Walter Gropius

An indelible mark on modern architecture in the 20th century

The personality of Walter Gropius, German architect, designer and urban planner, is forever linked to the creation of the Bauhaus School, which he directed from 1919 to 1928. The Bauhaus prefigured what would become modern architecture, and later the international style, in a Europe in full intellectual turmoil. In this article, we would like to highlight, not so much the work carried out by Gropius during the Bauhaus period, which has been abundantly commented on and described, but his very avant-garde vision of architecture, which began as early as 1911, before understanding the theoretical “turn” in the mid-1920s that gave rise to industrial design, of which Gropius was one of the essential players, if not perhaps the most important.

Walter Gropius, portrait
© Art Zoo

Walter Gropius (1883-1969) was born in Berlin into a wealthy family. His father was a building consultant and his uncle, Martin Gropius, designed the Berlin Museum of Decorative Arts. For two years, Walter Gropius studied at the Technical College in Munich, before going on to study at the Technical College in Berlin, but never finished his studies.

Gropius began his career in 1908 as a site supervisor in the Berlin architectural office of Peter Berhens (1868-1940), who was one of the pioneers of industrial design and invented corporate design. Gropius went ahead and in 1910 started his own architectural practice in Potsdam with his colleague Adolf Meyer. In 1911, Gropius already expressed his conception of modern, functional architecture by explaining that public and private buildings should be adapted to social change. For example, he believed that factories should be designed to facilitate the work of workers with more light, fresh air and better hygiene.

AEG turbine factory in Berlin, architect: Peter Berhens, 1910. This factory is considered one of the first buildings of modern architecture

In the same year, he was commissioned to design the Fagus factory in Alfeld and achieved a master stroke: he implemented his avant-garde ideas. For the main factory building, which houses the offices, Gropius designed a glass facade (curtain wall) Gropius freed up the facade by placing reinforced concrete columns inside and innovated with entirely glazed exterior corners, a first for the time!

Part of the Fagus factory with the main building and its large glass windows, architects: Walter Gropius & Adolf Meyer. Construction of the factory began in 1911 and was completed with the last buildings in 1925. A colossal project, since the site includes several buildings (offices, manufacturing, storage)

Main building of the Fagus factory designed by Gropius & Meyer. The factory was listed as a World Heritage Site in 2011

The Fagus factory is one of the first works of modern architecture: an impressive volume, orthogonal lines, simple geometric forms, exterior glazing that gives a certain weightlessness, a great architectural unity and a refined supporting structure (steel frame). It embodies Gropius’ ambitions to design a building that ‘opens’ to the outside, allowing employees and workers to enjoy natural light and unobstructed views. It should also be said that Gropius was part of a country, Germany, that was the centre of architectural novelty. Together with Mies van der Rohe and Bruno Taut, he embodied a new generation of avant-garde architects with an interest in industrial techniques.

In 1929, the German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe designed the famous German pavilion for the Barcelona International Exhibition. The free plan (the walls are no longer load-bearing), the fluidity of the space with glass facades, the flat roof… Many elements of this cult building of modern architecture are already in gestation in Walter Gropius’ Fagus Factory, begun in 1911
© BTP Cours
House no. 19, in Weissenhof-Estate in Stuttgart, Germany, 1927. Architecture: Bruno Taut. In 1927, the European avant-garde of architecture took over the heights of Stuttgart to build prototypes of houses representative of functionalist and modern architecture. Bruno Taut was obviously one of them
© Miro Kurcik
Schröder House, designed by Gerrit Rietveld, 1924. The famous Dutch architect designed this house in the purest De Stijl spirit

Gerrit Rietveld, a member of the De Stijl movement, was responsible for the famous Red Blue Chair (1918). A style purified to the extreme!

In 1919, Walter Gropius brought together the School of Decorative Arts and the School of Fine Arts in Weimar before being appointed Director of this new establishment, which he named BAUHAUS – which means “House of Construction” in German. He developed the idea of putting all forms of art and craft on the same level, without tackling the creation of types to be produced in series. The school developed with the success it is known for. However, it was not only in Germany that brilliant minds were stirring. At the same time, the radical Dutch De Stijl movement was overturning the codes of architecture and the visual arts

The proponents of De Stijl pushed the boundaries of modern architecture: they turned it into an excessively bare geometric art form based on the exclusive use of straight lines to create a ‘total art’. Gropius and his peers were seduced by these ideas. Theo van Doesburg (1883-1931), the movement’s theorist, even came to give classes outside the Bauhaus. Under the influence of De Stijl, Gropius revised the teaching of the Bauhaus, which marked a decisive turning point in the history of the school and of architecture

Thus, Walter Gropius replaced Johannes Ittem, who resigned, with the constructivist Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946) to direct the fundamental course. From then on, the Bauhaus favoured an industrial approach to projects, and put aside craftsmanship. Students were invited to design types intended for mass production. The building was considered the culmination of a total work of art. For some, this marks the birth of industrial design.

From 1925 to 1926, Gropius designed the new university building for the Bauhaus School, which had moved to Dessau. A building true to his avant-garde ideas

In 1927, Walter Gropius designed the architecture of the Dessau Employment Office, which affirmed his commitment to thoughtful design and the predominance of functionalism (“form follows function”). In the same year, a landmark exhibition in the history of modern architecture took place: Gropius, together with the cream of European avant-garde architecture (Mies van der Rohe, Mart Stam, Hans Scharoun, Bruno and Max Taut, Victor Bourgeois, J.J.P. Oud and Le Corbusier), invaded a district of Stuttgart, the Weissenhoff, to design a housing estate for workers. The exhibition had an exceptional impact.

Postcard showing a view of the Weissenhoff district designed for a housing exhibition. The rectangular, minimalist style of the houses can be seen
© Weimar Architecture

One year before he left the Bauhaus, Walter Gropius broke new ground for the exhibition “Die Wohnung” (the home in German) at the Weissenhoff: he designed a single-family house in the form of a box painted in off-white. The prefabricated walls are part of a modular system developed by Gropius. The wall panels are designed outside in a workshop where they can be assembled in the dry. With this system, Gropius accelerated the industrial construction process, regardless of the weather conditions on a building site. Gropius later emigrated to the United States at the end of the 1930s to pursue his career, but not without first accompanying, defining and laying the foundations of modern architecture and the international style that was to prevail at the time

Single-family house, designed by Walter Gropius for the Weissenhoff exhibition, Stuttgart, 1927

© Luna Archives
Walter Gropius’ family home
© Daniel Shea for M magazine duMonde
Living room of Walter Gropius’ family home. Womb armchair by Finnish designer Eero Saarinen, on the right 2 Butterfly stools by Japanese designer Sori Yanagi, in the background coffee table by Hungarian designer Marcel Breuer
© Daniel Shea for Le Monde

François Boutard