Many architects dream of reshaping the world: Walter Gropius succeeded twice over–as founding director of the Bauhaus and as mentor to the postwar generation of American modernists at the Harvard GSD. As an architect, he won early fame for the Fagus factory, completed in 1913, and again in Dessau in the mid 1920s. But his true métier was that of a visionary teacher. In 1919, amid the turmoil and despair of a defeated Germany, he revolutionized art and design education, assembling a pantheon of talent to instruct avid students, mediating intramural conflicts and combating the philistines. His achievements overshadow the man and it’s the great virtue of Fiona MacCarthy’s biography to bring this austere figure to life.

The Bauhaus was launched with a bold manifesto: “The ultimate aim of all creative activity is the building!  The decoration of buildings was once the noblest function of the fine arts, and the fine arts were indispensable…Architects, sculptors, painters, we must return to the crafts!” That was the origin of a school now associated with machine production, notably the tubular metal chairs of Marcel Breuer and Mies van der Rohe. Bauhaus Beginnings, a dazzling exhibition at the Getty Research Institute, corrects that misapprehension, but MacCarthy focuses on people not products.

Gropius performed a delicate balancing act between spiritualism and functionality—pushing out Johannes Itten, who was forming a cult, and holding Theo van Doesberg at bay when he wanted to impose his dogma. It’s easy to romanticize the Bauhaus as a lost paradise, with weekly parties, kite and lantern festivals, nude bathing and an informal uniform that embodied the rebellion of masters and students against bourgeois society. The reality was a constant struggle for funds and survival against the vicious attacks of reactionaries and, later, the Nazis—who forced the closure of the school in 1933. Though deeply attached to Germany (he was a cavalry officer in the first World War), Gropius emigrated to England, which was then xenophobic and timidly conventional, before settling in the US, where he transformed architectural education at Harvard and appointed protegés to other influential posts. Sadly, his own career flagged during the postwar boom, and his biggest commission was the massive tower that blocks New York’s Park Avenue. His marriage to the flamboyant Alma Mahler dissolved in acrimony, he was denied access to his daughter, but found another by adoption. His second marriage carried him through multiple crises and he died as a legend, honored by a lifetime of friends and associates.

Gropius: The Man Who Built the Bauhaus. Fiona MacCarthy (Belnap/Harvard, $35)

Michael Webb

Author: Michael Webb

Michael Webb Hon. AIA/LA has authored more than twenty books on architecture and design, most recently Moving Around: A Lifetime of Wandering, Architects’ Houses, and Building Community: New Apartment Architecture, while contributing essays to many more. He is also a regular contributor to leading journals in the United States and Europe. Growing up in London, he was an editor at The Times and Country Life, before moving to the US, where he directed film programs for the AFI and curated a Smithsonian exhibition on Hollywood.

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