Christopher Turner

A Very Romantic Modernist

Walter Gropius: Visionary Founder of the Bauhaus

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Bauhaus Goes West: Modern Art and Design in Britain and America

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Fiona MacCarthy met Walter Gropius (1883–1969) through Jack Pritchard, the British entrepreneur who built Lawn Road Flats in Hampstead, an experiment in modernist living where Gropius took up residence after escaping Nazi Germany in 1934. The Bauhaus, the school he founded in Weimar a century ago this year, had been closed by stormtroopers the previous year (by then it had moved to Berlin). In 1968, after the opening of a Bauhaus exhibition at the Royal Academy, MacCarthy was invited to dinner with Gropius at the Lawn Road Isobar, the block’s in-house dining room: ‘He was then eighty-five, small, upright, very courteous, retaining a Germanic formality of bearing,’ MacCarthy recalled. He ‘was still valiant and impressive, with a flickering of arrogance’.

Gropius, who died nine months later, split his life into three acts, obligingly providing the overall structure for MacCarthy’s biography. He started out as a radical, avant-garde architect in Germany, working for Peter Behrens alongside Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe, before founding the Bauhaus; he then fled Nazi Germany to Britain, where he became a leading advocate of modernism but struggled to build anything of substance or replicate his school; finally, he emigrated to America, where he was feted and taught a new generation of architects at Harvard, thereby exerting enormous influence.

In From Bauhaus to Our House (1981), Tom Wolfe dismissed Gropius as a ‘Silver Prince’ whose socialist rhetoric masked an elitist world-view and a cold, impersonal aesthetic that had left a malign mark on America. Without fetishising his buildings, MacCarthy makes a compelling case for the architect as an impassioned idealist and romantic. Gropius was often compared to William Morris, most notably by Nikolaus Pevsner in Pioneers of Modern Design: From William Morris to Walter Gropius (1936), and MacCarthy is, of course, also a biographer of Morris. She shows how both sought a return to craft values (though in the early 1920s Gropius enthusiastically embraced technology) and a utopian fusion of art and politics.

Gropius is sometimes characterised as anti-feminist. MacCarthy responds that the Bauhaus had as many female students as male ones, the most famous being Anni Albers (the subject of a recent retrospective at Tate Modern). However, as Alan Powers points out in Bauhaus Goes West, female students like Albers were streamed into the weaving or textile workshops thought appropriate for women. To redress the balance, MacCarthy, who claims to have been struck by the octogenarian Gropius’s sexual charisma, slices up his life according to his many affairs. It doesn’t quite redeem him, but it makes for an incredibly readable and rounded biography and gives credit where it’s due to the formidable women who shaped him.

His first love was Alma Mahler, wife of the composer Gustav, who abandoned his tenth symphony when he discovered her infidelity and went into therapy with Sigmund Freud. She was something of a femme fatale (Klimt and Kokoschka also fell in love with her; the latter commissioned a life-sized doll to resemble her). They met at a health spa in Tobelbad in 1910, the year Gropius set up his architectural practice, and wed during the First World War, in which Gropius served on the Western Front. Alma remembered it as her ‘oddest’ marriage. Early on in the war, Gropius’s nerves were shredded by an explosion right in front of him, which left him with night-time ‘screaming jeebies’. Although they had a daughter, Alma tired of him even before the armistice, moving on to new lovers.

Formed in the ruins of this relationship and in the revolutionary atmosphere of a postwar world in flux, the Bauhaus was conceived as an experimental community of artists. The first students arrived at the school, fresh from the front, with shaven heads, still wearing their old military uniforms, determined to design a better world. The early Bauhaus was democratic, unhierarchical, even a little cultish, with its focus on spectacular festivals and costume balls. Gropius, whom the students nicknamed Pius, soon set up with Lily Hildebrandt, an artist associated with the Blaue Reiter group, who also happened to be married. ‘I would like to penetrate you with the sword of love,’ he wrote to her.

The building that embodied the expressionist spirit of the early Bauhaus was the Sommerfeld House in Berlin, a Teutonic, timber, pitched-roof Schloss, the moody interiors of which were decorated by the Bauhauslers. It bore little resemblance to the white cubes with which the Bauhaus is more often associated. It was only when the Bauhaus began to struggle financially that Gropius ditched the utopian craft vision of those early years and sought a new alliance with industry. ‘Can’t you help to find capitalists?’ he wrote to Hildebrandt in 1920. Gropius embraced mass production, encouraging students to ‘breathe soul into the lifeless product of the machine’.

Gropius met his second wife, Ilse Frank, when she sat in the front row of one of his lectures on art and technology, listening to him preach this new ethos. It was said to be love at first sight. She broke off a relationship with another man on the eve of their wedding and later recalled how she joined Gropius in Weimar: ‘I arrived at his door with a little suitcase in my hand and disappeared for all those who had known me before into a new world that had no equal anywhere and that gave me the chance to develop my own personality, according to my own lights, within its framework.’ He modernised her name, rechristening her Ise; she became known to the students as ‘Frau Bauhaus’.

In 1926 the Bauhaus moved from Weimar to Dessau, into a campus of Gropius’s design, a bold and progressive factory of the Bauhaus brand. Ise used her journalistic background to help market the products, now sold under the name Bauhaus GmbH. The couple had married in 1923 and they adopted her niece, but soon after their marriage Ise began a long affair with the Bauhaus teacher and graphic designer Herbert Bayer. Gropius resigned from the school in 1928 after being accused of overcharging on a building project and handed the reins to the communist architect Hannes Meyer. In 1932 the Nazis, who had come to power in Dessau, seized the Bauhaus, adding a pitched roof to the central building and turning it into an officer training school. Mies van der Rohe re-established the school in Berlin, but it was closed down for good the following year.

MacCarthy dismisses claims that Gropius was a Nazi sympathiser. Although she quotes some embarrassingly anti-Semitic passages, she points out that many of the staff he hired at the Bauhaus were Jewish. When, after resigning his teaching post, he was seeking to resurrect his architectural practice in Berlin, it was a matter of sheer pragmatism, when seeking new commissions, to cover his designs for the Reichsbank and other new buildings in swastikas, something Mies van der Rohe also did. Hitler, however, did not embrace modernism, preferring Albert Speer’s neoclassicism, and Gropius struggled financially after the Nazis came to power. He was not forced into exile, but in the political climate he had little choice but to leave.

In 1934 Gropius resettled in England, an ‘inartistic country with unsalted vegetables, bony women and an eternally freezing draught’. He went into partnership with Maxwell Fry, who claimed Gropius ‘filled us with a fervour as moral as it was aesthetic’, but their collaboration produced only a few luxury villas. Powers documents in great detail every nuanced effort that was made to get the Bauhaus spirit to take root in this inhospitable place, where modernism was, according to Wyndham Lewis, ‘cod-liver oil to the over-sweet Anglo-Saxon palate’. Talk of cloning the Bauhaus at Dartington, the Royal College of Art or the Architectural Association came to nothing.

After only two years in England, aged fifty-four, Gropius left for Harvard to head the Graduate School of Architecture. Other Bauhaus staff also moved west, including Josef Albers, who went to Black Mountain College, Mies van der Rohe, who ended up at the Illinois Institute of Technology, and László Moholy-Nagy, who set up the New Bauhaus in Chicago (it is a shame that Powers devotes only a single chapter to this era). In 1938 MoMA staged an exhibition of the Bauhaus that canonised Gropius. ‘The Bauhaus is not dead; it lives and grows through the men who made it,’ wrote the director Alfred Barr. In the USA the Bauhaus lost its political edge, but the school’s aesthetic, renamed the International Style, became the idiom of corporate power and a symbol of America’s global domination.

Gropius visited Berlin after the Second World War, during which a third of the city had been destroyed, having been asked by the military governor to assist in the reconstruction of the American Sector. ‘Berlin is a has-been! A disintegrated corpse! … The people bent down, bitter, hopeless,’ Gropius wrote to Ise. The Bauhaus building had been burned out during an air raid in 1945. An attempt was made to restart the school as part of a US-funded de-Nazification programme, but it was short-lived. Over thirty representatives of the Bauhaus had died in concentration camps and the survivors were so old-looking as to be scarcely recognisable. Gropius remarked, with understatement, that he was ‘on the luckier side of those who left’.

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