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Walter Gropius - more than an architect. A review of Fiona MacCarthy's book "Walter Gropius. The man who built the Bauhaus"

28 of April '22

Review from the 03/22 issue of A&B.

In a story about modernity in architecture, there can be no missing mention of the Bauhaus. The school, founded in 1919, laid the foundation for modern design, graphic design and the creation of space. In the pages of a book dedicated to Walter Gropius, Fiona MacCarthy seeks answers to the question of who the founder of the Bauhaus was and the man who made a revolution in thinking about architecture and architectural education.

Who are you, Mr. Gropius?

"Who was Walter Gropius?" - asks Fiona MacCarthy in the introduction of her book about "the man who built the Bauhaus." The answer to this question is only seemingly obvious. We are dealing with a figure that escapes clear classification and evaluation. An architect who never learned draftsmanship until the end of his life. A bore with a Casanova resume. A member of the Nazi Reich Chamber of Culture, who became one of the symbols of resistance to Hitlerism. A stiff who loves crazy Bauhaus balls that last until dawn. An advocate of egalitarian architecture who could not imagine any other home than a villa with servants' quarters. Walter Adolf Georg Gropius.

MacCarthy creates in more than five hundred pages a portrait of Gropius different from the image we know from the history of 20th century architecture. She herself mentions this repeatedly, confronting her conclusions with the opinions of Joseph Rykwert or Tom Wolfe. In her eyes, Gropius is first and foremost a humanist and philosopher. A man of comprehensive knowledge and great sensitivity to the world around him, who created a school that has had a considerable influence on contemporary design. One might even be tempted to say that there would be no modernity without Bauhaus. Its spirit is still present all around us today - in the simple, geometric design of everyday objects, in self-assembly furniture systems, in applied graphics, lettering, photography... everywhere.


It is impossible to reduce Gropius to a mere architect or designer. He was an inspirer. A teacher. A man who was able to notice the potential inherent in others and then create conditions conducive to its development. He said of himself: "I have one talent: I can see connections."

Perhaps this was one of the reasons why Gropius' achievements have not been sufficiently appreciated by posterity. An architect who did not draw, but only "told" his concepts, aroused suspicion. It was as if drawing drawings was the same as designing! For similar reasons, Jerzy Hryniewiecki 's participation in the creation of icons of Polish socmodernism, such as the Supersam in Warsaw, was questioned, emphasizing that he did not even have a ruler at home. Those who understood him better, like Tadeusz Mycek, knew that the designer's uniqueness lay in his ability to create an atmosphere of creative cooperation.

If pedagogical success is measured by students and their achievements, then Gropius proved to be a true master. Marcel Breuer, Paul Rudolph, Ieoh Ming Pei, Fumihiko Maki, Bruno Zevi. The list of names of his protégés is long and includes outstanding architects, as well as graphic designers, craftsmen or theoreticians. Innovative methods of education through experimentation allowed many individuals to develop without losing their ability to work collectively. MacCarthy points out that this would not have been possible without certain personality traits of Gropius.


Gropius' success was closely related to his character and life attitude. The Bauhaus, his life's work, was a reaction to the carnage of World War I, which, however, did not lead him toward nihilism, but toward the constructive construction of a new, more beautiful world. The school he founded in Weimar and later moved to Dessau was intended to make the surrounding reality better.
Operating in difficult times, between two world wars, at a time when Europe was plunged into the darkness of totalitarianism, Gropius proved himself "a master in the art of survival." As the book's author suggests, compromise was for him both a basis for creative action and a way of life. He avoided conflict unless it was part of the creative ferment with which the workshops of the Bauhaus and the studios of the TAC office were even brimming. He shied away from explicit political statements. His misfortune, however, was that he came to live and work in an era that left little room for neutrality.

In MacCarthy's book, along with great politics and art, there is no shortage of sensational moral threads and tidbits from the private lives of Gropius, Alma Mahler or Herbert Bayer. Thanks to them, we can learn about the emotional adventures of the first director of the Bauhaus, his relationship with his daughter and the fact that Walter and Ise were taken with turtle soup during their farewell dinner in the British Isles. The accumulation of details and particulars allows one to get to know the characters better, but at times the amount is overwhelming, especially since the author seems to approach the number of Spanish oysters eaten by Gropius with as much fondness as her cool relationship with Mies van der Rohe.

The statue of Saint Walter

MacCarthy deftly avoids raising questions that might prove uncomfortable for Gropius' image. Her biography is almost a hagiography, a portrait of "Saint Walter." This is the book's most serious shortcoming, for in many places it was all too tempting to question some debatable issues. Instead, the author plays the role of advocate.

Responsibility for the tumultuous relationship with Alma Mahler falls on the Viennese femme fatale. The conflict with Breuer stems from the ambitions of the young designer, who did not want to remain in the shadow of his famous colleague. Participation in the Reich Bank design competition was essentially a doomed episode of little consequence, as were contacts with Joseph Goebbels and membership in the Reichskulturkammer. Gropius emerges from every situation untouched, white as the walls of the Bauhaus in Dessau. This applies to personal issues, worldviews, as well as design work. Statements with anti-Semitic overtones? Such were the times. A letter sent to the chairman of the Nazi Reich Chamber of Fine Arts justifying his departure from Germany was also marginalized. The glass curtain walls in the Bauhaus studios in Dessau, which made it almost impossible to stay inside during the summer months? Poorly insulated, leaking roofs and cracking walls? "The triumph of the building was that, thanks to it, the Bauhaus community flourished," he says.

It would have been much better for the book (and the figure of Gropius himself) if Fiona MacCarthy had posed difficult questions. This was the strategy adopted by Artur Domoslawski in his biographies of Zygmunt Baumann and Ryszard Kapuscinski, and in the field of architecture by Charles Jencks in "Le Corbusier. The Tragedy of Contemporary Architecture" or Grzegorz Piątek in his book on Bohdan Pniewski.

Bauhaus, Gropius and the rest

In the story of Gropius, the Bauhaus cannot be left out. It is the vivid, dynamic descriptions of the school's activities that constitute one of the most interesting themes presented in the book. The author pays attention to interpersonal relations, conflicts and problems that both "masters" and "journeymen" had to face. The continuation of the history of the school is, in a way, the activities of Gropius in the British Isles and the United States. In both cases, the individual fate of the protagonist is at the same time a picture of the beginnings of the popularity of the international style in both countries.

At the same time, it is difficult for the reader to identify with the hero described by MacCarthy. The creator of the Bauhaus seems too ideal, and thus rather one-dimensional. Much more interesting characters are the women around Gropius - his second wife Ise and, above all, Alma Mahler. Gustav Mahler's widow is a truly full-blooded character. A femme fatale in the fin de siècle spirit. A schemer and clever manipulator. Ise, on the other hand, appears as a secondary figure, relegated to the shadows by her prominent husband, plays an assigned role, only to gain more independence over time. Against their background, Walter Gropius appears cool and rigid, similar to the buildings he designed.

Błażej Ciarkowski

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