Walter Gropius founded the German design school a century ago, but his work, now antique, still feels ahead of its time.
Fiona MacCarthy’s “Gropius: The Man Who Built the Bauhaus” (Harvard) is a comprehensive biography of the figure whom the painter Paul Klee, a teacher at the Bauhaus, called “the silver prince.” The aroma of nineteenth-century nobility, all the Old World values and social distinctions that the Bauhaus aspired to dismantle, nevertheless clung to Gropius. He was born in 1883 in Berlin, into a distinguished family at the nexus of business and the arts. His great-grandfather had a silk-weaving company, and a great-great-uncle manufactured theatrical masks. Another uncle was an architect; his father, who aspired to the trade, lost his nerve. The family outfitted young Gropius abundantly with Kultur, but industry was everywhere in fin-de-siècle Berlin, whose population more than doubled between 1871 and 1900, to 1.9 million. Gropius fell asleep every night, as MacCarthy writes, to “the rhythm of the metropolitan railway and the distant sound of carpet beating.”
When Gropius enlisted in a Hussars regiment of the German Army, in 1904, at the age of twenty-one, he was still a citizen of the nineteenth century. A photograph from that time shows him proudly wearing his uniform, with its heavily tasselled pelisse, mostly unchanged since the Napoleonic Wars, and later favored by Jimi Hendrix. He left the aristocratic corps after a year—the minimum requirement—worn down by the expense of keeping himself and his horse looking spiffy. Restless and in search of inspiration, he travelled in Spain for a year, and met Antoni Gaudí in the midst of constructing his masterpiece, the Sagrada Família. Back in Berlin, Gropius apprenticed to the architect and designer Peter Behrens, who taught him the arcana of the trade, from the “secrets of the medieval mason guilds” to “the geometrics of Greek architecture.” According to MacCarthy, Behrens was “the founding father of industrial design and corporate identity”; he designed not just buildings but the rooms and objects nested inside them. Gropius, for his part, seemed to know in his gut how to create a visual brand by combining materials—Moorish-style ceramic tiles and desert cacti, poured concrete and frosted glass.