Walter Gropius: Visionary Founder of the Bauhaus by Fiona MacCarthy - Review

InMay 1919 the 36-year-old German architect Walter Gropius travelled from Berlin to Weimar to take up his post as founding director of the Bauhaus art school. A century later, the school's pioneering development of tubular steel furniture and flat-roofed buildings is well documented, but the character of Gropius himself remains shadowy. He glares out from the black-and-white photo on the cover of Fiona MacCarthy's new biography, every inch the didactic rationalist so viciously satirised in Tom Wolfe's 1981 essay, From Bauhaus to Our House.But MacCarthy, who briefly met Gropius in 1968 (he died in 1969, aged 86), suspected there might be another side to him. Appraising Reginald Isaacs's 1991 biography, written in collaboration with Gropius himself, she found it "reticent on his personal life". What secrets might lie hidden?Gropius's bourgeois childhood in Berlin and early training contain few surprises, but by page 50 we are already at his fateful meeting in 1910 with Alma Mahler, wife of the composer Gustav Mahler. Their affair began almost immediately, and within weeks Alma was sending Gropius passionate letters. "There is not one spot on your body that I would not like to caress with my tongue," she wrote. Suddenly he's not so much Walter the buttoned-up pedagogue.The story of Gropius and Alma's affair (and their subsequent marriage and child, Manon) is not new, but MacCarthy tells it with relish. It's hard to concentrate on Gropius's innovation of the glass curtain wall when you're eager to read more details of their trysts. Alma literally drove Gropius crazy, to the point where he stalked her to the Mahlers' mountain home, causing such a scene that Gustav had to rush off for a four-hour session with Dr Freud.MacCarthy gives diligent attention to Gropius's nine years at the Bauhaus. Too often the school is imagined as a smooth-running machine churning out identikit Bauhäusler. The reality was far more messy. Gropius had a superb ability to spot and nurture talent, gathering staff that included Marcel Breuer, Wassily Kandinsky, Josef Albers and Paul Klee. But, as MacCarthy writes with great understatement, "these were not easy people". Among the most troublesome teachers was Johannes Itten, who established his own mystic cult, ordering his students to purge themselves with laxatives and adopt a vegetarian diet.Gropius's greatest achievement emerges as a director who was able to keep the show on the road, especially during the period of hyper-inflation in the early 1920s (he sold his family's Napoleonic silver to buy land for a Bauhaus vegetable garden) and rising nationalist fervour. Together he and his staff completely rewrote the rules of art education, abandoning old distinctions between disciplines and establishing a system that remains influential today.MacCarthy adds spice to the story of the early Bauhaus years with new documentation on two of Gropius's affairs, one with the married artist Lily Hildebrandt ("Put a flower between your lovely thighs when you are hot from thoughts of me and send it to me," he wrote to her), before he married his second wife, Ise, in 1923. Details of these hot-blooded romances are a convincing part of MacCarthy's challenge to the image of Gropius as a cold-hearted technocrat.In 1925, no longer able to stomach the hostility of the Weimar authorities, Gropius moved the Bauhaus to Dessau. It was here that he designed the innovative teaching and accommodation buildings that MacCarthy rightly considers a pinnacle of his architectural achievement. In plan and form they were strikingly modern but she also points out that they were leaky, over-budget, too hot in summer and freezing in winter, just like the thousands of schools and colleges later built in their image.Gropius left the Bauhaus in 1928, tired of the endless in-fighting and ambitious to pursue his own career. MacCarthy explores the last great drama of his love life, when in 1932 his wife had an affair with the Bauhaus graphics supremo Herbert Bayer. Gropius gave permission for Ise's affair and resolved his own differences with his rival over a naked picnic.The second half of this book is taken up with Gropius's years in exile, first in Britain and then the US, after the Nazis declared his designs "un-German". MacCarthy considers accusations that Gropius sympathised with Hitler's regime (he entered some state competitions), and finds him innocent on the basis that he eventually became disapproving and emigrated when his advances were rejected.He did defend his Jewish colleagues against attack, but MacCarthy explains away some of Gropius's earlier anti-Semitic comments by calling them "automatic thinking for his time and class". She always comes from the position of admirer, and sometimes you root for her to be more critical of his failings.Gropius designed some inventive buildings in Britain but he didn't entirely take to his adopted home, describing it as an "a-cultural country" with "a general cluelessness and lack of artistic ability". He liked America more, enjoying a hero's welcome when he arrived there in 1937 as professor of architecture at Harvard.The German modernist's love of dressing as a cowboy and riding horses in Arizona is a surprise, but mostly the story of his last 30 years as a grandee in the US doesn't have the same drama as his racy life in Europe.MacCarthy's enjoyable biography is an impressive achievement, finally giving us not just Gropius the architect in black and white, but the human being in full colour.Walter Gropius: Visionary Founder of the Bauhaus by Fiona MacCarthy (Faber, £30)

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