“…the final goal of art: the creative conception of the cathedral of the future, which will once more encompass everything in one form – architecture and sculpture and painting.” – Walter Gropius, 1919
In his own words, his philosophy of total design, around the time of the establishment of the Bauhaus.
It has been exactly one hundred years since the founding of the Bauhaus, the school Gropius built. A School that brought forth some of the most revolutionary concepts at the beginning of the century. Walter Gropius’ ideas and principles of those years would go on to change everything the world knew about design. It made him widely regarded as one of the most influential personalities of the time and a lasting pillar of modernity.
Walter’s early life
Born in 1883 in Berlin, much of Walter Gropius’ early life was fairly unremarkable; both his father and uncle were architects. They undoubtedly influenced his decision to study architecture, which he completed in Munich and Berlin. He married a Viennese widow, a highly celebrated beauty, with whom he had a daughter. His first architectural engagement was in the office of Peter Behrens in 1907. It marked the beginning of his illustrious career.
Those first few years shaped Gropius’ perspective in many ways. Behrens’ influence is evident even in his first independent commission – the Fagus factory he designed with Adolf Meyer. While Behrens set the foundations for an architecture catering to industry for the first time in history, it was Walter Gropius who pushed the aesthetic further, substituting load-bearing walls for materials more fitting of the building’s industrial nature: steel and glass. At the same time, he established his own practice in which he dabbled in furniture and wallpaper design – even a diesel locomotive. His reconsideration of established design and construction principles was very avant-garde. It was a way of thinking he continued to entertain in the upcoming decades.
Walter Gropius and the Rise of the Bauhaus
The detrimental effects of the Great War left a lasting mark on Gropius, as it did with the many soldiers and officers of the Lost Generation who had seen and felt the unparalleled brutality of machines first-hand. While previously inclined to the benefits of industrialization, the war had left him with a negative aftertaste on the matter. It was something that would shape his views on the school he had yet to establish. While previously maintaining an apolitical stance, now tainted by the war, Gropius turned his beliefs to the left – to the promise of a radical social reform that would make the world a better place.
Upon Gropius’ appointment as director of the Academy of Fine Art, he developed the idea to merge the Academy with the Grand-Ducal Saxon School of Arts and Crafts, thus creating the Bauhaus school in Weimar. The school was founded upon the principles of combining crafts and fine art with the ultimate goal of creating a synthesis of the arts. It fundamentally changed the prevalent approach to design at the time. Gropius’ changed views on politics and newfound disillusionment of the machine shaped the rudimentary premise of the new school as an ideal small-scale community focused on the nurturing of craftsmanship over mass production.
Walter Gropius’ nine years as director were indisputably the school’s best years. He managed to bring numerous influential artists and designers to teach at the school, including Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, Johannes Itten and László Moholy-Nagy. Professors and students alike built Gropius’ Cathedral of the Future, the idea of artists and craftsmen united by the cause of total design. Together they changed the course of industry with their craft-based approach to object design.
Art and Technology – A New Unity
Slowly reconciling with the inevitable prevalence of technology in design over the years, Gropius took the school in a new direction, one more accepting of mass production. The Bauhaus exhibition of 1923 with the motto “Art and Technology – A New Unity” symbolized the beginning of a new era for both the school and Gropius who had finally reconnected with his pre-war sentiments. The Bauhaus realized that the strong emphasis on reviving craftsmanship and placing it above technology risked impeding progress and alienating the school. The new Bauhaus focused on creating a new breed of designer – one that collaborated with the industry in producing well designed objects for every day use. This also proved to be a good financial move, allowing the school to make more money selling designs and patents.
For the exhibition of ‘23, Walter Gropius designed his director’s office with the concept of an ideal study in mind. With all objects relating back to the square and placed in a cubic room, it is the first coherent modern spatial composition. Tecta – a leading producer of re-editions of original Bauhaus designs still produces the F51 Gropius Sessel, the armchair he designed for his office all those years ago.
The most commercially successful item to come out of the Bauhaus was the lever door handle. It was placed into mass production in the same year as the re-evaluation of the schools approach. A simple and rational design created originally by Gropius for his Fagus factory, it is deeply ingrained in the machinist aesthetic – a poetic indication of the new Bauhaus values.
Walter Gropius moves to Dessau
In 1925, the school moved to a new location – Dessau. The Bauhaus’ modernist style was highly unpopular with the rising nationalists which circled Weimar, branding the school too “cosmopolitan”. With funding cut in half and Gropius himself asked to hand in his resignation, the relocation of the Bauhaus was a desperate attempt to save the school. The new building Walter Gropius designed in many ways was a built manifesto of the school’s ideas, designed according to modernist principles with flat roofs and glass curtain walls. In the true spirit of the Bauhaus, School participated in the design of much of the fittings and furnishings, as well as lighting.
For the next fourteen years until its dissolution in 1933, the Bauhaus movement would continue to greatly impact all fields of design – from art and architecture, to graphic design, typography and industrial design. Despite its best efforts to maintain an apolitical stance, it was ultimately the school’s association with the left – stemming all the way back to Gropius’ own ideas – which led to its closure under mounting pressure by the Nazi regime.
Withstanding constant criticism of the school for much of his tenure, Gropius decided to resign in 1928 and return to his architectural practice. For the greater part of nine years, the Bauhaus was the center of his universe and arguably his greatest contribution to the modern movement. The next epoch in his life begins far away from the school – far away from Germany.
The ascension of the Nazi party in Germany saw a repression of modernism in the upcoming years. Branded as “degenerate”, ideology detested the movement. They sought a new artistic expression to convey their nationalistic views, giving rise to the Heimatstil and Neoclassicism. These new tendencies gave Gropius no choice but to leave Germany and continue elsewhere with his career. He first moved to England and then to USA. In the next few decades he committed himself to various architecture projects, while also teaching at Harvard. He began a long-lasting partnership with his Bauhaus colleague, Marcel Breuer, who had also emigrated to the USA. Even though he moved on with his career, Walter Gropius continued to communicate the ideas of the Bauhaus for the rest of his life, devoted to making it a globally recognized movement.
The Boy Who Could Not Draw…
… became the man whose designs would greatly influence the early development of the modern movement. The widely-circulating fact about Gropius’ drawing capabilities – or lack thereof – illustrate the sheer strength of his other qualities which essentially made him an excellent architect and designer. Primarily his visions and ideas, thoroughly rooted in the avant-garde and often way ahead of their time. From his university days, when he would pay others to complete his homework for him, to his years as a designer in which he often required collaborators, Gropius’ persuasive and shrewd nature expressed. He would always employ all means necessary to make his ideas a reality.
His need for others to bring his visions to life parallels the underlying concept of the Bauhaus – the union of the strength of different fields in the creation of one final product. Perhaps it is not the hand which is the mark of a true designer, but instead the mind. At least for Gropius one can say that this is true.