The Unsinkable Modernist

The Bauhaus and Harvard

an exhibition at the Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, Massachusetts, February 8–July 28, 2019


Whatever else one might think of Walter Gropius—the pioneering German architect who founded the Bauhaus a century ago this year and thereby earned an irrevocable place in the pantheon of Modernism—it is hard not to be impressed by his most salient talent: survival. He escaped misfortunes that included being buried alive for three days while a front-line officer in World War I; the narcissistic manipulations of his first wife, Alma Mahler; the barbarism of Hitler, which imperiled his more sympathetic second wife, who was Jewish, and forced the couple to flee their homeland; the philistine indifference to Modernism in interwar Britain, their first refuge from Germany; and the intrigues of academic politics that repeatedly enmeshed him. Yet after each new somersault of fate he somehow landed on his feet and emerged undeterred.

Walter Gropius with the design for his and Adolf Meyer’s entry for the 1922 Chicago Tribune Tower competition, 1928
Associated Press/Bauhaus-Archiv, Berlin/© 2019 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn
Walter Gropius with the design for his and Adolf Meyer’s entry for the 1922 Chicago Tribune Tower competition, 1928

Gropius died half a century ago this summer at age eighty-six, six weeks before the somewhat younger Ludwig Mies van der Rohe; both were posthumously hailed as among the foremost architects of the age. Before World War I, they had worked together as assistants in the Berlin atelier of the master builder and industrial designer Peter Behrens, where another employee around that time was the twenty-something Le Corbusier. Mies would go on to become the last of the Bauhaus’s three directors and, like its first, enjoy a highly successful late career in the United States.

But in notable contrast to Mies—whose bare-bones, steel-frame, glass-curtain-wall formula provided the basic template for postwar high-rise construction worldwide—Gropius’s longest-lasting impact came from the innovative pedagogical principles he championed as head of the most influential art school since the École des Beaux-Arts was established in Paris more than two and a half centuries earlier.1 The architectural historian Bernard Michael Boyle has summarized this revolutionary repositioning of design education:

Gropius came to the Bauhaus from a career in architecture, and in fact he viewed all design as architectonic in basic character. With this understanding, Gropius approached all design problems as basically similar, and thus considered it necessary for all designers to have the same basic education…. Gropius’s modern architectonic art included all artistic activity as well as all design problems: “What the Bauhaus preached in practice was the common citizenship of all forms of creative work, and their logical interdependence on one another in the modern world”; and the educational program was intended to remove the academic distinction between the so-called fine arts and the so-called applied arts or crafts.

Two of Gropius’s early German buildings still regularly appear in architectural history surveys: his and Adolf Meyer’s Fagus shoe factory of…

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