Known as the mind behind the Bauhaus and its innovative approach to art education, the influence of Walter Gropius has shaped the history of Modernist architecture and design throughout Europe and the United States. Despite only managing to stay open between 1919 and 1932—at which point it closed under duress caused by the Nazi party—the tenets of the Bauhaus ideology and work defined the mid-20th century aesthetic.
Born in Berlin, Gropius attended the Technical Institutes in Munich and Berlin-Charlottenburg where he studied architecture. Before even completing university training, Gropius designed the Farm Labourer’s Cottages in Pomerania in 1906. This project solidified his stance that art and design should be accessible to the masses, a belief that was made more possible through the blending of handcraft and mechanical mass production. These stances would go on to help formulate the ideas behind Bauhaus.
Adding to this stance was the designer’s membership to the German Labour League in 1911. The Labour League worked to promote machine production to creative designers, and Gropius became a proponent of prefabricated parts that could be assembled on-site.
In April 1919, following service in the cavalry during WWI (during which time he received the Iron Cross for bravery), Gropius became director of the Grand Ducal Saxon School of Arts and Crafts, the Grand Ducal Saxon Academy of Arts, and the Grand Ducal Saxon School of Arts in Weimar. The three schools were combined to create the Saatliches Bauhaus Weimar. The curriculum at Bauhaus Weimar was predicated on the tenets of creating new, modernistic design by eschewing previous styles, and combining craft with design and automation. This way of thinking about design was wholly revolutionary at the time, eventually resulting in a definitive style of the 20th century.
While opening Bauhaus, Gropius wrote and distributed his Manifesto for the ways in which the school would be conducted. Students were required to be trained in practical crafts, learning about the materials and processes of traditional art forms. These ideals weren’t fully realized, however, due to budget limitations that kept a portion of the crafts courses from being available.In 1925, Bauhaus moved to Dessau where it would be better supported financially and socially as Weinmar’s conservatism grew. Gropius retired from the school to return to private architecture in 1928.
World War II and the Resulting Legacy of Walter Gropius
During the Nazi regime of 1934, Gropius and his wife Ise Frank escaped Germany to seek asylum in England. During this time, he worked with Maxwell Fry to create the secondary school Village College at Impington, Cambridgeshire, which opened two days after the declaration of World War II.
A year later, Gropius and Frank moved to the United States where Gropius became a professor of architecture at Harvard University. There, he introduced Bauhaus principles and philosophy with the exception of the crafts courses students were required to take. Although unsuccessful in getting rid of the school’s architectural history courses, Gropius’ belief that students shouldn’t look to the past but create new forms with the ever-evolving accessibility to mass production and machinery provoked educational reform in other architectural schools. It is believed this marked the beginning of the end for historically imitative architectural forms in the United States.
Gropius was far from the only Bauhaus faculty or alumni to carry the Bauhaus principles out of Germany. Due to the mass exodus of WWII, Bauhaus teachings were implemented across the world, particularly in Europe and the USA. Because of the wide reach of these principles, which were created from the teaching style of Gropius and his thoughts on design—the designer’s legacy is rooted in his philosophies rather than his architectural work, despite his continuing to work as an architect until his death in 1969.
A sampling of schools which utilized the Bauhaus pedagogy include:
- The Institute of Design at IIT, Chicago, IL. Originally called the New Bauhaus School and started by Bauhaus faculty member Laszlo Moholy-Nagy.
- Ulm School of Design, Ulm, Germany. Started by former student Max Bill alongside Inge Aicher-Scholl and Otl Aicher, the Ulm School of Design boasted faculty that included Bauhaus faculty and alumns Josef Albers, Johannes Itten, Walter Peterhans, and Helene Nonne-Schmidt.
- Black Mountain College, North Carolina. An experimental art school in which Bauhaus faculty Josef and Anni Albers taught (professorships which were the result of connections through architect Philip Johnson).
- The Aspen Institute, Aspen, CO. Founded by Bauhaus graduate Herbert Bayer.
- Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD). Unsurprisingly, Walter Gropius’ time at Harvard resulted in the Graduate School of Design, which became considered the “unofficial center for the Bauhaus in America.”