Fiona MacCarthy's new biography of Walter Gropius explores the many sides of the man behind the Bauhaus movement. Photo: Helen Mellor

The hidden lives behind the Bauhaus movement

Though often understood as a rigid cult of technocrats, the Bauhaus movement was a romantic tag of avant-gardists whose influence persists to this day
June 9, 2019

In 1934, Walter Gropius and his second wife Ise were driven by a friend to visit Stonehenge. As they motored past a series of adverts for breweries—“You Are Now Entering the Strong Country”; “Take Courage”—the architect and founder of the Bauhaus art school, who had recently escaped Nazi Germany, grew anxious. “Why does England need all this propaganda?” asked Walter. As retold in Fiona MacCarthy’s new biography, the story has the effect of humanising someone who has at times been caricatured as a technocrat and ideologue, a real-life counterpart to the dastardly Otto Silenus in Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall. (“The problem of architecture as I see it… is the problem of all art—the elimination of the human element from the consideration of form.”) But it also suggests someone who wasn’t always as quick on the uptake as he might have been.

MacCarthy’s aim is to bring to life a man who is seen as something of an abstraction, even by his admirers. She suggests that the Bauhaus wasn’t some arid machine-age cult. She patiently shows how romantic, expressionist and surrealist influences made themselves felt alongside rigid formalism. She also makes it clear what an achievement it was for Gropius that a ragtag assortment of mystics and avant-gardists from all over Europe—among whom boundaries between disciplines, hierarchies of rank and experience were largely disregarded—should have lasted as long and worked as well as it did.

She presents us with some of the maestro’s endearing quirks, too, such as his lifelong passion for horses (acquired when he served as a hussar during the First World War) and his fondness for cacti. Neither does she neglect his energetic love life: a turbulent relationship with the composer and socialite Alma Mahler (which resulted in a daughter, Manon); an almost intolerably civilised menage à trois with Ise and the graphic designer Herbert Bayer; a couple of dalliances with students during which the lover and the pedagogue vie for supremacy. In later life, he and Ise seem to have enjoyed a deep conjugal harmony: he designed a two-seater desk where they could work side by side.

In these pages, Gropius takes on full three-dimensional form: kind, patient, proud, at times a little pompous, driven by hopes for the future. You’d prefer him as an uncle than a husband, perhaps, desk or no desk. As an educator, however, his principles were fuzzy round the edges, ranging from a William Morris-like exaltation of craft and labour in his early days (as presented in Nikolaus Pevsner’s Pioneers of Modern Design), to the “new unity” of art and technology preached at the Bauhaus, to a pragmatic and collaborative outlook in post-war America. He produced several buildings of real brilliance—the Fagus shoe factory, with its spectacular glazed exterior; the second home of the Bauhaus at Dessau; the Rosenthal works in Amberg—but he always resisted cultivating a personal style, and counselled students and younger colleagues against imitating him or anyone else.


MacCarthy conducts us from Gropius’s affluent childhood at the artier end of the Berlin haute-bourgeoisie through to his involvement in progressive design groups such as the Deutscher Werkbund and the Arbeitsrat für Kunst. A propitious meeting with the Grand Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach before the First World War led to the founding in 1919 of the Bauhaus art school in Weimar, a new institution with a cod-medieval name, funded partly by the regional government, partly by the sale of patents. (Neither revenue stream would prove reliable.)

The turmoil of the Hitler years gave way to a short and disappointing stay in England. (“I am curious about how to survive in this inartistic country with its unsalted vegetables, bony women and an eternally freezing draught!” he wrote to his daughter.) In England, the gospel of modernism had little initial impact beyond a small circle of emigrés and fellow-travellers, including Herbert Read, Anthony Blunt, John Betjeman and the visionary London Underground chief Frank Pick. The sleek and largely settled third act came after the Second World War: teaching at Harvard, tending the flame of the Bauhaus as the Cold War deepened and serving on various international committees of the great and good.

When Gropius died in 1969, his passing commemorated by a “fiesta—à la Bauhaus—drinking, laughing, loving,” his influence was at its zenith. The Mad Men modernism of the 1960s, typified by his Pan Am building in New York, was adopted by other business districts. His calls for a joined-up approach to urban renewal in cities scarred by war were popular. The template of the Bauhaus had been adopted in various places: at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where the first heroic generation of American modernists cut their teeth under the eyes of Bauhaüsler including Josef and Anni Albers; at the Hochschule für Gestaltung in Ulm, where you could study semiotics in the morning and help the young Dieter Rams design a miniature radio for Braun in the afternoon. The wide-ranging Vorkurs, or preliminary course, at the Bauhaus is still a feature of most British art schools, in the form of the first-year foundation course.

The star of the Bauhaus continued to rise after Gropius’s death. The Nazis had thought it full of Jews and communists, a hotbed of cultural degeneracy and political heresy; many on the left, meanwhile, felt that its utopian ideals had been fatally compromised by its relationship with commerce (never very successful, in truth). A ruthless purge of communists from the student body in 1930 by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, then in charge of the Bauhaus, had not gone unnoticed either, especially in the post-war era.

But the GDR softened its stance in the 1960s, and the Bauhaus-Archiv opened in Berlin in the 1970s (based on a Gropius design from 1964). Reproductions of the school’s more celebrated designs were already creeping back on to the market in Gropius’s lifetime. MacCarthy points out that without the Bauhaus there would be no Habitat or Ikea. It would be equally valid to point out that the influence of Bauhaüsler such as Bayer and László Moholy-Nagy on graphic design has been, and continues to be, huge—so no Bauhaus would have meant no River Café Cookbook, no Factory Records, no 4AD.

The status of the architectural tradition embodied by the Bauhaus was more uncertain. There’s only one way to go from a zenith, after all. Gropius’s death in 1969 was just three years after the publication of Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture by Robert Venturi, and three years before the first demolitions at the Pruitt-Igoe housing projects in St Louis—two events of foundational importance for what became known as postmodernism.

After complaints from the student body that it “stifled creativity,” in 1969 Yale’s architecture faculty—completed just six years before in a chunky “brutalist” style by one of Gropius’s most brilliant students, Paul Rudolph—caught fire in mysterious circumstances. In 1977, David Watkin’s Morality and Architecture would violently contest Pevsner’s suggestion that Bauhaüsler and other modernists had any link with the homely virtues of the arts and crafts movement. (Betjeman by now had become more exercised by the conservation of Victorian buildings.) And in 1981 Gropius, his on-off colleague Marcel Breuer, Mies, Le Corbusier and others would be cited by Tom Wolfe as “White Gods,” blow-ins from Europe whose severe “bourgeoisie-proof” style was venerated by supine American patrons at the expense of the more, let us say, virile native styles.


So this is in part a tale of changing tastes, some of which have started to change back again. Damien Hirst and James Dyson are both creatures of the Bauhaus, in their way. The government has recently appointed the horrifically named Building Better Building Beautiful commission—until recently headed by Roger Scruton, who spoke at Watkin’s funeral—to try to extirpate the architectural events of the 20th century. But it’s possible that more harm is done to the legacy of Gropius by his admirers-—including the so-called “pseudomodernists” whose buildings have gridlocked our streets—than his cloth-eyed detractors.

This biography can’t be offered up as a study of a timeless artistic genius, misunderstood or otherwise, in the Michelangelo or Van Gogh vein. What is left is partly a portrait of one of those uniquely gifted, and (it can seem) uniquely German, administrators. I felt a tingle of cognitive discomfort when I realised how much Gropius’s tenure at the Bauhaus, in MacCarthy’s telling, reminded me of Albert Speer’s stewardship of the Organisation Todt in Gitta Sereny’s biography.

Partly the book is also a footnote to the burgeoning corpus of Alma Mahler studies. MacCarthy shows little sympathy for a woman whose anti-Semitism was by no means the most unpleasant thing about her. She grants Alma a certain charisma, though she implies that her sexual allure owed less to her preferred seduction gambit of singing the Liebestod while accompanying herself on the piano, than her disdain for the brassiere.

MacCarthy also points out that Gustav Mahler stifled his wife’s career as a composer. But Apollo’s loss was not to be Aphrodite’s gain. Alma was a toxic cocktail, the libertine and the snob in her always churning and curdling. She chose to be surrounded by some genuinely terrible people, among whom Gropius must have seemed a trifle dull—though he was, she said, “the only man who was racially suited for me… all the others who fell in love with me were little Jews.”

It is hard not to suspect that their daughter Manon would have lived longer, as well as more contentedly, if Alma had kept her promise that she live with Walter and Ise once Alma married Franz Werfel. In the event, when Manon died of polio in 1935, at the age of 18, neither parent attended her funeral. Walter wasn’t allowed across the Austrian border; Alma simply couldn’t abide funerals. But thankfully, la toute Vienne turned up. The composer Alban Berg dedicated a piece to Manon. Werfel based elements of the dreadful, and massively successful, Song of Bernadette on her. And at least Gropius later got to design her gravestone—the ultimate “elemental form.”