Gropius, Walter (1883–1969)

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GROPIUS, WALTER (1883–1969)


One of the most celebrated and influential architects of the twentieth century.

Walter Adolph Gropius enjoyed a lengthy and productive career in Germany, England, and the United States that spanned the years 1908 until his death in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1969. Descended from an established Berlin family that included such successful architects as his great uncle, Martin Gropius of the nineteenth-century "Schinkel school," Walter Gropius experienced a meteoric rise to prominence through a combination of ambition, charisma, and organizational ability. His talent for attracting and collaborating with leading lights of the artistic and architectural world throughout his life helped him to realize a long line of significant projects. These, in turn, helped define the vocabulary and principles of twentieth-century architecture and design.

Gropius occupied a string of prominent leadership posts for most of his career. These included his founding and direction of the Bauhaus school in 1919; his catalytic presence as a faculty member and department head at the Harvard Graduate School of Design's department of architecture from 1937 to 1952; and his leadership of The Architects Collaborative (TAC) firm in Cambridge, Massachusetts, beginning in 1946. Frequent lectures and publications espousing Gropius's view that architecture should always take account of technical, economic, and social conditions kept him in the international public eye and at the center of the modern architectural profession for several decades.

Born in Berlin in 1883, Gropius completed studies in several Berlin Gymnasium schools. Following one semester at the Munich Technical University, he completed architectural studies at the Technical University of Berlin-Charlottenburg in 1907. After a year-long study tour in Spain, Gropius gained employment in the most prestigious and progressive architectural office of the day, the office of Peter Behrens in the Berlin suburb of Neubabelsberg. Assisting Behrens in work for the industrial giant AEG, Germany's General Electric Corporation, between 1908 and 1910, Gropius worked alongside Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and got to know his future design partner, Adolf Meyer, with whom he worked between 1910 and 1925.

Gropius and Meyer rose to prominence with their design of the pathbreaking Fagus Factory in Alfeld-an-der-Leine, Germany, in 1911, along with the equally provocative Model Factory at the Deutscher Werkbund Exhibition in Cologne in 1914. Both buildings are regarded to this day as among the earliest essays in an industrial, monumental architecture for twentieth-century secular, functional buildings. Each makes dramatic use of brick, steel, and wide expanses of glass in sober exteriors that owe something to the classicism of Behrens while exceeding the older master's work in their frank and expressive use of industrial materials.

Gropius's founding and directorship of the Bauhaus from 1919 through 1928 in Weimar and then Dessau secured him a leading role among the artistic and architectural avant-garde of the turbulent Weimar era. Assembling such artistic luminaries as Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, Johannes Itten, Lyonel Feininger, and László Moholy-Nagy as faculty members for a small yet lively interdisciplinary school of fine art, applied art, architecture, and design, Gropius proudly polemicized in favor of a new German architecture and art that combined craftsmanship and industrial know-how with such international avant-garde artistic movements as expressionism, Dada, Dutch neoplasticism, and Russian constructivism. Gropius's Bauhaus building of 1926 in Dessau, completed in the same year that the school at last opened a department of architecture, again underscored Gropius's reputation as one of the most innovative and visionary architects of the industrial era. The building's expressive massing, ribbon windows and glass curtain walls, and functional differention all contributed to what in a few years would come to be known as the "International Style."

Emigrating to the United States in 1937 after a three-year stint in England, Gropius accepted dean Joseph Hudnut's invitation to join the architecture faculty of the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Partnering with former Bauhaus designer Marcel Breuer, and then founding a firm, The Architects Collaborative, in 1946, Gropius collaborated on a wide range of projects including modern suburban housing developments in Cambridge, Massachusetts; the U.S. Embassy in Athens, 1956–1961; the University of Baghdad, 1957–1960; and the Pan Am Building, a high-rise office building atop New York's Grand Central Station, completed with Pietro Belluschi (1899–1994) in 1957. Increasingly resented in his later years by a younger generation of architects who came to regard the German émigré architect as a dogmatic exponent for an intolerant, acontextual, and universalist modernist aesthetic, Gropius saw his popularity wane in the 1960s with the rise of new movements such as postmodernism, ecological design, and critical regionalism. Nevertheless, Gropius's insistence on humanistic design that took account of social, economic, and technical factors had a lasting impact on modern architecture in Germany, the United States, and throughout the industrialized world.

See alsoBauhaus; Kandinsky, Wassily; Klee, Paul; Mies van der Rohe, Ludwig; Moholy-Nagy, László.


Franciscono, Marcel. Walter Gropius and the Creation of the Bauhaus in Weimar: The Ideals and Artistic Theories of its Founding Years. Urbana, Ill., 1971.

Giedion, Siegfried. Walter Gropius: Work and Teamwork. New York, 1954. Reprint, New York, 1992.

Nerdinger, Winfried. Walter Gropius. Berlin, 1985.

Wilhelm, Karen. Walter Gropius: Industriearchitekt. Braun-schweig, 1983.

Wingler, Hans Maria. Das Bauhaus 1919–1933: Weimar, Dessau, Berlin. Bramsche, 1962.

John V. Maciuika