This is a highly readable biography of the Berlin architect who founded the Bauhaus in Germany in the 1920s, by a British design historian. The Bauhaus was arguably the most significant innovation in design education since the Renaissance, as it replaced the then-standard imitation of classical and other historical forms in architecture with the now universal idea that design should be based on function and the economical provision of everyday needs. Although often considered dangerously radical in Germany in the 1920s, after World War II, Bauhaus design approaches spread widely, until they again began to be questioned by postmodernists in the 1970s. By the 1980s, architectural tastes had begun to shift toward an expensive neo-traditionalism. This biography does not address the low opinion many had of Gropius in that era, and it probably will not change some widespread perceptions of Gropius and modern architecture that have taken hold since his death in 1969. It does offer a readable and largely sympathetic account of the complicated personal history of this centrally important modern design educator and mentor.
There have been several other biographies of Gropius, the scion of an aristocratic Prussian family whose ancestors were well known in Imperial Germany. For many of its facts about Gropius’s public career, MacCarthy relies on the German-language Gropius biography by Reginald R. Isaacs (1911-86), a Canadian-Jewish protégé and later a Harvard GSD planning professor. Isaac’s research in the 1960s was developed with Gropius’s wife Ise (the former Ilse Frank), and involved extensive weekly interviews with Gropius while he has still living, and his biography was written knowing that Gropius would read the results. MacCarthy retains Isaac’s largely positive view of Gropius, and she adds extensive details about Gropius’s rather complicated romantic personal history from some new archival research. She also provides a clear account of Gropius’s now well-known efforts to stay in Berlin after Hitler came to power in early 1933, after the Nazis had closed the Bauhaus as a degenerate “Jewish-Bolshevik” threat to German culture.
While the book gives some new insights into Gropius’s founding and directing the Bauhaus in the rapidly changing social and economic circumstances of Weimar Germany, nearly all of the new material here is focused on Gropius’s troubled early relationships. From 1910-20 he was involved with Alma Mahler, the Vienna socialite who first took up with Gropius during her unhappy marriage to the composer Gustav Mahler. After his death, Gropius did not continue the relationship, and served with distinction as a German military officer in World War I, an experience that led him and many other Europeans toward pacifist and internationalist post-1918 views. During this same time, as Alma also became romantically involved with the painter Oskar Kokoschka and then the Austrian Jewish poet Franz Werfel, she married Gropius, whose “Aryan” qualities she still admired, despite her mostly having lost interest in him otherwise. She refused to let him spend much time on his brief military leaves with their daughter Manon, despite his eagerness to do so. This section of the book, much of it based on earlier biographies of Alma Mahler, is much more about her life and lovers in the 1910s than it is about Gropius, though it does offer a vivid portrait of the complex European social and cultural currents of the time.
While the book gives some new insights into Gropius’s founding and directing the Bauhaus in the rapidly changing social and economic circumstances of Weimar Germany, nearly all of the new material here is focused on Gropius’s troubled early relationships.
Among the many pages about Kokoschka’s artistic and romantic obsessions with Alma here, MacCarthy mentions in passing some of the familiar key turning points in Gropius’s design thought. These began in 1910, when he worked for the Berlin architect Peter Behrens, at about the same time as the other young architects Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Charles Edouard-Jeanneret (known after 1920 as “Le Corbusier”). Behrens was a pioneering figure in linking art and design to industrial production, then a major preoccupation of the German Imperial government, which sought to better compete with the British Empire and the United States in producing high-quality consumer goods for world markets. This was also the context of Gropius’s interest in mass-produced, low-cost housing, which was inspired by the examples of American mail-order catalogue houses, and by experiments in concrete block construction.
Like Frank Lloyd Wright, whose work Gropius first encountered through the Wasmuth portfolio (1910) published in Berlin, Gropius and his contemporaries wanted to create a new architecture that they thought would better serve the demands of modern societies. This resulted in Gropius’s first well-known commission, the Faguswerk, an orthopedic shoe last factory in the small town of Alfeld-an-der-Leine, near Hannover (1910). Inspired in part by American “day-light” factories, its glass curtain wall and minimal, but finely wrought, material details immediately indicated a new step forward in design. Gropius continued this direction in his temporary building at the German Werkbund exhibition in Cologne (1914), which was also inspired in part by Wright’s American work.
After World War I, as the German Imperial government collapsed and a 1919 Communist “November Revolution” was narrowly averted, Gropius was an active figure in the brief period of what was later termed “Expressionism” in German art. It was at this point in 1919 that Gropius founded the Bauhaus, whose name refers back to the “Bauhütte” (construction administration) huts of the medieval cathedral builders. Gropius envisioned that this Weimar school, a restructuring of the existing Grand Ducal School of Arts and Crafts there, would be a “cathedral of socialism” that could bring together the various crafts to literally build a new, collectivist society out of the postwar ruins. Architecture itself was not taught there until 1928, but Gropius employed many of the students in his office on projects like the Sommerfeld House in Berlin (1922), constructed from teak wood from a decommissioned German naval vessel. MacCarthy offers an engaging account, largely based on earlier sources, of Gropius’s time as director of the Bauhaus from 1919-28, interwoven with extensive new details about his several personal relationships with married women after his formal divorce from Alma Mahler in 1920, and before his marriage to Ise in 1924.
Like Frank Lloyd Wright, whose work Gropius first encountered through the Wasmuth portfolio (1910) published in Berlin, Gropius and his contemporaries wanted to create a new architecture that they thought would better serve the demands of modern societies.
Under Gropius’s leadership, the Bauhaus was welcoming to all, admitting students without regard to gender, age, or national background. At a time when few women had professional jobs of any kind, it had many women students and a diverse range of foreign faculty, as well as one the first women anywhere to teach in a design school, Gunta Stötzl, who led the weaving workshop. Instead of the often mechanical copying of historic forms then standard in architecture and design education, Gropius and his Bauhaus faculty encouraged the use of visual strategies derived from new art movements like Cubism, Dada, De Stijl, and Russian constructivism. Bauhaus faculty such as the painters Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky inspired many new design directions. These were extended by students like Marcel Breuer, originally from Hungary, whose influential bicycle frame-inspired furniture was intended for inexpensive mass production. Innovative graphic design strategies, many of them still in use today, were developed there by Herbert Bayer.
Unlike many later art schools, the Bauhaus worked closely with local manufacturers and retailers to market its designs, resulting in some modest revenue to support its activities. Gropius saw the Bauhaus as the start of new international approach to design, which he then presented in a series of widely distributed “Bauhaus Books” beginning with his International Architecture in 1925. Its centennial was celebrated by many exhibitions in 2019.
At the same time, the German economic crisis and growing political hostility began to make the school a political target of the emergent National Socialist German Workers’, or Nazi, party. Although few of the faculty identified themselves as Jews, the school was seen locally as a center of their supposedly subversive activities, and state support was withdrawn in 1924. With his elite national contacts, Gropius was able to then make a deal with the mayor of the industrial city of Dessau to move the Bauhaus there into a new building in 1925-26, designed with his architectural partner Adolf Meyer, who died shortly afterward. MacCarthy adds some interesting new material on the importance of Ernst Neufert, then a young Bauhaus graduate, in running the Gropius architectural office at this time. Their professional relationship did not flourish, and Neufert later became a key figure in developing Bauhaus-inspired European building standards under the Nazi regime, still widely in use globally today as the Bauentwurfslehre (usually translated as Architects’ Data). Although not all the historical details here are completely accurate, as for example the author’s account of the first CIAM (International Congresses of Modern Architecture) meeting in 1928, the book quickly covers this complex period in a readable way.
MacCarthy also clearly conveys Gropius’s agonizing situation as a successful Berlin architect after Hitler’s accession to power in 1933. Unlike the relatively small number of prominent German modern architects who were Jewish, like Erich Mendelsohn, who accurately foresaw a grim future under an openly anti-Semitic popular government and immediately left the country, or communists, like Hannes Meyer, the second director of the Bauhaus, who left for the Soviet Union in 1930, Gropius was neither. He courageously opposed the exclusion of Jews from the new Nazi professional organizations, and he continued to maintain his extensive international Bauhaus and CIAM contacts with a wide range of radical figures. Gropius also sought to continue his career as a leading German architect and educator. Gropius had welcomed the more collectivist mass society that was then emerging in many European cities, which involved the provision of mass housing and the creation of well-funded government research institutions to study economic efficiency in housing construction. These efforts still continued, in a modified way, under Hitler, and Gropius wrongly thought, like Mies van der Rohe, that the Nazi regime’s obsessions with Aryan racial purity and militarism would not substantially change other aspects of Germany’s seemingly successful drive to become a mass welfare state.
MacCarthy offers an engaging account, largely based on earlier sources, of Gropius’s time as director of the Bauhaus from 1919-28, interwoven with extensive new details about his several personal relationships with married women after his formal divorce from Alma Mahler in 1920, and before his marriage to Ise in 1924.
By 1934, however, it was clear that Gropius would not be able to get any more large commissions in this hostile new political environment. He began to quietly seek to work in England, where he had some tentative professional prospects, and moved there with Ise with the approval of Nazi officials for a temporary stay. The couple was not allowed to take money out of the country, but they were able to preserve in Germany their large collection of Bauhaus furniture and artifacts, unlike many other German modernist figures. MacCarthy recounts how eventually the government allowed this collection to be shipped to the United States, where it formed the basis of the Museum of Modern Art Bauhaus exhibition in New York (1938), organized by Gropius and his wife, with the assistance of Herbert Bayer.
MacCarthy offers some new details about Gropius’s three years in England, where he and Ise were often directly supported by the English entrepreneur Jack Pritchard, living with other emigres in a CIAM-type “minimum unit” in Pritchard’s Isokon flats in Hampstead (1934), designed by the British CIAM member Wells Coates. These included Gropius’s former Bauhaus student Marcel Breuer; Laszlo Moholy Nagy, the influential Bauhaus educator; and Arthur Korn, a leftist German-Jewish Berlin architect and CIAM member who later became an influential design teacher at the Architectural Association in London. Gropius’s English was still not very good at this point, but before long, he was invited to establish a partnership with the young English architect Maxwell Fry, leading to some modest professional success in the not very receptive cultural climate there in the 1930s. He also became friends at this time with the modern sculptor Henry Moore.
The book addresses some of the English resistance to Gropius’s ideas and modernism in art and architecture, describing for example the vehement response in 1934 of the London theater director Edward Gordon Craig to Gropius’s idea of the “total theater,” which proposed an open, oval-shaped plan to encourage audience involvement. Craig could not see the point of this, and described Gropius’s new ideas as “soulless.” MacCarthy also well conveys the difficulties Gropius faced in designing an innovative wood house in Shipbourne, Kent. Clad in Canadian cedar, which changes color with the seasons, with interiors that were lined with pressed reed panels, Gropius & Fry’s The Wood House (1937) was at first denied a building permit by the local council on the grounds that it was “inharmonious” with the district, and “injurious” to the district’s amenities. The architects and their client, a Labour politician, were able to appeal this rejection to the Ministry of Health, but the success that Gropius had enjoyed in Germany was slow in coming to England.
The book is less interesting in its account of Gropius’s long American career, which began when he accepted the Chair of Architecture position at the new Harvard Graduate School of Design in 1937. While this led, through the exceptional generosity of a Harvard donor, to his being able to build the Gropius House (1937, designed with Marcel Breuer) in the elite suburb of Lincoln, Mass., where he could ride his horse every morning, it also began a long period of Gropius’s declining prestige as an architect and educator. Teaching in an Ivy League professional school long dominated by more traditional classical pedagogical methods turned into a kind of nightmare for him, as his efforts to introduce a Bauhaus-type first-year course were rejected by Joseph Hudnut, the Dean who had hired him, as somehow unsuitable for grown-ups in a professional school. He then took up the offer of a group of socially well-placed former students to found the firm TAC (The Architects’ Collaborative) in 1946, and went on to design projects across the American-dominated postwar world. TAC was the first architecture firm in the world to have any women partners, Jean Fletcher and Sally Harkness, and its firm organization anticipated later changes in team-based professional architectural practice.
The book addresses some of the English resistance to Gropius’s ideas and modernism in art and architecture, describing for example the vehement response in 1934 of the London theater director Edward Gordon Craig to Gropius’s idea of the “total theater,” which proposed an open, oval-shaped plan to encourage audience involvement.
Some key turning points for Gropius and the field after 1937 are not much of a focus in this book, such as his efforts to develop design and education in the postwar American environment. Instead, TAC’s later projects are interpreted in more conventional terms, as largely the product of his individual creative genius. Sadly, despite Gropius’s unquestionable idealism and high standards, his and TAC’s PanAm (now MetLife) building in New York (1960-63), or their University of Baghdad campus (1959), now seem far less architecturally interesting than the work of Breuer or some of Gropius’s GSD students, like I.M. Pei and Paul Rudolph, who were emerging figures at this same time. All these former students attested to Gropius’ great ability as a design teacher, but it is clear from projects like TAC’s huge Gropiusstadt in Berlin, a highrise social housing project of the 1960s, that Gropius’s role as a design visionary was far different by then from what it had been in the 1920s.
MacCarthy does briefly discuss a more impressive outcome of the Bauhaus than most of TAC’s work, the Hochschule für Gestaltung Ulm, founded in 1953 by Max Bill, one of Gropius’s many former Bauhaus students. “Ulm design” revived the aspirations of Gropius’s early career to integrate design and technology to make a direct impact on modern societies, and provided the basis for much later thinking about product design. Its outcomes in the work of prolific Ulm designers such as Dieter Rams has created much of the world of consumer products that now surround us.
Despite what is probably too much personal detail about his early romantic life for some readers, MacCarthy’s biography is nonetheless a good introduction to Gropius’s career, and it provides an accessible overview of his immensely productive life as a design educator and a key figure in the development of modern architecture.