Playwright Bertolt Brecht, novelist Thomas Mann, filmmaker Fritz Lang, composer Arthur Shoenberg — these were the names on the growing list of German expatriates seeking refuge in America during the 1930s. Some of Germany’s finest artists and intellectuals crossed the Atlantic to escape European fascism, changing the landscape of American culture and academia forever.
Also present on the list of exiles was architect Walter Gropius, who left Berlin in 1934. He eventually settled in the United States by way of Italy and then Britain. And while Gropius may no longer be a household name in the manner of, say, his contemporary Frank Lloyd Wright, the works of Gropius have been lastingly influential on German and American architecture and design movements. For while you may not have heard of Gropius, chances are you’ve heard of Bauhaus — and Walter Gropius was the father of this stark movement, as well as a pioneer of modernism.
Gropius was born in 1883, and his family ties provided something of a pedigree in the architectural world. Both his father and his great uncle, Martin Gropius, were architects, and the latter designed the renowned Kunstgewerbemuseum in Berlin. The young Gropius followed in their path, studying architecture in Berlin and Munich. However, academia failed to engage him, and Gropius left school without a diploma. He instead sought work in the office of Peter Behrens, a prolific architect and industrial designer and pioneer of utilitarian design.
In 1910 Gropius branched out, establishing a firm with fellow former-employee Adolf Meyer. Even in the beginning stages of his career, Gropius was making waves, publishing seminal texts on modernism and designing building facades and even a locomotive car.
WWI forced Gropius to place his budding career on hold. He served as a sergeant and later a lieutenant, returning home a hero and decorated with an Iron Cross. It was in the postwar years that Gropius flourished. Despite never having completed his own studies, he was appointed as master of the Grand-Ducal Saxon School of Arts and Crafts in Weimar in 1919. Gropius transformed this institution into the world-famous Staatliches Bauhaus (the word ‘bauhaus’ translates literally as ‘construction house’) and changed the course of modernity forever. And while the school itself had no architecture department during its run (it closed in 1933), Staatliches Bauhaus promoted the idea of totality in regards to artwork, encouraging all disciplines—architecture, art, graphic design, interior design, typography, industrial design—to inform one another and culminate in a cohesive whole.
When Gropius eventually fled Germany, he brought his unique vision and skillset to America. Today his works stand in both Germany and the U.S. as a testament to not only the historical implications of the European exodus, but also one of the most innovative and exciting design movements of all time.
Here we take a look at some of Walter Gropius’ most iconic works.
The Fagus Factory was built between 1911-1913 and operated as a shoe last factory in Lower Saxony. Gropius designed the facade with his partner, Adolf Meyer, when they were commissioned to redesign the exteriors of architect Eduard Werner’s original plans, with which the factory’s owner felt dissatisfied. The project interiors and extensions were eventually completed in 1925.
While today the glass façade and excessive use of windows seems commonplace, such a design concept was revolutionary in its day. In her book Fagus: Industrial Culture from Werkbund to Bauhaus, architecture historian Annemarie Jaeggi points to the way high-speed transportation was changing European design, as the factory was located beside a busy railroad line: “The animated fluctuation in height, the change between horizontal structure and vertical rhythms, heavy closed volumes and light dissolved fabrics, are indicators of an approach that deliberately utilized contrasts while arriving at a harmony of opposites in a manner best expressed as a pictorial or visual structure created from the perspective of the railroad tracks.” The structure is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Walter Gropius’ former house is located in Lincoln, Massachusetts, where Gropius and his family settled when he accepted a teaching position at Harvard University’s prestigious Graduate School of Design. Gropius designed the home in 1937 and it was completed by a local builder in the following year. Gropius turned the home’s stark design into something of a teaching tool; according to Eric F. Kramer in a piece for the Journal of Architectural Education, he used it to provide his students with an example of American modernist landscape architecture.
Walter Gropius lived in the home until his death in 1969. Today the building is owned and operated by Historic New England as a historic house museum, and received a National Historic Landmark designation in 2000.
John F. Kennedy Federal Building
This structure is located in Boston, Massachusetts, and serves as a United States Federal government office building. It was completed between 1963 and 1966, and Gropius designed the iconic twin towers with his firm, The Architects Collaborative, and Samuel Glaser. The façade is utilitarian and largely void of ornamentation or excess, though Gropius and Glaser were supposedly influenced by the sculptures of Dimitri Hadzi, whose work was very much informed by modernism and abstraction. The architects commissioned Hadzi to create a bronze sculpture, which was inspired by President Kennedy’s book Profiles in Courage. The sculpture was placed in front of one of the towers, and further artwork was commissioned from artists Herbert Ferber and Robert Motherwell for both the interior and exterior.
The building has housed the offices of many prominent members of government, including Senator Elizabeth Warren.
If you’ve been to Manhattan, chances are high that you’ve noticed the MetLife Building; it’s hard to miss, given that it overlooks the iconic, highly decorative Grand Central Station. This fifty-nine-story skyscraper wasn’t always adorned with the word ‘METLIFE’; it was originally built between 1960-1963 as the world headquarters for Pan American World Airways, and at that time, it was known as the Pan Am Building. For this project, Gropius teamed up with Emery Roth & Sons and Pietro Belluschi, and, like the John F. Kennedy Federal Building, this structure is highly utilitarian and lacking in ornamentation. It is designed in the International Style, a modernist movement characterized by globally influenced aesthetics and methods, as well as the use of strict geometric forms. It’s a style that hasn’t necessarily aged well with time; according to a poll conducted by the lifestyle periodical New York in 1987, the MetLife Building is the structure that city residents would most life to see demolished. Sorry, Walter.
The Alan I W Frank House
When Gropius left Berlin, he left with his then-architect partner Marcel Breuer. As World War II broke out in Europe, Gropius and Breuer were safely in America, completing the Alan I W Frank House.
This private residence in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania was commissioned by Cecelia and Robert Frank, both descendants of Pittsburg industrialists. They were open to cutting-edge ideas like those encapsulated in modern design, and desired an airy, open home for raising their growing family. The resulting structure is one that seeks a symbiosis with the surrounding land, placing an emphasis on natural materials like Kosata stone and wood. Since its completion, the home has been continuously maintained and occupied by members of the Frank family. The former director of the U.S. National Gallery of Art, J. Carter Brown, has described the structure as “the nation’s crown jewel” — no small praise indeed.