THE GENIUS OF GROPIUS
WHEN German architect Walter Gropius came to the United States, he carried in his suitcase the blueprints for a revolution in design. The year was 1937. Behind him was more than two decades as head of his own private firm and as director of a radical arts and design school known as the Bauhaus. As the school's founder, Gropius intended that the ``fine arts'' - painting, drawing, sculpture, and art theory - collaborate with industry and technical design to produce functional, attractive, and salable items for consumers. Gropius oversaw the development of prefabricated buildings, modern tubular steel furniture, and integrated floor plans for the home.
By the time he arrived in Boston, he was convinced that world architecture would eventually follow the boxy, simplified, homogeneous building style that he first tested on the grounds of the Bauhaus school in Dessau, Germany. He expected such structures to predominate in planned cities across the globe.
His ideas sound radical, especially considering the distaste with which certain elements of modernism - mass production, repetitive shapes, stark formality, and harsh undecorated surfaces - were viewed in his day and still are. But Gropius's strange new ideas filtered into the canon of international architecture, forever altering the way buildings are conceived.
Gropius's experimentation in Germany came on the heels of drastic housing shortages in Europe in the last decades of the 1800s and early 1900s. England's garden-cottage communities became the model for city planners on the European continent. Affordable, mass-produced, and designed on a human scale, these English workers' homes set a standard that the rest of Europe rushed to duplicate.
In Gropius's mind, housing had to meet an aesthetic desire as well as a human need for shelter. The buildings must symbolize order, unpretentiousness, and predictability. His highly developed social sense caused him to closely examine his responsibility as an architect to provide sturdy, safe, and quickly constructed homes at affordable costs.
Spinning off of his early designs for factories, such as the office building at the Cologne Werkbund Exhibition, he developed prototypes for student and faculty housing at the Dessau Bauhaus. It was on the campus that Gropius's vision found expression in a community setting, unifying the various elements, including classrooms, canteen, theater, and apartments.
The buildings were constructed using new production techniques: Instead of heavy outer walls to support the bulk of the building's weight, Gropius relied on interior frames of prefabricated steel and concrete. Instead of hollowing out thick walls to make room for windows, the steel-and-concrete ``skeleton'' allowed for a ``skin'' of glass, held in place by a network of steel panes. Gropius felt the new architecture would open buildings to natural light and air, and that flat roofs would eliminate the wasted attic space and dark-cornered eaves of traditional houses.
It's interesting that some of Gropius's staff - which included such art notables as Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee - had mixed reactions to their living quarters. Kandinsky's wife was disturbed by the lack of privacy in the teachers' houses, and complained in her memoirs about a large transparent glass wall in the entrance hall that offered passersby too good a view of the interior. Kandinsky apparently agreed, and painted the glass white. Gropius disliked ostentation, which in his mind included wall color that attracted attention. Kandinsky had all the rooms in his house painted, including the dining room, which he did in black and white.
Another Bauhaus contribution to architecture was the functional interior. Gropius's student Marcel Breuer is primarily remembered for his tubular chrome chairs, but he is credited with designing a floor plan that, remarkably, is mostly unchanged in modern kitchens. Later a student of Breuer's described it as ``the first kitchen in Germany with separated lower cupboards, suspended cupboards attached to the walls, a continuous work surface between them, and the main work space in front of the kitchen window.'' Breuer also designed for mass production the ceramic containers for flour, sugar, and coffee that are ubiquitous in kitchens today.
Breuer followed his mentor to the United States in the late 1930s after the Bauhaus dissolved in the political turmoil of Hitler's rise to power. Gropius accepted a teaching post (and ultimately a chairmanship) in the architecture department at Harvard University.
Unable to reconcile his design principles with the Beacon Hill townhouse apartment that Harvard provided, Gropius built a house for his family in Lincoln, Mass., in 1938, using concepts he had developed and tested at the Bauhaus.
The house was (and is) a startling presence on the New England countryside. A few miles down the road from Thoreau's Walden Pond, the Gropius house bears witness to a different kind of living experiment. Gropius and his wife, Ise, spent months studying the location before designing the house, noting where the sun hit, on which side the wind was strongest, the angle of the hill.
In keeping with his modernist inclinations, the house was constructed of mass-produced materials, most from factories around New England. The entryway is sheltered on one side by a wall of glass bricks, allowing light - but not the wind and snow - to seep through. On the south side, a screened porch protrudes at an angle, allowing the summer breezes to pass through. A spiral staircase, also of industrial materials, winds up to a deck on the roof. It was designed so that Gropius's daughter had her own entrance and exit, supervised by her parents through the window. Their study was on the first floor, where the Bauhaus-designed, two-person desk created a place where Gropius and Ise could work side by side.
It's a strangely fragile-looking house: The white-painted wood panel exterior walls are peeling slightly, and the doorknobs, latches, and screen doors look delicate and thin. But the interior demonstrates Gropius's ingenuity. In the entry hall, Gropius installed a hotel coat rack which he declined to enclose, noting that with the different seasons, the coat rack would become a constantly changing sculpture. He laid the floor with cork, which deadens sound. The walls have vertical paneling - giving the New England clapboard look a modern twist. Sunlight filters cheerfully through strategically placed windows and helps heat the house. Gropius developed the concept of plate-glass windows and used them in a climate where windows traditionally were kept at a minimum.
The color scheme is simple - white, black, and gray with touches of warm orange-red. The furnishings by Marcel Breuer look familiar - too familiar, in fact, for their design has been so completely integrated into the mainstream of American furniture as to be unremarkable. The Breuer chairs - inspired by chrome bicycle frames - have been relentlessly duplicated, and look oddly cheap and dated. It is difficult to remember that in the 1940s - after the beaux-arts tradition had swept the civilized world - they were considered radical in their simplicity and austere lines.
The Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities has restored the Gropius house and maintains it as a museum. The architect's widow bequeathed the home and all its contents to the society. With the help of Gropius's daughter the society has arranged it to look as it did in the 1960s, the last decade of Gropius's life.
It's tempting to look at the Gropius house and conclude that the grand scheme of its maker failed - that instead of creating a type of architecture that would mushroom in communities all over the world, he merely ensured the obsoleteness of flimsy modernism. But a closer examination shows his influence everywhere.
Gropius's true legacy can be found in the derivation of his successors. Just as in the field of modern dance Martha Graham defined the new form of movement and influenced scores of choreographers, so Gropius pioneered a new architectural shape and design that penetrates the thoughts of architects today.
I.M. Pei, a prot'eg'e of Walter Gropius's, acknowledges an enormous debt to the German architect. Pei - whose controversial design for the entrance pyramid to the Louvre museum in Paris and recently completed Dallas concert hall have made him highly visible - described his view of Gropius at a recent Harvard symposium. To his teacher's claim that the modern style would prevail, Pei set out to prove that culture, climate, and customs were also key factors in the adaptation of modernism.
The buildings that surround us - schools and office complexes, malls and tract houses - all quote from Gropius in their use of glass, prefabricated elements, and in their floor plans. As one of the other Harvard panelists noted, ``modernism is gone - it is something else. It is contemporary.''