty housing at the Bauhaus (1925–26), the Harvard University Graduate Center, and the United States Embassy in Athens.

Walter Gropius’s Life and Career

Gropius, the son of an architect father, studied architecture at the technical institutes in Munich(1903–04) and in Berlin–Charlottenburg (1905–07). He worked briefly in an architectural office in Berlin (1904) and saw military service (1904–05). Before completing school he built his first buildings, farm labourers’ cottages in Pomerania (1906). For a year he traveled in Italy, Spain, and England, and in 1907 he joined the office of the architect Peter Behrens in Berlin.

Gropius acknowledged that his work with Behrens and the design problems he undertook for a German electricity company did much to shape his lifelong interest in progressive architecture and the interrelationship of the arts. From the time he left Behrens in 1910 until 1914, Gropius developed a clear commitment to and talent for organization and a dedication to promoting his ideas on the arts. In 1911 he became a member of the German Labour League (Deutscher Werkbund), which had been founded in 1907 to ally creative designers with machine production. Gropius argued for such building techniques as prefabrication of parts and assembly on the site. However much he accepted the inevitability and restrictions of mechanization, he felt it was up to the artistically trained designer to “breathe a soul into the dead product of the machine.” He was against imitation, snobbery, and dogma in the arts and cautioned against such oversimplification as the notion that the function of a product should determine its appearance.

Gropius’ growing intellectual leadership was complemented by his design of two significant buildings, both done in collaboration with Adolph Meyer: the Fagus Works at Alfeld-an-der-Leine (1911) and the model office and factory buildings in Cologne (1914) done for the Werkbund Exposition. The Fagus Works, bolder than any of Behrens’ works, is marked by large areas of glass wall broken by visible steel supports, the whole done with little affectation. This type of minimal design, later known as Bauhaus, is much of what defined his work. The Cologne buildings were more formal, some say influenced by the American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. If you want to read more about Frank Lloyd Wright, head to our in depth article about him. Together these two buildings testify to Gropius’ design maturity prior to World War I. During that war Gropius served as a cavalry officer on the Western Front, was wounded, and received the Iron Cross for bravery. In 1915 he married a widow, Alma (Schindler) Mahler, whom he had met in 1910 when she was still married to the Austrian composer Gustav Mahler. Their wartime marriage, dependent on furloughs, was complicated by her affair with the German author Franz Werfel, and they were divorced in 1919. Their only child, Alma Manon, died in 1935. His personal life seemed fraught with difficulty, but his career remained strong throughout his life. 

Even before the end of the war, the city of Weimar approached Gropius for his ideas on art education. In April 1919 he became director of the Grand Ducal Saxon School of Arts and Crafts, and united it with other schools to form a collective one. Gropius’ acceptance of this appointment was the most decisive step in his career. With his temperament for the practical world of art, politics, and administration, Gropius succeeded in establishing a viable new approach to design education, one that became an international prototype and eventually supplanted the 200-year-old supremacy of the French École des Beaux-Arts. A key tenet of Gropius’ Bauhaus teaching was the requirement that the architect and designer undergo a practical crafts training to acquaint himself with materials and processes. This seems a unique and lost form, as many architects these days never touch a building material. Although the program was to have been a comprehensive one, budget limitations permitted only a portion of the crafts shops to open. No formal study of architecture was offered at Weimar. Despite the early Werkbund principle of joining art with industry, much activity centred on handicrafts, such as ceramics, weaving, and stained-glass design. Many painters and sculptors joined the staff: Paul Klee, Lyonel Feininger, Wassily Kandinsky, Gerhard Marcks, and, later, László Moholy-Nagy and Josef Albers—altogether an astonishing roster of artists. Somehow it did not seem incongruous for artists to be teaching applied design. As an introduction to design principles, a beginning course, Vorkurs, was developed by the Swiss painter and sculptor Johannes Itten, which itself became the most widely copied aspect of the Bauhaus curriculum. Students explored two- and three-dimensional design using a variety of simple materials, such as wire, wood, and paper. The psychological effects of form, colour, and texture were studied as well. Although his instructors were gifted, it was Gropius’ own persistence that made this educational experiment work.

In February 1937 Gropius arrived in Cambridge, Mass., to become professor of architecture at Harvard University. The following year he was made chairman of the department, a post he held until his retirement in 1952. He became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1944. At Harvard he introduced the Bauhaus philosophy of design into the curriculum, although he was unable to implement workshop training, it seems this was an idea that was hard to execute in practice, because of the space and funding needed to make it a reality. He was also unsuccessful in abolishing the history of architecture as a course. His crusade for modern design, however, was immediately popular among the students. His innovations at Harvard soon provoked similar educational reform in other architectural schools in the United States and marked the beginning of the end of a historically imitative architecture in that country.I n addition to his teaching, Gropius collaborated with Marcel Breuer, a former Bauhaus pupil and later fellow teacher, from 1937 until 1940. Among their designs was Gropius’ own house in Lincoln, Mass., which, with its use of white-painted wood and fieldstone, restated New England traditionalism in modern terms.

The Bauhaus Movement 

The German term Bauhaus—literally “building house”—was understood as meaning “School of Building”, but in spite of its name and the fact that its founder was an architect, the Bauhaus did not have an architecture department during its first years of existence. The school was founded to unite fine arts (like painting and sculpture) with applied arts (like industrial design or building design). While the Bauhaus school became non-operational in 1933, the Bauhaus movement continued, birthing a new form of architecture that produced simple designs that are beautiful, functional, and can be mass-produced. Bauhaus architecture’s characteristics include functional shapes, abstract shapes used sparingly for décor, simple color schemes, holistic design, and basic industrial materials like concrete, steel, and glass.The Bauhaus movement, alongside many others, holds particular interest for its fusion of form and function, displaying in its simple lines and industrial materials an analogue of the time. The social, economic, and political factors of the moment influenced the design of the movement, and produced something innovative and unique, that the world had never seen before. 

Between the end of the war and taking up this teaching post, Gropius became involved with several groups key to the early Bauhaus idea: the Novembergruppe of expressionist artists and architects (who took their name from the month of the German Revolution and produced work that aimed to support a Socialist revolution), the Arbeitsrat fur Kunst (Work Council for Art), founded by Bruno Taut in December 1918, and the Glaserne Kette (Glass Chain) series of utopian correspondence, also initiated by Taut. When Taut left the Work Council for Art, supposedly after realising the limits of their utopian ideas, Gropius took over as chairman in 1919, renewing its vision. As a flyer declared: “Art and the people must form an entity. Art shall no longer be a luxury of the few but should be enjoyed and experienced by the broad masses. The aim is an alliance of the arts under the wing of great architecture.”

The Bauhaus manifesto would be drafted that same year, when Gropius was able to negotiate the merging of the Academy of Fine Arts with the disbanded School of Arts and Crafts, creating the Staatliches Bauhaus in Weimar. In the manifesto, Gropius set out the objectives and principles of the school, stating that “the Bauhaus strives to reunite arts and crafts – sculpture, painting, applied art, and handicrafts – as the permanent elements of a new architecture”. If the Bauhaus became synonymous with a rigid, white-rendered international style, its early years were far more expressionist. Gropius continued his own practice, frequently employing Bauhaus students, and two works, the Sommerfeld Residence, completed in 1921, and a Memorial for the Victims of the Kapp Putsch in Weimar (this one Gropius actually sketched), completed in 1922, are both surprising works of handcraft and expressionism. It’s interesting, because Bauhaus shares certain affinities with other predating movements like Arts and Crafts, especially the approach that Gropius took. The regulating aesthetic is a radical departure, but the initial impetus and driving ideas behind it are similar. To read more about the Bauhaus movement, head to our comprehensive article on “What are Bauhaus buildings? 10 Things you need to know.”

Walter Gropius’s Six Most Iconic Designs 

Most assessments of Gropius’ influential career centre upon his achievements as educator and author rather than as architect. In his own building designs he turned away from personal and subjective aspects in favour of reaching for intellectual solutions of larger and socially urgent problems. Among his most important ideas was his belief that all design—whether of a chair, a building, or a city—should be approached in essentially the same way: through a systematic study of the particular needs and problems involved, taking into account modern construction materials and techniques, without reference to previous forms or styles. His architecture does not have the aesthetic fascination of Wright’s or Le Corbusier’s but reflects a sober and programmatic concern that marked his whole life. Yet always, in conversation and criticism, he reminded his pupils of the vitality of the individual spirit, of the spontaneity of life itself. His habit of wearing a beret with a business suit was perhaps symbolic of the two worlds he hoped to bridge, “the gap between the rigid mentality of the businessman and technologist and the imagination of the creative artist.”

1. Dessau Bauhaus

It is considered the pinnacle of pre-war modern design in Europe and originated out of the dissolution of the Weimar School and the move by local politicians to reconcile the city’s industrial character with its cultural past. The building was constructed between 1925 and 1926 according to plans by Walter Gropius as a school building for the Bauhaus School of Art, Design and Architecture. The building itself and the Masters’ Houses that were built in the immediate vicinity established the reputation of the Bauhaus as an “icon of modernism”. War-damaged and structurally altered sections were largely reconstructed from 1965 onwards in the spirit of the original. The building was restored and partially modernized in 1976. Between 1996 and 2006, the building was restored and repaired in accordance with the principles of historical preservation. Since 1996, the building complex has been part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site Bauhaus and its Sites in Weimar, Dessau and Bernau. The building, constructed in the international style, consists of five functionally structured parts, arranged additively in several wings. The reinforced concrete-frame structures were arranged on a flat site in such a way that there is no “front” in the customary sense. In one of these wings was the ” School of Arts and Crafts” (later to become a technical school), the workshop wing with its distinctive glass curtain wall and Atelierhaus. The wall’s design evoked industrial innovation of a factory building rather than the tradition and civic elevation of an academic institution. 

2. Fagus Factory

This original and seminal building by Walter Gropius was a shoe last factory in Alfeld on the Leine, Lower Saxony, Germany, is an important example of early modern architecture. Commissioned by owner Carl Benscheidt who wanted a radical structure to express the company’s break from the past, the factory was designed by Walter Gropiusand Adolf Meyer. It was constructed between 1911 and 1913, with additions and interiors completed in 1925. The building that had the greatest influence on the Fagus factory design was the 1909 AEG turbine factory in Berlin, designed by Peter Behrens. Gropius and Meyer had both worked on the project and with the Fagus factory they presented their interpretation and criticism of their teacher’s work. The Fagus main building can be seen as an inversion of the AEG turbine factory. Both have corners free of supports, and glass surfaces between piers that cover the whole height of the building. However, in the AEG turbine factory the corners are covered by heavy elements that slant inside. The glass surfaces also slant inside and are recessed in relation to the piers. The load-bearing elements are attenuated and the building has an image of stability and monumentality. In the Fagus factory exactly the opposite happens; the corners are left open and the piers are recessed leaving the glass surface to the front. Gropius describes this transformation by saying,”The role of the walls becomes restricted to that of mere screens stretched between the upright columns of the framework to keep out rain, cold and noise”. 

3. Gropius House, US

The Gropius House is a landmark in the Boston area, and a true sight to see. I took a bike trip there, and was not disappointed. It is located in Lincoln, Massachusetts. It was the family residence of Walter Gropius, his wife Ise Gropius, and their daughter Ati Gropius.Gropius came to Massachusetts to accept a teaching position at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. Fellow architect and prominent Bostonian Henry Shepley convinced philanthropist Helen Storrow to provide land and fund the design and construction of a home for Gropius. Gropius designed the home in 1937; local builder Casper J. Jenney built it in 1938. Gropius used his new home as a showcase for his Harvard students as well as an example of modernist landscape architecture in America.  He chose the area because of its proximity to Concord Academy which his daughter Ati was slated to attend. It remained Gropius’s home from 1938 until his death in 1969. In 1931 Gropius was asked to write an article describing the ideal livable small home for Architectural Forum. Gropius outlined the most important aspects of the home’s design, sounding like a true description of the Lincoln dwelling: “The dwelling house should no longer resemble something like a fortress, like a monument of walls with medieval thickness and an expensive front intended for showy representation. Instead it is to be of light construction, full of bright daylight and sunshine, alterable, time-saving, economical and useful in the last degree to its occupants whose life functions it is intended to serve.”Set amid fields, forests, and farmhouses, the Gropius House mixes traditional materials of New England architecture (wood, brick, and fieldstone) with industrial materials such as glass block, acoustic plaster, welded steel, and chrome banisters. The structure consists of a traditional New England post and beam wooden frame sheathed with white-painted tongue-and-groove vertical siding. Traditional clapboards are used in the interior foyer, but are applied vertically to create the illusion of height. The clapboards also performed a practical function as a gallery. 

 

4. Door Knob

This modernist door handle by Bauhaus founder and German architect Walter Gropius was first put into mass production in 1923, after being originally designed for the Fagus factory in Alfeld, Germany. Made from nickel-plated brass and produced by ironmongery manufacturer Izé, the industrial-style door handle comprises a cylindrical grip and a cranked, squared stem. According to Izé, the door handle is the most commercially successful product to emerge from the Bauhaus. As an independent architect and industrial designer, Walter Gropius went on to design the famed Gropius door handle: TECNOLINE has been producing a variety of Gropius designs since 1983. Originally designed for the Fagus factory in Alfeld, the simple, rational lever produced by izé is composed of a cylindrical grip and a cranked, squared stem, its formal language exemplifying the constructivist and machine aesthetics of the Bauhaus at their most radical and effective. It was the most commercially successful product to emerge from the Bauhaus and, arguably, the archetypal modernist handle. The handle here is an extended version.Like all izé luxury door hardware, the lever handle is available in the full range of izé materials. Many would say that you we would not have Apple products as they are  today without the Bauhaus school, and industrial design like this door handle. 

 

5. F51 Gropius Armchair

Gropius designed his director’s room at the Weimar Bauhaus in accordance with the spirit of this new design, using a strictly cubic concept, and which included his own designs and designs by his colleagues and was complemented by his furniture designs. This furniture ensemble is now produced in Germany by Tecta, along established company and one specialising in Bauhaus furniture. Gropius produced far fewer furniture designs than his fellows on the Bauhaus faculty, but what he did make has a purity of form and spirit. The F51 (1920) is not just any armchair, it is the iconic armchair for the director’s room in the Weimar Bauhaus. Walter Gropius had already injected his modernist dynamic into the building and created a small holistic work of art, encompassing interiors and furniture, tapestry and ceiling lamp. Nothing is randomly chosen and everything is connected. If you study the isometric layout of the director’s room you can see the furniture as part of a three-dimensional coordinate system.

 

6. Harvard Graduate Center 

The Harvard Graduate Center, also known as “the Gropius Complex” (including Harkness Commons), is a group of buildings on Harvard University’s Cambridge, MA campus designed by The Architects Collaborative in 1948 and completed in 1950. As the first modern building on the campus, it represents one of the first endorsements of the modern style by a major university and was seen in the national and architectural presses as a turning point in the acceptance of the aesthetic in the United States. For The Architects Collaborative (TAC), an important modernist firm headed by seven Harvard graduates and Walter Gropius (then chair of the University’s Department of Architecture within the Graduate School of Design), the Center was one of their first important works. 

 

Walter Gropius impacted design and architecture through his innovative approach to the field. He sought to merge various fields of practice, and make things that were practical and served people’s needs. He was radical, in that he challenged the status quo in the institution, and made significant impacts on how Architecture was taught. Perhaps this is his greatest impact of all, beyond all of his ingenious designs: revolutionizing the field of education.