Was the Founder of the Bauhaus a Doctrinaire Bore or a Brilliant Innovator?

Was the Founder of the Bauhaus a Doctrinaire Bore or a Brilliant Innovator?

This is neither clear nor sufficiently dramatic. The Bauhaus building, as an avatar of the school, and as a piece of architecture, is one of Gropius’s most important achievements. It deserves to be described in detail and in context, from lamps to carpets to Breuer’s tubular steel furniture (which does get a mention, and a credit). Which publications were begging Ise Gropius, Gropius’s second wife and unpaid publicist, and Lucia Moholy, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy’s first wife and the school’s unofficial photographer, for information and images? We get a few student accounts and a halfhearted, Gropius-centric comment from the generally caustic critic Reyner Banham that the building “casts light on aspects of Gropius that are at variance with the commonly held view of him.”

This should be a career apex for Gropius, both individually and for the Bauhaus as a group, and MacCarthy speeds by. On the whole, she doesn’t seem particularly interested in architecture, but she does go to bat for the Pan Am Building, which she describes as “resplendent,” evoking “a vast minimalistic sculpture.” She’s not alone in her revisionist take on 1960s concrete, but I’ll stick with Ada Louise Huxtable’s assessment: “gigantically second rate.”

Gropius’s most enduring contributions to modernism were a series of projects where his name was not on the door. The Bauhaus school reimagined 20th-century art education as a collective undertaking, one that would eventually embrace industry and attempt to bring functional, low-cost design to the masses.

When that dream died, closed in 1933 by the Nazis as an alleged hotbed of communism, many of its masters migrated to America and tried to start it up again, at schools in rural North Carolina, in Chicago, and at Harvard, where Gropius, appointed chairman of the department of architecture at the Graduate School of Design, swiftly moved to preserve the legacy of the short-lived school as an archive and at an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.

In 1945, Gropius was invited to join a new practice being formed by seven younger architects, including several former students and, unusual for the period, two women, Sally Harkness and Jean Fletcher. The Architects Collaborative (commonly known as TAC) was run as a collective; each of the partners managed his or her own jobs, meeting weekly to critique one another’s projects. The architectural historian Michael Kubo has written about how disorienting this was, to both historians and the popular press. Gropius could have been a brand, why would he join a team?

Because that’s the way he had been practicing all along. Gropius is hardly alone in being an architect who couldn’t draw. He worked with a partner, and everything he made was at minimum a joint production. “The ideology of the past century has taught us to see in the individual genius the only embodiment of true and pure art,” Gropius wrote in “Scope of Total Architecture” (1956). His partner Sally Harkness, in a 1972 essay, added, “Nowadays young people are fighting a style of living, a style of practice, realizing again that stereotyped formulas are too restrictive.” For her, the myth of the individual genius was particularly intolerable for women, as it separated public life from private, and kept women minding the hearth.

MacCarthy gives short shrift to TAC, focusing principally on the Harvard Graduate Center (1950), one of the group’s first joint projects, and spending more time on the art commissions than on the architecture. The lives and skills of Gropius’s partners hardly come alive. They seem like gray shadows compared with the Bauhaus students, whose kite festivals and costume parties MacCarthy vividly describes. Yet TAC’s experiment with nonhierarchical leadership, its inclusion of women as equal partners, and Gropius and Harkness’s call to dismantle the cult of the lone male genius, are far more relevant to the discourse in architecture today than one man, one skyscraper.

Rescuing Gropius from his bad reputation requires an honest assessment of his talents. He was never going to beat Breuer and Mies on their terms, but if his life has one lesson to teach us, it is that sometimes you have to rewrite the terms.

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