“We want to create the purely organic building, boldly emanating its inner laws, free of untruths or ornamentation.” (Walter Gropius)
Walter Gropius was the founder of the Bauhaus and remained committed to the institution that he invested in throughout his life. He was a Bauhaus impresario in the best possible sense, a combination of speaker and entrepreneur, a visionary manager who aimed to make art a social concern during the post-war upheaval. After his departure as the Bauhaus’s director, Gropius recommended his two successors: Hannes Meyer and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. The conservation of the Bauhaus’s legacy after its forced closure is another of Gropius’s accomplishments. He was also able to continue his career in exile in America as an avant-garde architect.
A native of Berlin, Gropius came from an upper middle-class background. His great-uncle was the architect Martin Gropius, a student of Karl Friedrich Schinkel, whose best-known work was the Königliche Kunstgewerbemuseum (royal museum of applied art) in Berlin, which now bears his name. In 1908, after studying architecture in Munich and Berlin for four semesters, Gropius joined the office of the renowned architect and industrial designer Peter Behrens, who worked as a creative consultant for AEG. Other members of Behrens's practice included Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier. Gropius became a member of the Deutscher Werkbund (German Work Federation) as early as 1910.
The same year, Gropius opened his own company. He designed furniture, wallpapers, objects for mass production, automobile bodies and even a diesel locomotive. In 1911, Gropius worked with Adolf Meyer on the design of the Fagus-Werk, a factory in the Lower Saxony town of Alfeld an der Leine. With its clear cubic form and transparent façade of steel and glass, this factory building is perceived to be a pioneering work of what later became known as modern architecture. For the 1914 exhibition of the Deutscher Werkbund (German Work Federation) in Cologne, Gropius and Adolf Meyer designed a prototype factory which was to become yet another classic example of modern architecture.
Gropius served on the Western front in WW I and experienced this war as a catastrophe. In 1918, he joined the November Group, which aimed to incorporate the impulses of the revolution in art. From 1919, Gropius was the head of the Work Council for Art, a radical group of architects, painters and sculptors. In addition, he contributed to the Gläserne Kette (crystal chain), a chain letter initiated by Bruno Taut that called for the "dissolution of the previous foundations" of architecture and the "disappearance of the personality" of the artist.
With the founding of the Bauhaus, Gropius was able to translate various ideas from the radical artists’ associations into reality. As the successor of the Belgian artist Henry van de Velde, he became the director of the Großherzoglich-Sächsische Kunstgewerbeschule (Grand Ducal Saxonian school of arts and crafts) in Weimar, which he renamed Staatliches Bauhaus Weimar. Gropius explained the idea of the Bauhaus in the founding Manifesto, a four-page booklet with the famous Cathedral woodcut by Lyonel Feininger on its cover. The school’s most innovative educational aspect was its dualistic approach to training in the workshops, which were codirected by a craftsman (master of works) and an artist (master of form). The crafts-based work was understood as the ideal unity of artistic design and material production. According to Gropius’s curriculum, education at the Bauhaus began with the obligatory preliminary course, continued in the workshops and culminated in the building. Sommerfeld House in Berlin is considered to be the first joint endeavour undertaken in the sense of the Bauhaus. It was designed by Walter Gropius and Adolf Meyer (1921/22), and it integrated furnishings made by the students.
For Gropius the Bauhaus was a laboratory of the arts where the traditional apprentice and master model was maintained, but where diverse disciplines were interconnected in a completely new way. The outcome of this approach was not established from the start but was to be discovered in the spirit of research and experimentation, which Gropius called “fundamental research” that was applied to all the disciplines and their products, from the high-rise to the tea infuser.
In Weimar itself, Gropius left very few traces as an architect and artist. In 1922, his controversial design for the monument Denkmal der Märzgefallenen was unveiled at Weimar’s main cemetery. Destroyed by the NSDAP, it was rebuilt after WW II. The director’s office of the Bauhaus, which was furnished by Gropius in 1923/24, was also reconstructed.
In 1923, Gropius initiated a change of course at the Bauhaus with a major exhibition under the motto "Kunst und Technik – Eine Neue Einheit" (art and technology – a new unity). The school now turned towards industrial methods of production. As a result, the highly influential master, Expressionist painter and first director of the preliminary course, Johannes Itten, left the Bauhaus. Gropius appointed the Hungarian artist László Moholy-Nagy as his successor.
With the politically motivated move to the industrial city of Dessau in 1925, a new era began for the Bauhaus. During this period, which is seen as his best and most productive, Gropius designed not only the Bauhaus Building (opened in 1926) but was also intensively involved in the development of the large-scale residential building and the rationalisation of the construction process. The buildings created in Dessau included the Masters’ Houses (1925/26) that were built for the Bauhaus masters, the Dessau-Törten housing estate (1926–1928) and the Employment Office.
In 1928, Walter Gropius – unnerved by the quarrels in local politics about the Bauhaus – handed the post of director over to the Swiss architect and urbanist Hannes Meyer, whom Gropius had brought to the Bauhaus the previous year as the head of the newly founded architecture class. After moving to Berlin, Gropius dedicated himself completely to his architectural practice and the promotion of New Architecture. The most important completed buildings of this period include the Dammerstock housing estate in Karlsruhe (1928/29) and the Siemensstadt housing estate in Berlin (1929/30).
In 1934, Gropius emigrated to England and then on to the USA in 1937. He worked there as a professor for architecture at the Graduate School of Design of Harvard University. In 1938, he organised the exhibition Bauhaus 1919–1928 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York together with Herbert Bayer. From 1938 to 1941, Gropius maintained an office partnership with Marcel Breuer. He became an American citizen in 1944.
In 1946, Gropius founded the young architects’ association The Architects Collaborative (TAC), a manifestation of his life-long belief in the significance of teamwork, which he had already successfully introduced at the Bauhaus. One work produced by this office is the Graduate Center of Harvard University in Cambridge (1949/50).
During the last years of his life, Gropius was once again frequently active in Berlin. Among other projects, he built a nine-storey residential building in the Hansa district in 1957 within the scope of the Interbau exhibition. In 1964/65, Gropius designed plans for the Bauhaus Archive in Darmstadt. These were realised in a modified form in Berlin from 1976 to 1979 after Gropius’s death.
Even beyond his official term as the Bauhaus director from 1919 to 1928, Gropius was emphatically committed to the recognition and dissemination of the Bauhaus idea. When he died in 1969 in Boston, the Bauhaus was at least as famous as its founder.