Biography of Walter Gropius

Father of Bauhaus (1883-1969)

Black and white photo of sternfaced white man, Bauhaus Architect Walter Gropius, c. 1955
Bauhaus Architect Walter Gropius, c. 1955. Photo by Imagno/Getty Images/Hulton Archive Collection/Getty Images (cropped)

German architect Walter Gropius (born May 18, 1883 in Berlin) helped launch modern architecture in the 20th century when he was asked by the German government to run a new school, the Bauhaus in Weimar in 1919. As an art educator, Gropius soon defined the Bauhaus school of design with his 1923 Idee und Aufbau des staatlichen Bauhauses Weimar ("Idea and Structure of the Weimar State Bauhaus"), which continues to influence architecture and the applied arts.

The vision of the Bauhaus school has permeated world architecture—"wildly influential" writes Charly Wilder for The New York Times. She says "it’s difficult today to find some corner of design, architecture or the arts that doesn’t bear its traces. The tubular chair, the glass-and-steel office tower, the clean uniformity of contemporary graphic design—so much of what we associate with the word 'modernism'—has roots in a small German art school that existed for only 14 years."

Bauhaus Roots, Deutsche Werkbund:

Walter Adolph Gropius was educated at the Technical Universities in Münich and Berlin. Early on, Gropius experimented with the combination of technology and art, building walls with glass blocks, and creating interiors without visible supports. His architectural reputation was first established when, working with Adolph Meyer, he designed the Fagus Works in Alfred an der Leine, Germany (1910-1911) and a model factory and office building for the first Werkbund Exhibition in Cologne (1914).

The Deutsche Werkbund or German Work Federation was a state-sponsored organization of industrialists, artists, and craftsmen. Established in 1907, the Werkbund was the German fusion of the English Arts & Crafts Movement with American industrialism, with the intent of making Germany competitive in an increasingly industrialized world.

After World War I (1914-1918), the Werkbund ideals were subsumed into Bauhaus ideals.

The word bauhaus is German, basically meaning to build (bauen) a house (haus). Staatliches Bauhaus, as the movement is sometimes called. brings to light that it was in the interest of the "state" or government of Germany to combine all aspects of architecture into a Gesamtkunstwerk, or complete work of art. For Germans, this was not a new idea—Bavarian stucco masters of the Wessobrunner School in the 17th and 18th centuries also approached building as a total work of art.

Bauhaus According to Gropius:

Walter Gropius believed that all design should be functional as well as aesthetically pleasing. His Bauhaus school pioneered a functional, severely simple architectural style, featuring the elimination of surface decoration and extensive use of glass. Perhaps more importantly, Bauhaus was an integration of the arts—that architecture should be studied along with other arts (e.g., painting) and crafts (e.g., furniture making). His "artist's statement" was set forth in the Manifesto of April 1919:

"Let us strive for, conceive and create the new building of the future that will unite every discipline, architecture and sculpture and painting, and which will one day rise heavenwards from the million hands of craftsmen as a clear symbol of a new belief to come."

The Bauhaus School attracted many artists, including painters Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky, graphic artist Käthe Kollwitz, and expressionist art groups such as Die Brücke and Der Blaue Reiter. Marcel Breuer studied furniture making with Gropius, and then led the carpentry workshop at the Bauhaus School in Dessau, Germany.  By 1927 Gropius had brought in Swiss architect Hannes Meyer to lead the architecture department.

Funded by the German State, the Bauhaus School was always subject to political posturing. By 1925 the institution found more space and stability by relocating from Weimar to Dessau, the site of the iconic glass Bauhaus Building Gropius designed. By 1928, having directed the school since 1919, Gropius handed in his resignation. British architect and historian Kenneth Frampton suggests this reason: "The relative maturity of the institution, the unremitting attacks on himself and the growth of his practice all convinced him that it was time for a change." When Gropius resigned from the Bauhaus School in 1928, Hannes Meyer was appointed director.

A few years later, architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe became the director until the school's closing in 1933—and the rise of Adolf Hitler.

Walter Gropius opposed the Nazi regime and left Germany secretly in 1934. After several years in England, the German educator began teaching architecture at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. As a Harvard professor, Gropius introduced Bauhaus concepts and design principles—teamwork, craftsmanship, standardization, and prefabrication—to a generation of American architects. In 1938, Gropius designed his own house, now open to the public, in nearby Lincoln, Massachusetts.

Between 1938 to 1941, Gropius worked on several houses with Marcel Breuer, who had also immigrated to the United states. They formed the Architects Collaborative in 1945. Among their commissions were the Harvard Graduate Center,(1946), the U.S. Embassy in Athens, and the University of Baghdad. One of Gropius's later projects, in collaboration with Pietro Belluschi, was the 1963 Pam Am Building (now the Metropolitan Life Building) in New York City, designed in an architectural style dubbed "International" by American architect Philip Johnson (1906-2005).

 Gropius died in Boston, Massachusetts on July 5, 1969. He is buried in Brandenburg, Germany.

Learn More:

Sources: Kenneth Frampton, Modern Architecture (3rd ed., 1992), p. 128; On the Bauhaus Trail in Germany, by Charly Wilderaug, The New York Times, August 10, 2016 [accessed March 25, 2017]