Graceless Gropius

Today is the birthday of legendary 20th century architect Walter Gropius who, among other things, founded the Bauhaus School of design in 1919.  No doubt some in the architectural community of a more conservative bent would point to the establishment of this institution as the precise moment when everything began to go wrong with architecture, and admittedly they do have a point. The ideas of Gropius and the Bauhaus eventually led to the boring glass-and-concrete boxes which infest our cities and towns like giant tissue boxes, in part because of the philosophies espoused by Gropius and his disciples.  It is a pity that someone who occasionally had real flashes of brilliance could have squandered the opportunities provided both by modern construction and production materials, and later by the American building boom of the post-War period, in such a colossal way.

Gropius had already made a name for himself by the time his  seminal book, “The New Architecture and The Bauhaus”, was published in 1935; it was subsequently revised and re-released in 1965, by which time Gropius had already been working in America for quite some time.  It is a frightening paean to collectivism and Marxist political theory, extolling the subjugation of the individual and the abandonment of tradition and history in the name of so-called “progress” and industrialism. For example:

A prudent limitation of variety to a few standard types of buildings increases their quality and decreases their cost; thereby raising the social level of the population as a whole. Proper respect for tradition will find a truer echo in these than in the miscellaneous solutions of an often arbitrary and aloof individualism because the greater communal utility of the former embodies a deeper architectural significance.  The concentration of essential qualities in standard types presupposes methods of unprecedented industrial potentiality, which entail capital outlay on a scale that can only be justified by mass-production.

Leaves you with a warm and fuzzy feeling inside, no?

Sometimes  modernist architecture can be a good thing, despite what more traditional minds may say on the matter. But sometimes it is terrifying, and one need only read a bit more deeply into the ideas of the men behind it, such as Gropius, to come away very much appalled.  This type of thinking is the ancestor of everything from the layout of Stalinist work camps to ghastly high-rise public housing projects in Detroit to NIMBY neighborhood committees of old Baby Boomer busybodies who fine you for painting your front door red.

Those of us who live in the Nation’s Capital are fortunate not to have to endure any buildings designed personally by Gropius, even though there are many imitations of his work which surround us.  It is not surprising that Gropius never built here for, despite his chosen profession, Gropius was completely unable to draw – a fact which many people may not be aware of, if they only know his name and reputation and have not read any of his written work.  Not unlike many modern and contemporary artists, Gropius came up with the ideas, but had to rely on others to produce the renderings of his work, since he was incapable of doing so himself.

The closest direct connection to Gropius in Washington of which I am aware is not, in fact, what first comes to mind, i.e. the Martin Luther King Public Library, designed by Gropius’ contemporary Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.  Rather, I draw your attention to the American Institute of Architects headquarters building.  It was designed by a group Gropius founded at Harvard in 1945 known as The Architects’ Collaborative, but completed several years after Gropius’ death in 1969.  It is an example not only of bad architecture but bad urban planning.

Intended to serve as the AIA’s new home while preserving its old one, Octagon House, on the site, the AIA Headquarters bears many of the worst hallmarks of Gropius’ own work.  We see hulking, thick amounts of concrete; dark windows so overwhelmed by their concrete casings as to make them seem small; a sense of looming oppressiveness that frightens the visitor away rather than inviting him in; and so on. The structure seems to be pushing forward like a wave in an attempt to envelop and crush the much smaller but more dignified Octagon House, built between 1798-1800 by the first architect of the U.S. Capitol, William Thornton. Apart from its historic significance as the residence of various important persons – including the Madisons after the burning of the White House by the British – Octagon House was an unusual shift away from the sometimes blocky, cookie-cutter sameness of late Georgian urban architecture.  What a pity that it is dominated by this neighboring architectural behemoth of no discernible merit.

Of course, Gropius liked to ruin the views of beautiful, old buildings whenever he got the chance, and the project to dwarf Octagon House is perfectly in keeping with his methods. For example his PanAm building (now the MetLife Building) in Manhattan towers over the beaux-arts beauty of Grand Central Terminal next door.  As a skyscraper it is perfectly adequate; its location, however, could not be worse. It creates a sort of thorn thrusting up out of the earth around Park Avenue, and anyone who has attempted to walk around it knows what a giant pain in the arse it is.

Gropius even got the chance to blot the landscape on a far wider scale, by designing housing projects both in the United States and in his native Germany.  One shining example of his sort of ideal community, particularly as reflected in “The New Architecture and the Bauhaus”  is located just outside of Berlin in Gropiusstadt (“Gropius Town”) – named, of course, after himself. One cannot begin to imagine the rich joys and idiosyncratic pleasures to be found in living in this concrete jungle.

To be fair, not everything Gropius did was completely terrible. The 1920’s Bauhaus headquarters, for example, is wonderful fun in a Dick Tracy sort of way.  And his consumer objects – from living room furniture to his gorgeous 1969 TAC tea service for Rosenthal China – are sleek, glamorous, and aspirational in ways which his buildings almost never are.  Unfortunately, for every building like the Bauhaus HQ – and there were fewer and fewer pleasing buildings as his career went on – we have ten hideous housing projects or public buildings like the Temple Oheb Shalom in Baltimore, which depress rather than inspire.  They suck the life out of the landscape and present no charm, grace, or aspirational qualities whatsoever.

Let the reader never labor under the misapprehension that this scrivener hates all things modern.  The Courtier does not, with apologies to Whit Stillman, wear detachable collars, and as it happens two rather large abstract expressionist canvases by a rising contemporary artist hang prominently in his home.  In the case of Gropius however, it is a pity that a man who had such a graceful sense of design in household goods could have made such a graceless waste of perfectly good construction materials.

Walter Gropius (1883-1969)

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