A fresh biography of the influential modernist architect who shaped aesthetics from the 1920s to our own time.
Award-winning biographer and design and architecture critic MacCarthy (The Last Pre-Raphaelite: Edward Burne-Jones and the Victorian Imagination, 2011, etc.) brings insight and sensitivity to a sweeping, penetrating life of Walter Gropius (1883-1969), founder of the Bauhaus, an experimental community of architects, sculptors, painters, and craftsmen. Established in Weimar in 1919, the Bauhaus, in its early years, was devoted to craft, owing “so very much,” Gropius admitted, to William Morris’ Arts and Crafts movement. Soon, influenced by Constructivist László Moholy-Nagy, who joined the community as a teacher, Gropius changed the emphasis “from the handmade and romantic to the clean-cut and mechanistic,” leading to a “smooth-lined, restrained, subtly geometric” design that became emblematic of Bauhaus style in architecture, furniture, and art. The school attracted brilliant artists as teachers, including Paul Klee, Vasily Kandinsky, Josef Albers, and Marcel Breuer. But there was often conflict among them and, after the Bauhaus moved to Dessau, between the community and “less enlightened members” of the public. Money was a perennial problem, as well; in 1928, Gropius resigned and moved to Berlin, where he aligned himself with a radical group of architects who hoped to go beyond “the design of individual buildings into the economic planning of whole cities.” By 1932, however, architectural innovations faced Nazi artistic censorship, and Gropius was vilified. MacCarthy follows Gropius’ career in Britain and the U.S. after he left Germany in 1935 and, a few years later, became chair of the Department of Architecture at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, where his students included such eminent architects as I.M. Pei and Philip Johnson. Besides following Gropius’ professional life, the author vibrantly portrays his love affairs, marriages (notably to the turbulent Alma Mahler), the death of his beloved daughter, and his close, sometimes-strained friendships. Altogether, she produces a multidimensional portrait of a towering, complex figure whose ideas, one historian remarked, “reshaped the world.”
Engrossing, impressively researched, and keenly perceptive.