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Middle American Design
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Walter Gropius and International Modern Style
Walter Gropius - ARCHITECT, TEACHER, THINKER.
1883 - 1969
SOCIAL AND CULTURAL BACKGROUND
THE FAGUS FACTORY
THE COLOGNE EXHIBITION
WORLD WAR 1
THE BAUHAUS SCHOOL OF DESIGN
THE BRITISH YEARS
THE HARVARD YEARS
THE INFLUENCE OF GROPIUS AND THE BAUHAUS ON INTERIOR DESIGN AND DECORATION
THE INTERNATIONAL MODERN STYLE
Walter Gropius was a German-born pioneer of contemporary architecture and an educator; he was an enthusiastic and influential proponent of modern design who furthered his ideas through:
his own architectural works,
the Bauhaus school of design (which he founded in Germany in 1919),
and through his long years of teaching at Harvard University (USA).
Gropius is identified with the development of
The Bauhaus style of design
The International Style, or more generally, Modern Architecture
The International Modern style of interior decorating.
Among his most important ideas was his belief that all design - whether of a chair, a building, or a city - should be approached in essentially the same way: through a
systematic study of needs and problems, taking into account modern construction materials and techniques, without reference to previous forms or styles
SOCIAL AND CULTURAL BACKGROUND
To understand the significance of the German Gropius’ contributions to architecture and interior design, it is vital to be aware of the society into which he was born and in which he developed his ideas.
Before the 1870’s, the country which is now Germany comprised several independent states; these were very under-industrialised compared to France and Great Britain - cottage industry was dominant.
In the 1870’s after several wars Otto von Bismark eventually united these independent states into one country, Germany. The victories of the 1870s precipitated a flood of industrialisation, and Germany changed overnight into a highly industrialised country and in a few decades rivaled France and even England. A new period of prosperity was ushered in, such as she had not known since the heyday of her late medieval cities.
The rapid industrialisation was forcing tremendous changes on all aspects of German society as with England and France By the turn of the century there was a trend represented by a cross section of intellectuals who wanted to charge the stupendous upsurge of industrialisation with some spiritual content.
Gropius was born in 1883 - what a pivotal time!
Peter Behrens and The AEG
The great industrialist Emil Rathenau was a visionary. In 1907 Rathenau, President of the AEG (General Electric Company of Berlin) appointed Peter Behrens as art director.
His task:- to infuse art into all products of the industry, from the firm’s trademark and standardised electric light fittings to the famous buildings of the new AEG factory.
This appointment signalled, at long last, a recognition of the rightful position of the architect alongside the engineer. This was an event of outstanding importance.
And in 1907 (aged 24) Gropius began his professional practice in this office of this very Architect Peter Behrens in Berlin.
In 1909 Behrens built the AEG turbine factory,
perhaps the most beautiful industrial building ever erected to that time
. The steel frame is clearly exhibited. A pure work of architecture, so finely balanced that the huge dimensions are scarcely realised, unless one looks at the people in the street for comparison.
Gropius acknowledged that his work with Behrens did much to shape his lifelong interest in progressive architecture and the interrelationship of the arts.
Gropius left the office of Behrens to set up his own practise in 1910 (age 27) with Adolf Meyer, an architect of experience and common sense.
The Deutcher Werkbund - German Workers’ Union
In 1911 Gropius joined the Deutscher Werkbund (German Workers’ Union) which had been founded in 1907 with the aim of
‘selecting the best representatives of art, industry, crafts, and trades, of combining all efforts
towards high quality in industrial work’.
Gropius accepted the inevitability and restrictions of mechanisation, but he felt it was up to the artistically trained designer to
“breathe a soul into the dead product of the machine.”
He was against imitation, snobbery and dogma in the arts and
cautioned against such oversimplification as the notion that the function of a product should determine its appearance.
In 1913 in a Werkbund yearbook “Art in Industry and Trade” displayed pictures of the American grain silos and factories, which up till then no one had considered anything other than mere containers of grain or places of work. Gropius was the first to acclaim their “unacknowledged majesty”...he stated that the “monumental power” of the grain silo “can stand comparison with the constructions of ancient Egypt.”
THE FAGUS FACTORY
Gropius’ growing intellectual leadership was complemented by his design of two significant buildings, both done in collaboration with Adolph Meyer: the Fagus Works at Alfeld-an-der-Leine (1911) and the model office and factory buildings done for the Werkbund Exposition in Cologne (1913-14).
Gropius had very clear strong ideas about achieving improvement of industrial production through the design of better environments for workers within factories. These ideas struck a responsive chord in the already social-minded industrialist Karl Benscheid, and the 28 year old Gropius was commissioned to build Benscheid a factory for the manufacture of machine lathes.
The result was a building which in 1911-12 was several decades ahead of ordinary industrial design, and which established Gropius’ reputation:- the Fagus factory presents a new architectural vocabulary as spontaneous as it was unexpected.
While Gropius had been working with Peter Behrens in Berlin the erection of the AEG factory was in progress. The same problem there and the same problem here were however quite differently handled: the great glass walls of Behrens’ famous hall of turbines are tied in right and left by monumental masonry. In Gropius’ design this has disappeared. His
walls show clearly that they no longer carry and support the building
, but that they simply hang from the supporting columns which stand behind it - mere shields against inclement weather, or as Gropius said
“The role of the walls becomes restricted to that of mere screens stretched between the upright columns of the framework to keep out rain, cold and noise.”
At one corner of the building the glass walls butt directly up against one another with no intervening column. This presented an unusual spectacle to eyes accustomed to the supporting walls, and heightens the impression of the building as a glass-enclosed, transparent volume...for the first time the
trend towards transparency and absence of weight found undeniable architectural expression.
discovered the art form of the steel framing structure
THE COLOGNE EXHIBITION
In 1913-14, through his activities in the Werkbund, Gropius was commissioned to design major structures for that organization’s Cologne Exhibition.
The chief points of the Fagus factory were audaciously advanced in these buildings. Even the Bauhaus is, architecturally speaking, a further development of ideas first expressed in the Fagus Factory.
The north side is his comment on Behrens’ turbine factory of 5 years before. The reduction of motifs to an absolute minimum and the sweeping simplification of outline are patent. The replacement of Behrens’ heavy corner piers by thin metallic lines is especially impressive.
Bolder still is the south front with the superb contrast between the decidedly Wrightian brick centre and the completely glazed corners. In the middle there are only the narrowest slits for the windows and the lowest entrance; at the corner, where according to all standards of the past, a sufficient-looking supporting force should show itself,
there is nothing but glass encasing transparently two spiral staircases
. The motif has since been imitated as often as the girderless corner of the Fagus Factory.
WORLD WAR 1
After the Cologne Exhibition, the First World War stopped all work for 4 long years (1914-1918).
During the war Gropius served as a cavalry officer on the Western Front, was wounded and received the iron Cross for bravery.
THE BAUHAUS SCHOOL OF DESIGN
Demobilised in November 1918, Gropius was immediately caught up in the spirit of revolution of the postwar period. He took active roles in the many organisations of artists and architects that had spontaneously come into existence at that time.
Even before the end of the war, the city of Weimar approached Gropius for his ideas on art education. In April 1919 (age 36) he was appointed Director of The Grand Ducal Saxon School of Arts and Crafts, the Grand Ducal Saxon Academy of Arts, and the Grand Ducal Saxon School of Arts and Crafts, which were immediately united as Statices Bauhaus Weimar (The State Building House).
Gropius has always been deeply conscious of the gulf between the forms of
and the forms
produced by machine
The bridging of this gulf was one of the chief motives the Bauhaus:
‘We wanted out students to come to terms with the machine without sacrificing their initiative, so that they might bring to mass production, to architecture, and to community planning a sense of order and beauty.’
The Bauhaus was not an institution with a clear program - it was an idea, and Gropius formulated this idea with great precision. He said
“Art and technology - the new unity”
In his opening manifesto Gropius sought comprehensiveness and integration of all artistic, craft and industrial skills. He declared that a mastery of materials and techniques was essential for all creative design. Students were to have two teachers in every course, one an expert in craft, the other a master artist.
Teachers appointed in the early years included Lyonel Feininger, Gerhard Marcks, Johannes Itten, and Adolf Meyer (1919); Georg Muche (1920); Paul Klee and Oskar Schlemmer (1921); Wassily Kandinsky (1922); and Lazlo Moholy-Nagy (1923) - at that time very radical artists. Today, they are known as some of the great masters of our time.
The preliminary course, organised by Johannes Itten, introduced students to rudiments of design, freed from historic associations: size, shape, line, colour, pattern, texture, rhythm, and density. This course has become the foundation for design education in many countries.
After this basic course the students were trained in a specialised craft of their own choice, including construction, metalwork, carpentry, interior design, furniture, pottery, glass, painting and textiles.
The instruction in craftsmanship given in the Bauhaus workshops was not an end in itself, but a means of education. The aim was to turn out designers able, by their intimate knowledge of materials and working processes, to produce models for industrial mass production, which were not only designed but made at the Bauhaus. These designers had to be fully acquainted with the methods of production on an industrial scale and so, during their training, they were assigned temporarily to practical work in factories. Conversely, skilled factory workers came to the Bauhaus to discuss the needs of industry with the staff and the students.
Industrial design became a major focus at the Bauhaus, which hoped to improve radically the quality of all manufactured goods.
‘The Bauhaus was ... a laboratory for basic research into design problems of all types. Staff and students succeeded in giving their work a homogeneity based not on external, stylistic features but on a fundamental approach to design which resulted in standard products...’
The designs emphasised geometrical forms, smooth surfaces, regular outlines, primary colours and modern materials - all of which, to many eyes, epitomised impersonality in art. It is this phase of Bauhaus output that is publicly accepted as characteristic of Bauhaus “style,” although Gropius himself disdained the use of the concept.
In 1923 Gropius wanted to show some of his work and to demonstrate his idea - the Bauhaus. There was a Bauhaus Week in Weimar, and during this time people from all over Europe came to look at his work and pay tribute for his achievements.
From the beginning, the striking newness of the concepts developed at the BAUHAUS and liberal beliefs of many of the people associated with it aroused strong opposition.
In 1925 The Bauhaus was invited to The city of Dessau with the promise of better financial support and to escape the growing antagonism of the Weimar community. In Dessau, Gropius built the school building and faculty housing (1925-26).
Many of the political problems which had arisen in Weimar were carried to Dessau. The craft unions were apprehensive; the art academies, openly critical; and the far right, the members of the growing National Socialist party, aggressive against the Bauhaus.
The condemnation of the Bauhaus was paralleled by the personal vilification of Gropius. Indeed, these attacks became so vehement and so pointed that he believed the solution lay in his resignation as Director. Publicly he voiced a desire to return to full time practise of architecture, and he resigned as Director in 1928 to return to a private practice in Berlin.
Gropius was succeeded as director by Hannes Meyer. Strong political pressure continued. In 1930 Ludwig Mies van der Rohe took over as Director, moved the school to Berlin in 1932, and finally closed and disbanded it under pressure from the Nazis in 1933.
Several of the former students who became important teachers at the Bauhaus; among these were Josef Albers and Marcel Breuer.
The Bauhaus School Buildings
The invitation from Dessau included commissions for Gropius to design a building for the school and houses for the master and accommodation for the students.
The design satisfied the complex program requirements of the curriculum involving workshops, studios, offices, cafeteria, auditorium, student housing, Gropius’ private architectural office and other spaces in a bridge across an intervening street.
The school itself, built in 1925-26, is a
key monument of modern architecture
, with its dynamic composition, asymmetrical plan, simple blocks, smooth white walls free of any kind of ornamentation set with horizontal windows, and flat roof.
This group of buildings in Dessau are Gropius’ best known buildings, and have come to symbolise the Bauhaus to the rest of the world. Although Gropius repeatedly insisted that it was never his intention to codify a Bauhaus style or dogma, the need for a new architectural image appropriate to a technological age caused the Bauhaus to be adopted as a model for what came to be known as the
, or more generally, modern architecture.
Other works in this period
While in Dessau, Gropius was commissioned by the city to design an Arbeitsamt (1927-28) [Municipal Employment office] - functional and attractive, it was, in the 1980’s, still providing orderly entrance, interview facilities and egress for the lines of people seeking answers to employment related questions.
During 1929-30 he designed a portion of a housing colony in Berlin- Siemensstadt. Gropius’ regular facades of enormous length, together with a rigid orientation, illustrate an excessively intellectual solution with a “curse of uniformity,” which Gropius himself decried in later years.
Unsympathetic to the Nazi regime, he secretly left Germany via Italy for exile in England in 1934 (age 51); Hitler’s government had closed the Bauhaus in 1933.
Gropius’ brief time in England was marked by collaboration with the architect Maxwell Fry that resulted in their important work, Village College at Impington, Cambridgeshire (1936).
In 1937 (age 54) Gropius became professor of Architecture at Harvard University. The following year he was made chairman of the department, a post he held until his retirement in 1952 (age 69) He became a naturalised US. citizen in 1944.
At Harvard he introduced the Bauhaus philosophy of design into the curriculum, although he was unable it implement workshop training. He was also unsuccessful in abolishing the history of architecture as a course. His crusade for modern design, however, was immediately popular among the students. His innovations at Harvard soon provoked similar educational reform in other architectural schools in the United States and marked the beginning of the end of a historically imitative architecture.
In addition to his teaching, in 1937-1949 Gropius collaborated with Marcel Breuer, a former Bauhaus pupil and later fellow teacher. Among their designs were Breuer’s and Gropius’ own houses in Lincoln, Massachusetts, which, with the use of white-painted wood and fieldstone, restated New England traditionalism in modern terms. These houses and others designed by them were controversial, but the architects lived to see acceptance of their ideas.
One of Gropius’ most extraordinary buildings was the Thomas Glass factory in Amberg, Germany (1967). This cathedral-like structure took its high gabled roof from the functional requirement to take heat away from the glassblowers below.
For the Rosenthal Ceramics industry, Gropius designed a new factory in Selb, Germany (1963); in his lifelong attempt to improve the environment of workers, he created an internal glazed central court with flowers and birds and natural light which can be seen from every where within the enclosed factory walls.
Gropius was active as an architect until his death, building many more buildings, and earning many awards and recognitions.
He died in 1969 aged 86.
Gropius was a thinker, an intellectual.
His architecture does not have the aesthetic fascination of Wright’s or Le Corbusier, but reflects his intense lifelong concern to get to the
He was successful in his endeavours - Mies van der Rohe said at Gropius 70th birthday party:
‘The Bauhaus was an idea. The fact that it was an idea...is the cause of this enormous influence the Bauhaus had on any progressive school around the globe. You cannot do that with organisation. You cannot do that with propaganda
. Only an idea spreads so far.’
Gropius himself reflects:
The revolution of the twenties was total and moral, and its creators looked at beauty not as something selfconsciously “added on”, but as something that was believed to be inherent in the vitality, appropriateness, and psychological significance of a designed object, whether it was a building, a piece of furniture, or a stage design..
" ...if our early attempts looked somewhat stark and sparse, it is because we had just found a new vocabulary with which to speak out, and this we wanted to set in the greatest possible contrast to the overstuffed bombast that had gone before....
Fagus Works, Alfeld-an-der-Leine, Germany (1911)
Pavilion for Deutz Machinery Factory, Werkbund Exhibition, Cologne (1914)
with A. Meyer
Bauhaus, Dessau, Germany (1925-26)
Toerten Housing Development, Dessau (1926-28)
Municipal Employment Office, Dessau (1927-28)
Siemensstadt Housing Estate, Berlin (1929-30)
Gropius House, Lincoln, Massachusetts (1937)
Housing Development, New Kensington, Pennsylvania (1938-41)
Harvard University Graduate Centre, Cambridge, Massachusetts (1949-50)
US Embassy, Athens (commissioned 1960).
THE INFLUENCE OF GROPIUS AND THE BAUHAUS ON INTERIOR DESIGN AND DECORATION
THE INTERNATIONAL MODERN STYLE
This information is adapted from “House Style” by Lorrie Mack
Born in the Bauhaus School of Design in Weimar, Germany in the early 1920’s, the International Modern style is the dominant movement of this century, and much of the furniture that was developed then is still being manufactured and sold today - not as blind reproductions from an earlier age, but as the very best contemporary design available.
Like Art Deco, an almost exactly contemporary trend, this one was closely allied with technology, but its look is more pared down, with an almost brutal lack of ornamentation. Rooms are spare, sometimes almost empty, reflecting the often-quoted philosophy of one of the International school’s most illustrious exponents, the architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, that “Less is More.”
Its numerous and vocal early critics declared the style to be barren, impoverished, inhospitable and impractical, and certainly it had none of the obvious allure of the more cheerful Art Deco idiom. But its qualities have proved to be lasting ones: not only has the movement survived, but new designs are being added to it all the time, each one blending effortlessly with its predecessors.
The essence of this cool, tranquil look revolves around
open-plan spaces that can change form and function in an almost oriental manner;
huge, flat unadorned surfaces;
natural colours and materials such as marble, wood. leather and silk;
straight-sided geometrical forms; and
an overpowering feeling of order and discipline, even down to the smallest details: for example when Mies van der Rohe had built the towering glass-walled Seagram Building in New York, he insisted that all its venetian blinds were permanently adjusted so they could be fixed in only three positions - up, down and at half-mast - thus ensuring that the exterior view would always be a regular one.
The importance of this meticulousness to the International style is clearly illustrated by another one of Mies’ famous quotes “God is in the details”.
SETTING THE SCENE
should be large and airy, with plaster or brick walls painted white and left almost bare: only a stunning contemporary print or painting can be allowed to break up the surface and add a rare splash of colour.
should not provide any violent contrast - close fitting wool carpet in a natural oatmeal colour would be ideal, or pale timber with a knobbly textured rug on top, also in wool. Areas of heavy wear (or entire houses in hot climates) could have a shiny, hard flooring; travertine marble is a popular choice, or white ceramic or vinyl tiles.
are large, and hung with floor-length curtains in a natural cream or white fabric; alternatively, vertical louvre or metal venetian blinds have the right architectural feeling.
can be made from laminated wood or plastic, but the most common and characteristic material is chrome-plated tubular steel: the first such item was a chair made by the architect Marcel Breuer in 1925, just one year after the technique of chromium plating was perfected. One vital element in any International style living room is an enormous sofa, with straight lines, a deep seat, a low back and wide, square arms; look for upholstery fabric in natural wool, cotton or silk, and don’t be tempted to pile scatter cushions on top. Since an enormous amount of twentieth design creativity has been devoted to the form of the chair, there is a huge range of occasional seating to choose from: try to find at least one specimen with a cantilevered frame instead of legs, such as Breuer’s Cesa chair, which has been in almost constant production since 1928, and is in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Another furnishing element that was - and is - well served by designers and architects is
; classic lamps like the Tizio table fitting with its ultra-sophisticated anglepoise construction, or the marble-based Arco floor model, general illuminations by means of recessed ceiling spots. For a dramatic touch, one or two concealed uplighters.
It’s important to limit the number of
ornaments and accessories
- a cluttered effect must be avoided at all costs. An exquisite sculpture is ideal, but if not, a piece of stunningly simple pottery, a large, sculptural plant, or a generously massed bunch of identical white flowers jammed into a plain glass or ceramic vase.
Many modern fitted
suit this style perfectly - a neutral-coloured oven with sleek lines, a smooth finish and minimal detailing, then add architect-designed cutlery, cookware, china and appliances, remembering that there can be few seriously trendy kitchens the world over that do not feature one of Michael Graves’ classic Alessi kettles.(!)
install a run of unobtrusive fitted units to cope with clothing and grooming paraphernalia. Transform an ordinary divan bed into an appropriately low platform by stashing away pillows during the day, and fit with a tailored cover in natural linen or wool.
should have a similarly pristine, almost clinical feeling; consider a stylish but still infinitely practical scheme of white fittings, with matching white ceramic tiles on both the floor and the walls.
THE INTERNATIONAL STYLE OF ARCHITECTURE AND DESIGN IN HOBART
Gay, Peter Art and act: on causes in history - Manet, Gropius, Mondrian.
Harper and Row, 1976
Hoag, Edwin Masters of Modern Architecture: Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, and Walter Gropius.
Sharp, Dennis Bauhaus, Dessau: Walter Gropius.
Phaiden Press 1933
Lorie Mack House Style
Macdonald & Co 1908
Walter Gropius Apollo in the Democracy. The cultural obligation of the Architect.
McGraw Hill 1968
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