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.
- Gropius: The Man Who Built the Bauhaus, by Fiona MacCarthy. Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 547 pp., $35.00
- The Bauhaus and Harvard, an exhibition at the Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, Massachusetts, February 8–July 28, 2019
- Bauhaus: Weimar, Dessau, Berlin, Chicago, by Hans M. Wingler. MIT Press, 658 pp., $100.00
This protective coloration allowed him to act as a buffer between suspicious local authorities who grudgingly financed this unprecedented educational experiment and the avant-garde artists he employed as instructors, whom conservative commentators considered degenerate madmen. Simultaneously, at his new laboratory for artistic exploration, Gropius acted as a veritable lion tamer who kept the supremely gifted but eccentric faculty in line, while allowing them and their eager young charges maximum creative freedom.
It was a balancing act of extraordinary deftness1 that only someone with strong self-discipline and steely ambition could pull off. Yet history has not dealt kindly with Gropius, especially after Tom Wolfe’s ignorant anti-Modernist diatribe From Bauhaus to Our House (1981), which mercilessly lampooned him as the chief perpetrator of a hopelessly inhumane mode of architecture and an insufferable prig to boot. Wolfe was certainly not alone in his ad hominem animus. The architectural historian Joseph Rykwert has described Gropius “as a man [who] seemed to have fewer redeeming features than many of his kind…. His pinched humourless egotism was unrelieved by sparkle.” That assessment is supported by the critic Brian O’Doherty’s interview with Gropius for Boston public television during the early 1960s (available on YouTube), in which the charming young host’s suave blandishments contrast starkly with the gruff responses of this dour-looking, near-octogenarian head of a worthy but unexciting New England architectural office with a specialty in school design.
- 1. Today Gropius’s generously collegial approach is more valued than ever as an early departure from the long-dominant Great Man conception of architecture as the product of a single creative figure. TAC is now seen as a precursor of the current trend toward nonhierarchical and gender-equal architectural practice. (A quarter of its founding partners were women, a remarkable ratio for that time.) However, in recent decades the growing insistence on a more egalitarian architectural workplace has superseded the TAC model, most conspicuously at the Oslo-based firm Snøhetta, which since its founding in 1989 has applied a team methodology throughout the entire design development process and has moved well beyond TAC’s formula of having individual partners draw up schemes that were then presented to the entire office for group critique and modification.3 (MacCarthy is mistaken in claiming that TAC was ever “the largest architecture practice in America,” a distinction held throughout TAC’s fifty-year existence by SOM, which in 1952 had a thousand employees.)