Walter Gropius

“I believe that New Architecture is destined to dominate a far more comprehensive sphere than building means today; and that from the investigation of its details we shall advance towards an ever-wider and more profound conception of design as one great cognate whole — the mirror of the indivisibility and immensity and underlying unity of life itself, of which it is an integral part.” (Walter Gropius, 1935)

walter-gropius Photo Studio Casali – Archivi domus

Walter Adolph Gropius (1883–1969), known simply as Walter Gropius was born in Berlin in 1883.

A central figure in the Modernist Movement and a supporter of the theory according to which architecture cannot disregard social and psychological aspects, Gropius was an apprentice of Peter Behrens, for whom he worked between 1908 and 1910, after having completed his training as an architect in Munich (1903) and Berlin (1905-1907).

Having concluded his apprenticeship, he set up his own studio in what is now the capital of Germany which, until 1925, saw him accompanied by Adolf Meyer, another young German architect who had been a colleague of Gropius during his time spent with Behrens. Their first important project was the workshop for the production of shoe moulds, which was called “Fagus” (1911) in Alfred, Saxony, a design which reflected a number of considerations on the modern factory which Gropius set out in an essay published in the Jahrbuch two years later. Both the Fagus factory and the essay theorised on the need for new factories to move completely away from formal German tradition, and suggested audacious technical solutions, including the clear expression of the dynamic relationship between indoors and outdoors which, according to Alfred, was obtained by substituting external walls with large bold expanses of glass. This choice was later to be confirmed by the design for the model factory, which was presented at the Cologne Exhibition promoted by Deutscher Werkbund (1914), the association founded in 1907 by industrialists, architects and designers with the aim of improving the quality of German industrial production (including that dedicated to the development of building materials). 

Along with this first architectural project, this period saw Gropius involved in the design of a benzene-driven tractor unit for the train carriage factory in Königsberg, considered by critics to be an absolute transposition of the principle according to which a perfect form is obtainable only through a careful study of the functions that the object designed has to satisfy.

The career of the German architect took off in 1919 (at the end of the First World War). In that year, he became the director of the Grossherzogliche Sächsische Kunstgewerbeschule and the Sächsische Hochschule für bildende Kunst in Weimar, brought together by Gropius to create Bauhaus, for which he drew up the manifesto. The aim of the newly-formed design school was not the promotion of a new style or a new art form, but the complete reform of artistic creation, which Gropius identified as a return to its origins, which he considered to be found in artisan workmanship. This was interpreted as the direct manipulation of modern materials which are common to all art forms (sculpture, painting and crafts). This was the purpose of the setting up of the Bauhaus workshops, which were identified according to the materials used in each of them. It was Gropius himself who, in the pages of The New Architecture and the Bauhaus (1935), evoked principles and situations related to the matter: “This idea of the fundamental unity underlying all branches of design was my guiding inspiration in founding the original Bauhaus. [...] In carrying out this scheme I tried to solve the ticklish problem of combining imaginative design and technical proficiency. That meant finding a new and hitherto non-existent type of collaborator who could be moulded into being equally proficient in both.  [...] I insisted on manual instruction, not as an end in itself, or with any idea of turning [53] it to incidental account by actually producing handicrafts, but as providing a good all-round training for hand and eye and being a practical first step in mastering industrial processes”.

With his move from Weimar to Dessau, Gropius also had the opportunity to create a brand-new location for the school (1925-1926), an iconic construction in which the organisation of the proposed didactic programme was directly expressed through the organisation of the spaces. An epicentre for many avant garde artists - the professors chosen by Gropius included Vasilij Kandinskij, Johannes Itten, Lyonel Feininger, Theo van Doesburg, Paul Klee and Oskar Schlemmer -, Bauhaus soon became a kind of artistic collective, producing extraordinary integrated projects of architecture and design. These included the Haus Sommerfeld in Berlin-Steglitz (1920-1922) commissioned by the construction entrepreneur Adolf Sommerfeld, and designed by Gropius, Meyer and a number of students - Josef Albers, Marcel Breuer and Joost Schmidt among others - who designed and created furniture and windows.

After the professional separation from Meyer, Gropius also stepped down from his position as director of Bauhaus (1928) with the intention of once more concentrating on his professional activities.

In this period he took part in the creation of CIAM - Congrés Internationaux d'Architecture Moderne. During the edition in Brussels in 1930 dedicated to rationalist construction methods, he presented a piece entitled “Low Buildings, Medium-high Or High Buildings?”. He dedicated much attention to the study of urban planning and modern living, constructing numerous districts such as Siemensstadt in Berlin (1929), Törten in Dessau (1927) and Dammerstock in Karlsruhe (1927-1929). In 1926 he created the design for Erwin Piscator’s “Total Theatre”; in 1931 he won the tender for the Palace of the Soviets in Moscow and, at the same time, designed cars, furniture and exhibition layouts (including for the Werkbund in Paris). Oppressed by the Nazi regime, he moved first to England (1934-1937) and then to the United States, where Harvard University assigned him a chair at the Graduate School of Design (of which he was director from 1938 to 1952). In Massachusetts in 1946 he set up the TAC - The Architects’ Collective, a group composed of young designers who assisted him in the construction of important works, many of which were schools: the Harvard University Graduate Center (1950) is the most mature result of this collaboration, which demonstrates all the principles of integration between the arts which was promoted by Bauhaus.

The final stage in the activity of Gropius - who died in Boston in 1969 - saw the construction of many works, including the Interbau building in Berlin (1956-1957); the American embassy in Athens (1956); the new University in Baghdad (1958); the district named after him in Berlin, Gropiusstadt (1960), composed of sixteen thousand homes with related services (shops, schools, offices etc.), the Pan Am skyscraper set on top of Grand Central Station in New York and designed together with Pietro Belluschi (1958-1963).

In order to understand the role and influence that Gropius had on contemporary architecture as a whole, his uncompleted designs are also of great interest, as well as his writings, which include, for example, the drawing up of an initial essay on industrial prefabrication which was written together with Behrens.

His most important theories have been published in numerous books, which were published from 1938 onwards.

In the words of Marco Biraghi:

Together with that of collectivity, the concept of “the cultural responsibility of the architect” is clear confirmation of Gropius’s ideas and constitutes the necessary abstract of the first. This combination, represented by the idea of “totality” (of architecture and of society) is central [...] and is a direct reference to the experiences of Gropius in Berlin in the period immediately following the war
Life period:
Professional role:
architect, designer

Top image - Photo Studio Casali – Domus archives

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