A Bauhaus Life: Too International for America?

Living the Bauhaus Life

Gropius House, 1938, Historic New England House Tour in Lincoln, Massachusetts
Gropius House, 1938, Historic New England House Tour in Lincoln, Massachusetts. Photo by Paul Marotta/Getty Images Entertainment Collection/Getty Images (cropped)

I thought I didn't like Bauhaus as residential architecture. In my mind, International Modernism like the United Nations building was acceptable for corporate skyscrapers and public buildings by the likes of Le Corbusier. And then I visited the modest home Walter Gropius built for himself in Lincoln, Massachusetts, near Boston.

The setting was remote, although not that far from the Harvard Graduate School of Design where the German-born Gropius taught.

The day was cold and rainy when I went. The boxy, colorless structure seemed to melt into the dark, wet landscape. And yet even at dusk, the Gropius House conveyed a sense of light and space. You could feel his presence.

Like Gropius, the Hungarian designer Marcel Breuer also escaped Nazi Germany to teach at Harvard University. Breuer, too, built a Bauhaus residence for himself in Lincoln, bringing a new modern architecture to Massachusetts and influencing the entire East Coast. Noted architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable asserts that these two houses changed the course of architecture in America. Others disagree.

About East Coast Bauhaus:

While at Cambridge, Mr. Breuer designed a number of small houses that attempted to combine his European modernist background with American materials....The Breuer houses did not embrace their sites, as Frank Lloyd Wright's "organic" structures did, although they were carefully related to views and to other surroundings. A house should "not seem overdesigned or cluttered with funny details," he once told an interviewer, and then went on to talk of the importance, to him, of "the transparency of architecture, the flow of space through a structure and between its walls."—Paul Goldberger, 1981
When Walter Gropius left the Bauhaus in the late 1930's in response to Dean Joseph Hudnut's invitation to chair the Architecture Department of the Harvard Graduate School of Design, he brought the International Style with him. Marcel Breuer followed, and the houses that the two men built for themselves in Lincoln, Massachusetts, in 1937 and 1938, had an extraordinary impact. Although the style already existed on the West Coast in the work of such emigrés as Neutra and Schindler, it was the conversion of the eastern establishment to the new architecture that determined the course of serious building in this country from then on.—Ada Louise Huxtable, 1980
One thing, however, is certain: the general public has repudiated the International style in favor of something homier and more livable.—John Milnes Baker, AIA, 1994

Architecture for the One Percent?

Why hasn't Modernism been embraced by the general public? Is this type of residential architecture elitist, built for the 1% of the population with wealth and lofty social stature? Are architects / builders / developers to blame for not selling the style to the rest of us, the 99%? We all have preconceived notions of what a "home" should look like. I know my attitude changed after visiting the very comfortable Gropius House.

Walter Gropius, one of the most influential architects of the 20th century, was nearly two decades older than Breuer, yet they both lived in an exciting time of architectural history—the ages of skyscrapers, urbanism, modernism, and Nazi Germany. To look back on an architect's life is to study history and be influenced by it. Looking back, I believe we could all enjoy the Bauhaus Life.

See photos of the Walter Gropius House >>

Sources: Quotations from Marcel Breuer, 79, Dies; Architect and Designer by Paul Goldberger, The New York Times, July 2, 1981 [accessed November 17, 2014]; "Looking Back in Boston" (September 28, 1980), Architecture, Anyone? by Ada Louise Huxtable, University of California Press, 1986, pp. 24-25; American House Styles: A Concise Guide by John Milnes Baker, AIA, Norton, 1994, p. 147