Walter Gropius and the Bauhaus

The Spirit of Modernist Architecture

Stephen Bau
Oct 9, 2018 · 12 min read
Bauhaus Building, Dessau, 1926 by Walter Gropius. Photo by Stephen Bau, October 6, 2011.

I am looking back over 50 years of my life, growing up evangelical in Canada. In the early years, I felt confused and fearful. Now I am disgusted and angry, coming to terms with a social identity that is unravelling in light of a growing awareness of a wider reality, an evolving perspective as I try to compare my point of view to the lived experiences of others.

By Stephen Bau

Art 126
Prof. S. M. Williams
April 2, 1993

According to Paul Johnson, the “modern world began on 29 May 1919 when photographs of a solar eclipse … confirmed the truth of a new theory of the universe” — that is, Albert Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity. As a result of this scientific breakthrough, ideas about the world changed, most notably the growing acceptance that “there were no longer any absolutes: of time and space, of good and evil, of knowledge, above all of value. Mistakenly, but perhaps inevitably, relativity became confused with relativism” (Johnson 4). Less than two months earlier, on 12 April 1919, Walter Gropius, recognizing that “many pillars of the material and spiritual world [had] crumbled…” (Gropius qtd. in Wingler 42), founded the Bauhaus in response to the urgent needs of the rapidly changing modern world.

Long held ideas about the world had crumbled or were in the process of crumbling. In the philosophical realm, God was dead, at least according to Nietzsche and, consequently, “our foundation for truth and value” (Levine 324–5) had ceased to exist; in science, classical Newtonian laws of physics, which had previously informed men’s understanding of the universe, had been discredited by Einstein’s Theory (Johnson 4); in art, painters such as Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cezanne, Picasso, and Mondrian were “attempting to find a humanistic universal” (Schaeffer 1:29) to fill the vacuum left by the apparent irrelevance of Judeo-Christian absolutes in the modern world. The general culture itself, after the devastation of World War I, having experienced a loss of faith in the essential goodness of mankind was also searching for purpose and meaning amidst the political and social turmoil.

Walter Gropius, as the newly appointed director of Das Staatliches Bauhaus (the State School of Architecture) in Weimar, Germany, believed that artists could lead the way in the reconstruction of society and the creation of a bright, new future. Gropius’s Manifesto, published by the Bauhaus in Weimar, April 1919, announced the eventual rise of a “new, universal idea,” a “universally great, enduring spiritual-religious idea … which must find its crystalline expression in a great Gesamtkunstwerk [a great total work of art]” (Gropius qtd. in Wingler 31, 36). He too, was searching for a great universal in a “new architecture” (Gropius).

While the aim of the “new architecture” was to shed the weight of the past so that entirely original and modern forms could be developed, the ideas of the new architecture seemed vaguely familiar. In 1137 to 1144, Abbot Suger, by trying to create a new monumental architecture that could defy the forces of gravity and flood its interior with light, invented the Gothic style. By relieving the walls of their weight-bearing function, by means of an external skeleton of flying buttresses, the walls could become curtains of glass. By the mid-nineteenth century, advances in the structural uses of iron and glass had made possible structures that surpassed the achievements of Gothic architecture in its physical weightlessness and ethereal luminosity. Sir John Paxton’s Crystal Palace, essentially a huge greenhouse built in London as the pavilion for the Great Exhibition of 1851, was an iron skeleton over which was stretched a diaphanous “skin” of glass. Furthermore, by the turn of the century, the problems of large scale construction with reinforced concrete had been largely overcome so that by the early teens it was “a normative technique” (Frampton & Futagawa 4, 8–9). This technology was not quickly utilized in the “art of architecture,” but remained in the realm of the engineer in the “craft of building.”

Architects’ “commitment to historicism” and “retrospective frame of mind … blocked the development of a new form” (Wingler 223). “With the closing of the late baroque period, architecture and the art of building cities … had lost their ability of binding the other creative arts together and uniting them into an all-inclusive ‘total work of art’.… As isolation and lack of unity between the arts increased, the status of the crafts dropped” (Wingler xviii). The “historic style imitation” of Romanticism, Neo-Classicism, Neo-Baroque, Neo-Renaissance resisted the development of an architectural form expressive of the spirit of the age, the spirit of modernity.

Walter Gropius, along with Le Corbusier, Oud, and Mies Van der Rohe, was “one of the few actual inventors of modern architecture” (Fitch 133). By modern architecture, Fitch seems to refer to the development of the so-called International Style, that is, international in terms of its general acceptance among certain American and European architectural critics and art historians as the only style worthy of consideration. No one can deny the influence of Walter Gropius and the Bauhaus on modern architecture, but whether the style developed and promoted at the Bauhaus is worthy of any considerable praise seems to be hotly debated among art and architecture critics. The “underlying principles” of the international style are “few and broad … fundamental, like the organic verticality of the Gothic or the rhythmic symmetry of the Baroque.” The first principle involves “a new conception of architecture as volume [or space] rather than mass.” The second prefers “regularity rather than axial symmetry” in design. And the third “proscrib[es] arbitrary applied decoration,” that is, the elimination of any ornamentation of structural surfaces (Hitchcock & Johnson 384).

From 1908, Walter Gropius worked as an assistant in the architectural office of Peter Bergen’s, best known for his “purely functional” architectural and industrial design as “artistic consultant to the A.E.G. (General Electric Company, “Allgemeine Electrizitätsgesellschaft”) in Berlin. Here, Gropius came to be influenced by Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier who were also assistants (Wingler 226). Three years later, in 1910, he formed a partnership with Adolf Meyer and went on to design, as his “first independent work,” the Fagus-Werk shoe last factory (Frampton & Futagawa 161). In this industrial complex, “a hybrid construction of brick columns, steel beams, and concrete floor-slabs and stairways” (Fitch 145), Gropius has largely realized the principles of modern architecture that would later develop into the international style. The suspended glass wall, instead of being set back from the supporting columns of the building, is suspended “outside the columns, [making] its non-structural function brilliantly explicit” (Fitch 145). Though his aim may have been to design a “purely functional” structure, Gropius has alluded, in his architectural vocabulary, to the classical device of entasis: the “gradual setback of the brick-encased column toward the top of the structure, increases the effective depth of the shadow cast by the perpendicular curtain wall [of glass] onto the engineering brick façade” (Frampton & Futagawa 161). He was also “able to dramatize the skeletal lightness and grace” of the factory by extending the glass curtain around the open corner of the façade where, historically, there might have been a supporting pier (Fitch 145).

Fagus-Werk shoe last factory, Alfeld, Germany. Photo: Wikipedia.

According to one critic, Gropius’s “Machine Hall” and “Office Building” at the 1914 German Werkbund Exhibition in Cologne “displays his absolute freedom from any dependence upon historic form.… And it shows how he had freed himself of any tinge of ornamentalism.… Gropius … is not a transitional figure: his work lies wholly on this side of the great divide of the modern movement” (Fitch 145). The Werkbund was concerned with “the problems of quality craftsmanship and industrial mass production.” In this structure, Gropius designed what he thought to be the model for an ideal factory, representing his solution of a “creative synthesis” of art and technology. Its component units are aligned along a symmetrical axis, similar to the plan of a Gothic cathedral. The rear of the administration block faced a courtyard that led, along the principal axis, into the “utilitarian metal clad sheds housing the plant,” then off to one side, as if leading to the bell tower, toward the exhibition pavilion for the Deutz Motor Co. The most striking feature of the structure, the stair towers at either end of the front façade of the administration block, were enclosed in a “glass membrane” which wrapped in a “continuous curtain” around the sides and across the rear. The steel skeleton around which this membrane was stretched had the appearance of a brick pattern but, because of its transparency, created a new relationship between interior and exterior space (Wingler 228; Frampton & Futagawa 189). Gropius meant to organize the factory into a structure symbolic of a unity “of head and hand, theory and practice, intellectual and manual worker, artist and craftsman” (Fitch 135) representing his socialist idea of a collaborative group working toward a total work of art: the new society in symbolism with the machine.

The Werkbund Exhibition also featured Bruno Taut’s Glass Pavilion which “was in effect a prototypical cult building … designed in the spirit of the Gothic cathedral” to be symbolic of “purity and perfection” in its use of glass as “dematerialized matter.” Taut’s influence is evident in the “Socialist-guild position that was adopted by Walter Gropius in his Bauhaus proclamation [Manifesto] of 1919. The cover of this proclamation bore Lyonel Feininger’s woodcut of the cathedral of the future — shown as the cathedral of Socialism” (Frampton & Futagawa 188–9; Wingler 226).

Cathedral: Original Title of “Bauhaus” Program by Lyonel Feininger, 1919. Image: MoMA.

April 11, 1915, Henry van de Velde sent a letter to Gropius asking if he would “be inclined to accept the post of director of the [Grand-Ducal Saxon] School of Arts and Crafts in Weimar [which van de Velde himself had founded],” having already recommended Gropius and two others. In October of that same year, Fritz Mackensen, director of the Grand-Ducal Academy of Art in Weimar, corresponded with Gropius concerning the idea of a “Department of Architecture and Applied Art” to be affiliated with the academy. Gropius’s own vision, realized in April 1919, was to unite both the Academy and the School of Arts and Crafts under the name, the Staatliche Bauhaus, which “may be seen as the final expression of the Werkbund’s efforts to marry art and industry” (Wingler 21–2, 30; Hannema 60).

Bauhaus signet from 1922, designed by Oskar Schlemmer. Image: Bauhaus 100.

Oscar Schlemmer’s Bauhaus signet which had been in use since 1922 “relates to the geometric style and design for mass production concepts that were emerging at the Bauhaus” (Meggs 331). It also expresses ideas about the philosophy of Walter Gropius and the Bauhaus that, though they may not have been consciously intended, are implicit in the design. It is an abstracted human face that appears neither to express a specific gender, nor to portray a particular likeness; rather, it is a universal symbol for mankind. As a form which balances the forces within the circle, it represents a humanistic conception of mankind as the centre of the universe.

Apparently, the Neoplastic aesthetic of De Stijl (The Style), a Dutch movement concerned with the “ideal of universal harmony” and “the unification of art and life,” has also had an influence on this design — as well as others of the Bauhaus era, such as the 1922 collaborative effort of Gropius and Adolf Meyer for the Chicago Tribune Tower Competition — largely as a result of Theo Van Doesburg’s visit to Weimar in 1921. Neo-Plasticism was based on the principles set forth by M. H. J. Schoenmaekers in which all available elements were limited to the primary colours red, yellow and blue, plus black, gray and white arranged in orthogonal, or horizontal and vertical forms (Frampton & Futagawa 318; Janson 729). Van Doesburg’s own contribution to the De Stijl movement included his “16 Points of Plastic Architecture” which prescribed that architecture be “elementary, economic and functional; unmonumental and dynamic; anti-cubic in its form and anti-decorative in its colour.” By dynamic, he meant architecture “liberated from the encumbrance of load-bearing walls and the restrictions imposed by pierced openings.” By anti-cubic, he meant architecture that “throws the functional space cells … centrifugally from the core…. And through this means, height, width, depth, and time approaches a totally new plastic expression in open spaces. In this way architecture acquires a more or less floating aspect that, so to speak, works against the gravitational forces of nature” (Frampton & Futagawa 322).

Because of the political and ideological differences with the municipality of Weimar, the Bauhaus was relocated from Weimar in 1926 to a building in Dessau, Germany. The building, designed by Walter Gropius, remains his most successful work, incorporating Neoplastic forms, symbolizing a synthesis of art and craft in an ideal socialist-artistic community, and embodying his idea of a “great total work of art.”

Bauhaus Building, Dessau, 1926 by Walter Gropius. Photos by Stephen Bau, October 6, 2011.

While bridging an access road … the Bauhaus complex spiraled about its principal entry hall to project three pinwheeling elements, first, the five-storey student’s dormitory block to the East, then the three-storey classroom block to the North, and finally the three-storey workshop block to the South. This complex mass was raised on a traditional half-recessed cellar floor; with the resultant podium rendered black in order to give the illusion that the white, ochre and blue mass of the main structure floats above the ground. The Bauhaus’s system of internal circulation was structured about two principal stairway entries to the North and South of the access road. These stairs served the classroom and workshop blocks respectively. Their opposing cores of equal volume appear to symbolize the Bauhaus’s pedagogical strategy of balancing theory [art] (to the North) with practice [craft] (to the South), the two being linked and controlled by the administration bridge spanning the road. (Frampton & Futagawa 280)

Bauhaus Building, Dessau, 1925–1926: Second floor plan. Image: Harvard Art Museums.

The dramatic walls of the shop block are a continuous surface of glass, completely eliminating any load-bearing function, and declaring the wall nothing “more than a curtain or climate barrier, which may consist entirely of glass if maximum daylight is desirable” (Jason 783).

The Bauhaus building, embodying the principles of Gropius ideology, became the architectural precedent for the “ubiquitous, monstrous, and anonymous, glass and steel skyscrapers” (Bau 4) that Gropius predicted would “rise toward heaven from the hands of a million workers like the crystal symbol of a new faith” (Wingler 31). That “new faith” is the “humanistic materialism which pervades our present society, the Neue Babel.” What I see as “the failure of the ‘new architecture’ lies in the instability and impremanence of its foundations, that is on the basis of Man and his own efforts” (Bau 4). But “[u]nless the Lord builds the house, /its builders labor in vain” (Psalm 127).

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Stephen Bau

Written by

Designer, writer, educator, social architect, founder, Builders Collective, Leading with Design. https://stephenbau.com

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