Berlin-born Walter Adolph Georg Gropius (1883-1969) was the founder of the famous Bauhaus school of design. He was the director of the Bauhaus in Germany from 1919 to 1928. Later he headed the architectural design section at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design (1938-1952) in the United States.
Beginning in 1903 Gropius followed in his architect father’s footsteps. He studied architecture in Berlin and Munich, but never received a degree in that field. After a year of travel in Europe, Gropius joined the architectural firm of Peter Behrens in 1908. Other modernists working in that office included Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier.
In 1910 Gropius partnered with Adolf Meyer to set up an architectural practice in Berlin. They contributed to the design of one of the most notable early modernist buildings, designing the steel-and-glass facade of the Faguswerk shoe-form factory (1911) in Alfeld an der Leine (Lower Saxony), a building that still stands to this day (after renovations in the 1980s).
With the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Gropius served as a sergeant major and was seriously injured while stationed on the Western Front. With the war’s end in 1918, Gropius was able to resume his design career.
In 1915 Walter Gropius married Alma Mahler (1879-1964), widow of the composer Gustav Mahler (following her two-year affair with Oskar Kokoschka). The couple divorced in 1920, after Alma had a love child with Franz Werfel. Born Alma Schindler in Vienna, Alma had three different husbands and many lovers. Her last husband was the Austrian writer Franz Werfel. Alma and Franz fled Nazi Germany and ended up in Los Angeles, where Werfel’s book, The Song of Bernadette, was made into a successful 1943 movie. Werfel died of a heart attack in California in 1945. His widow, now calling herself Alma Mahler-Werfel, became a US citizen and later moved to New York City. In 1923 Gropius married Ilse Frank, who remained his wife until his death. They had an adopted daughter, Beate Gropius.
The History of the Bauhaus: Weimar > Dessau > Berlin
Founding the Bauhaus in Weimar
In 1919 Walter Gropius was presented with the opportunity to reorganize the Grand Ducal Saxon School of Arts and Crafts in Weimar (Großherzoglich Sächsischen Hochschule für Bildende Kunst in Weimar) and merge it with the Weimar Academy of Fine Art (Kunstgewerbeschule Weimar). The result was the new Bauhaus school of design (Das Staatliche Bauhaus in Weimar), which was an attempt to unify all forms of art and design, ranging from painting and craftwork to industrial and architectural design. Gropius was able to assemble a noted faculty that included talents who were or would later be known in their own right: Lyonel Feininger, Paul Klee, Josef Albers, László Moholy-Nagy and Wassily Kandinsky. In the early years there was more focus on arts and crafts. Although its very name meant “house of building,” the Bauhaus would not offer classes in architecture until 1927.
The new Bauhaus in Weimar was funded by the state government of Thuringia, with support from the majority party, the liberal Social Democrats. But after only a few years the political winds were blowing in a more right-wing, nationalistic direction. The Bauhaus and its faculty came under conservative criticism and soon the school lost its funding. In March 1925 the Bauhaus closed its doors in Weimar and moved to Dessau.
After the Bauhaus left Weimar, some teachers and staff less antagonistic to the conservative political regime remained there and established a school of industrial design. Later known as the Technical University of Architecture and Civil Engineering, it would become the Bauhaus University Weimar in 1996.
Even before the move to Dessau, the Bauhaus was moving away from the influence of Swiss painter Johannes Itten, who had taught the introductory course (Vorkurs) in Weimar until 1922, and who was an exponent of Expressionism. In Dessau the Bauhaus also began to place more emphasis on architecture, including the school’s own modern “Bauhaus” building there, designed by Gropius and completed in 1926. (See photo below.)
Even before setting up shop in Dessau, Gropius had advocated a more futuristic approach to art, architecture and design, one more closely “…adapted to our world of machines, radios and fast cars.” Gropius ran the Dessau Bauhaus until 1928, when he hired the Swiss architect Hannes Meyer (1889-1954) to become the school’s new director.
Although Meyer brought the school some successful architectural projects and financial stability, his term was to be a short one. His radical functionalist design philosophy, Die neue Baulehre (“the new way to build”), led to clashes with some long-term instructors. But it was Meyer’s radical political views that caused the biggest problem. As an outspoken communist, Meyer became a danger to the school’s survival as the Nazis gained increasing influence all across Germany. The Nazis termed the Bauhaus “un-German” and labeled its design ideas “degenerate art” (entartete Kunst). Having an avowed Marxist as the leader of the Bauhaus only made things worse. In August 1930 Meyer was dismissed. He and a few students went to Moscow.
Berlin and Exile
Meyer’s firing did little to help the Bauhaus. When the NSDAP (Nazi party) won a majority in the Dessau city council in 1931, the design school had no future there. The school’s final relocation within Germany, to the German capital in 1932, was to be very short. Following a brief attempt to resurrect the Bauhaus in a former telephone factory at Birkbuschstraße 49 in Berlin-Lankwitz, Hitler swept to power in 1933 and the Bauhaus was doomed in Germany. Even the fact that Gropius was a patriotic war veteran couldn’t prevent the inevitable. In April 1933 the Bauhaus in Berlin was forced to close. The Nazis even loaded Bauhaus faculty and students into trucks and carted them off to jail – or worse.
Even before its closing in Berlin, many of the key people involved with the Bauhaus left Germany for Switzerland, England and the United States. Gropius and others eventually settled in the US and carried on the ideas of the Bauhaus at various institutions in the New World. Gropius and Marcel Breuer ended up teaching at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Mies van der Rohe and László Moholy-Nagy landed in Chicago, where Moholy-Nagy founded the New Bauhaus school, later the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology.
Gropius founded The Architects’ Collaborative (TAC) with several partners in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1945. TAC became one of the world’s top architectural firms before it went out of business in 1995, long after its founder’s death in 1969 at the age of 86. TAC also worked on the remodel of the Bauhaus Archive in Berlin in 1976. (See photo below.)
The Bauhaus Archive in Berlin
In the early 1960s Gropius was asked to design plans for a new Bauhaus Archive building in Darmstadt, Germany. For a site located on the Rosenhöhe hill in Darmstadt he designed a complex adapted to the plot’s slope. Gropius proposed lighting the exhibition space with natural light shining through the windows of factory-like shed roofs. (See photo above.) But because Darmstadt’s city fathers were reluctant to have the Archive at such a conspicuous site, the archive was moved to Berlin in 1971. Gropius himself had chosen the site from three proposed locations in Berlin. Because of budget concerns and the fact that the new site (near the Landwehrkanal) was almost completely flat, it took years to adapt the original design. Construction began in 1976. The Bauhaus Archive had its grand opening in December 1979.
The Influence of the Bauhaus
The amazing impact of the Bauhaus can still be seen around the world today. Much of what we call sleek, modern, utilitarian “international style” today can be traced back to the Bauhaus. (Some say even the iPhone’s design comes to us indirectly via the Bauhaus.) Besides the actual architecture and industrial design (lamps, furniture, graphics, appliances) of the Bauhaus, the word “Bauhaus” itself has taken on an aura of its own. The name has been appropriated by others in many fields, from a British gothic rock band to a German home improvement store chain. The several variations of the Bauhaus typeface are all based on Herbert Bayer’s 1925 experimental Universal typeface.
“What was new about the school was its attempt to integrate the artist and the craftsman, to bridge the gap between art and industry. … This was a Modernist utopian project like no other. The completed Bauhaus, with its simple cubic forms and shimmering glass surfaces, was seen to have announced a new international architectural style.” – Fiona MacCarthy in The Guardian, 17 November 2007
The world of art and architecture continues to be influenced by a German design school founded by Walter Gropius over 90 years ago! The 2009-2010 Bauhaus exhibition at MOMA in New York City is just one example: Bauhaus 1919–1933: Workshops for Modernity (November 8, 2009 to January 25, 2010) at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
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AT THE GERMAN WAY
- Berlin City Guide
- Bauhaus Timeline Graphic – A visual history of the Bauhaus Movement
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- Notable Women from Austria, Germany, Switzerland
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ON THE WEB
- Bauhaus Online | This common site for all three Bauhaus museums (Berlin, Dessau and Weimar) also offers a good overview of the Bauhaus-related locations worldwide. (site in German and English)
- Bauhaus Dessau Foundation | The Bauhaus Dessau Foundation is a center of research, teaching and experimental design. (site in German and English)
- Bauhaus Archiv Berlin | A museum and archive (site in German and English)
- The Bauhaus Archive Building | About the design and construction of the Bauhaus Archive in Berlin (in English)
- Bauhaus | Wikipedia, in English
- Bauhaus (Deutsch) | An excellent overview in German from Wikipedia
- Bauhaus Dessau (Deutsch) | About the building and the Stiftung [Foundation] Bauhaus Dessau – in German from Wikipedia
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