March 2, 2019

FROM WALTER’S HOUSE TO YOUR HOUSE: The London Spectator reviews the upcoming biography, Gropius: The Man Who Built the Bauhaus:

Almost everything that is known about Gropius suggests a person of considerable control and dedication. He came from a professional Berlin family — the Gropius-Bau, the handsome Berlin museum space, was the work of an architect uncle, Martin Gropius. A stretch in military service after 1904 seems to have suited him; strangers would often comment on his upright stance, like a Prussian officer in mufti.

The architectural training was, surprisingly, less thorough, and Gropius left the Konigliche Technische Hochschule in Berlin after two years, without taking a diploma. (He never learnt how to draw properly.) By then he was already designing buildings for family and friends. In 1908 he took a post in the Berlin office of Peter Behrens, a fascinating figure who, according to Fiona MacCarthy,  married the monumental simplicity of the classical Prussian architect Schinkel to the aesthetic thought of  the English Arts and Crafts movement. The startling result, one of the defining moments of modernism, was the AEG Turbine Hall in Berlin, resembling a vast, unadorned abstract sculpture. By 1914 Gropius himself had made his own major construction, the quite bracingly bleak Fagus factory. This is a man who got his way.

The most important episode in his career, rightly given prominence in MacCarthy’s title, was his founding of the Bauhaus in 1919, unifying two Weimar institutions. In its short 14-year history, the school managed to draw an extraordinary range of aesthetic approaches into a unified project. There was a place in it, at different times, for mystics, poetic fantasists, hard Marxist ideologues, industrial fetishists and dedicated William Morris-type craftsmen. Gropius somehow kept it together, despite its incompatibilities, and in the face of bitter hostility from politicians and the public. After four years it had to move from Weimar to Dessau, where Gropius created the single most persuasive argument for the Bauhaus idea. The school and the idyllic line of masters’ houses in a pine grove must be visited: they embody a compelling vision of a life where work, communal existence, private spaces, creativity and natural beauty can exist harmoniously and concisely.

The Bauhaus lost its equilibrium after Gropius’s departure in 1928, and with Hannes Meyer as director fell under the jurisdiction of the austere Marxist faction. It moved to Berlin in its last year, and was closed down in 1933. Quite helpfully in the long run, Hitler’s persecution sent the Bauhaus masters to all corners of the world.

To the regret of Gropius, in more ways than one. As Jonathan Petropoulos wrote in his 2015 book, Artists Under Hitler: Collaboration and Survival in Nazi Germany:

A key, for Gropius, was green architecture: both in the sense of the conservation of resources and with regard to nature. The homes and housing complexes he designed always featured garden spaces, and the buildings stood in proportion to nature (never exceeding four stories). The idea was to have people surrounded by trees and grass, and to make it easy to access these resources (no long elevator rides as in a skyscraper). This, in concert with the technology, would provide a life-enhancing balance. Gropius’s efforts to reclaim technology, to use it for benign purposes, proved a viable project. His success in this regard led him to be overconfident about his ability to find common cause with the Nazi regime, which had its own “green” agenda, albeit as part of a broader racist worldview. Hitler marketed the Autobahnen, for example, as providing the means for urban residents to escape the unhealthy city and connect with the supposedly pristine and restorative German countryside.

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Gropius was a German nationalist, perhaps not surprising considering that he hailed from a prominent family and had been an officer in World War I. Even after he left Germany in late 1934, he would sign important letters with the phrase “mit deutschen Gruss” (with German greetings), and while living in England and the United States in the 1930s he invariably took pains to emphasize that he was a German citizen.

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Gropius’s decision to relocate to England in the fall of 1934 should not be considered a form of political opposition to the Nazi regime.

And how, as a reading of the entire chapter on Gropius in Petropoulos’ book illustrates. Philip Hensher’s review of Fiona MacCarthy’s upcoming biography is headlined, “A clear vision of Walter Gropius the man is hard to come by.” But Gropius’ worldview in the 1930s, as the international socialism of the Weimar Republic mutated into National Socialism, isn’t difficult to ascertain if you know where to look.

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