In 1911, Walter Gropius unveiled the Fagus shoe factory. His first architectural commission of note, it was executed with a load-bearing steel frame that allowed for glass walls and corners. The visible stairways, the building’s light and lightness, rang of the future. Meticulous geometrical study and an industrial posture became the hallmarks of modernist style according to Gropius.
Born in Berlin in 1883, he wasn’t an architect by chance. His great-uncle, Martin Gropius, had erected the Gropius Bau, the city’s exhibition hall, in 1881. His father was an architect before he became a civic-building official.
In 1908, the 25-year-old Gropius joined Peter Behrens’s studio in Berlin alongside Mies van der Rohe. Behrens was a difficult boss. After tensions arose between the pair, Gropius left the studio in 1910, and within a year he’d constructed Fagus.
In 1914, Gropius was drafted and sent to the Western Front, where he served with distinction. He also found time to marry Alma Mahler, ex-wife of the composer, in 1915. They had a daughter, Manon, the following year. After military service, Gropius returned to a crumbling postwar Germany. “As in a flash of light,” he remarked, “it dawned on me … the old stuff was out.”
Gropius founded Bauhaus in 1919, and the rest is history. World talents flocked to the place. Paul Klee taught theory of form. Wassily Kandinsky taught color theory. Marcel Breuer and Josef Albers were students. By the time the Bauhaus era ended, in 1933, after interference from the Gestapo, the school had effectively dismantled the entrenched principles of France’s École des Beaux-Arts.
“As in a flash of light, it dawned on me … the old stuff was out.”
Gropius left Germany for good in 1934, fleeing to England with his second wife, Ise. That same year his daughter Manon, who was living with Alma, contracted polio in Venice; she died the following year, only 18. Gropius and Ise moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he became chair of the Harvard Architecture Department and later worked closely with one of his former students, Marcel Breuer.
Despite abounding recognition for his teaching, Gropius was never a celebrated architect. Critics have hailed him as an innovator or dismissed him as a bore, calling him architecture’s “gray man.” In the new book Walter Gropius, an illustrated biography, photographs and text cover major milestones and struggles, from architecture to Alma to the moments around Manon’s death. Gropius comes off as anything but gray. —Elena Clavarino
Elena Clavarino is the Senior Editor for AIR MAIL