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Walter Gropius: Biography, Buildings & Works

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

In this lesson, learn about German architect and teacher Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus, an important art and craft school in Germany. His famous buildings defined the idea of modern architecture and helped establish a new sense of design for the 20th Century world.

Early Years

Walter Gropius (1883-1969) grew up in Germany. His father and an uncle were architects, and perhaps their interest rubbed off on young Walter. He studied at technical universities in Berlin and Munich, and then joined the office of Peter Behrens in Berlin. At the time, Behrens was one of the most well-known architects and industrial designers (someone who designs objects to be manufactured through mass production) in Europe.

In 1911, Gropius worked with another architect, Adolf Meyer, to design the Fagus-Werk Factory for a shoe company in Germany. It was his first notable building, made of steel and glass with large banks of windows to let light in from the exterior to interior spaces. Gropius kept it simple and did not add any decoration to surfaces, unlike many building styles of the time. With its clean, spare surfaces and use of industrial materials, The Fagus-Werk Factory is often considered the first 'modern' building.

Fagus-Werk Factory, built in 1911
Fagus-Werk Factory

Gropius' career was interrupted by WW I. He fought on the Western Front and was seriously wounded. He recovered, but the experience left a profound impact. When the war ended, he joined with other artists in advocating for a new type of design that held no reference to the past.

Founding of the Bauhaus

In 1919, Gropius became the director of the arts and crafts schools in Weimar, Germany. He immediately renamed them the Bauhaus, a German word meaning, literally, 'house of building.' An effective promotor and marketer of his ideas, Gropius published his views in a manifesto, or a written declaration of ideas, beliefs and goals. In short, he believed in integrating all art forms--design, fine art, sculpture, and architecture--with manufactured products to create a new sense of identity for the modern world.

Portrait, Walter Gropius, 1919
Portrait, Walter Gropius

Here, in summary, are the principals Gropius identified for the Bauhaus: less is more (avoid unnecessary ornaments or reminders of the past); merge fine arts and craftsmanship; use modern materials such as steel, cement, and glass; and the idea that form follows function--a building's design should be dictated by its purpose and not any decorative style. Gropius believed in collaboration and attracted prominent artists and architects to the Bauhaus, including abstract painter and art theorist Wassaily Kandinsky and architect Laszlo Moholy-Nagy.

When the Nazis came to power in Weimar in 1925, Gropius moved the school to the industrial city of Dessau, Germany. There, he designed the Bauhaus School building, built between 1925 and 1926. It is one of his most famous structures.

Bauhaus School Building, Dessau
Bauhaus, Dessau

Conveying the idea that form follows function, each section of the school (workshop, dormitories, etc.) is designed to reflect its use. Any sense of classical proportion is gone, and the the building is asymmetrical, meaning all sides are not even. One entire exterior wall of the workshop is a glass curtain that seems to hang suspended in front of the structure that supports it, giving the impression of weightlessness. You can see that wall in the image above and below, to the right.

Another view of Bauhaus in Dessau, showing asymmetry
View of Bauhaus in Dessau

In 1928, Gropius tired of the pressures of managing the Bauhaus and turned leadership of the school over to another architect, although he stayed on as a member of the staff. But in 1933, Hitler came to power and the Bauhaus was forced to close.

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