Fiona MacCarthy’s exemplary biography of Walter Gropius presents him as a tragic but unexpectedly sympathetic figure
Walter Gropius, as everyone with any grasp of 20th century architecture knows, was a stern figure, seemingly as geometric and monochrome as his buildings. Fiona MacCarthy set herself the task of extracting quite another man from behind the clichéd picture, even if the jacket of her penetrating, exemplary, biography seems to bear it out: her subject, photographed by Irving Penn in 1948, stares unequivocally back at us. But, using much unpublished material, especially the diaries of his second wife, Ilse (Ise), MacCarthy reveals a Gropius of surprising complexity, a tragic but also a sympathetic figure.
Several things have conspired to fog the picture. Nothing was louder, more self-serving or meretricious than the voice of Gropius’s first wife, Alma Mahler. After the disintegration of their relationship their daughter Manon was to be a pawn in her charge. Alma disliked the ‘impassioned modernism’ of the Bauhaus, her own blowsy taste embodied by the grotesque spectacle she would make of their dying teenaged daughter, set on a throne, decked in her own jewellery, like a (just) living Schiele. Gropius was kept in cruel ignorance until too late.
Divorced in 1919, severely traumatized by military service, Gropius found a visionary outlet in founding the Bauhaus. From the brave experiment in Weimar came fellowship, creative common purpose and renewed pride in his battered country. ‘The old stuff is out.’ No professors, just masters. A course which would integrate workshop-based arts and education in the most free-flowing way possible – though there was, as yet, no architecture per se. His colleague, the graphic designer Herbert Bayer, could still see the soldier in Gropius, contrasted with Johannes Itten, of the shaven head and Mazdaznanism, who was (luckily) soon replaced by Moholy-Nagy – Gropius’s most loyal supporter. The students, women heavily outnumbering men at first, were radical and open-minded, often foreign and, the conservative citizens of Weimar suspected (wrongly), mostly Jewish. Later, others entered the mix, hard-line communists and constructivists among them. Gropius negotiated the political shoals, guarding his neutrality with care and nurturing the local mayors who initially supported his enterprises, in Weimar and Dessau.
After two tumultuous love affairs, Gropius found the companion in life and work he had been looking for. He married the impressive Ise Frank in 1923; he was 40, she 26. By the time almost the entire Bauhaus staff from Weimar arrived in Dessau in 1925 she was ‘Frau Bauhaus’. Fiona MacCarthy, also William Morris’s biographer, identifies the strong connections between the arts and crafts movement and the Bauhaus – their practices, products and associated utopian communities. When Nikolaus Pevsner showed the famous Emery Walker photograph of Morris to Gropius he said, ‘So that is Morris. I have never seen a picture of him. And yet I owe him so very much.’
Gropius was not that great a designer, rather an ideas man and a charismatic team-leader, more engineer than architect. He excelled as a teacher and as a public speaker. MacCarthy quotes the stage designer Lothar Schreyer, at the Bauhaus from 1921, describing his ‘enchanting, sympathetic attitude especially to the younger generation.’ Ise’s diaries reveal a surprisingly relaxed, widely observant Gropius, fascinated by the ‘architecture without architects’ of southern Italy and the anarchic street life of Naples.
The Bauhaus, through the friendships, loyalties and interdependencies that centred on its first master, long outlived its physical location or even its European roots. MacCarthy identifies ‘a strange sense of enduring love between them … with Gropius himself at the centre of activity, so full of ideas and dedication’. The Bauhausler were scattered by the war and divided by politics, geography and circumstance, but, with some tragic exceptions, mostly re-emerged in the USA with their ideals intact.
For Walter and Ise Gropius the journey took them to London, where his poor English was an impediment, while she, English educated, became his voice. Even though he was enormously admired, patronage proved harder to secure. Encouragement and support came from the remarkable Pritchards of Isokon, and so Gropius began work with Max Fry, but their only substantial building, its brief suitably idealistic, was Henry Morris’ Impington Village College.
In reality, Walter Gropius, a WWI veteran, may have been less acceptable for commissions in England than an emigre in flight for his life from the Nazis. MacCarthy leaves that question open; in 1934 Gropius had turned to Goebbels for support in a dispute over the design of a national trade pavilion. However honourably he behaved towards Bauhauslers in trouble Gropius’s impulses remained proudly German, like those of his contemporaries Mies van de Rohe and Nikolaus Pevsner, as he came to realise that to be avant-garde was almost as dangerous as being Jewish. Gropius was naïve, Ise more attuned to reality in Nazi Germany.
In 1936 the couple left London for Harvard, where Gropius had been appointed chairman of the Department of Architecture. Eventually he became a resentful cog in a complex machine. The USA offered many rewards but post-war practice with The Architects’ Collaborative (TAC), and even gigantic commissions like Baghdad University, were nothing to the happiness of return to Germany in the 1960s, working with Rosenthal on porcelain and glass factories and products. The circle had turned right back to 1911, and the Faguswerk. But now the Bauhaus approach lay behind arts foundation courses around the world – a momentous cultural shift, set in motion by Walter Gropius in 1919. His life is carefully and subtly told here.
Gillian Darley is a writer and biographer
Walter Gropius by Fiona MacCarthy is published by Faber, £30