1. He was called the 'Silver Prince'
No wonder that some people thought he was a prince: Walter Gropius was elegant and sophisticated, always smartly dressed and well-groomed – and he cut a fine figure on a horse as well (as a hussar in the First World War). The ‘Silver Prince’, as artist Paul Klee called him. If not exactly aristocratic, Gropius’ (born 1883) background was definitely upper middle class. His father was the chief government architect (Geheimer Baurat) Walter Gropius …
… and his great-uncle was the same Martin Gropius who was a pupil of Karl Friedrich Schinkel and the architect of the Royal Museum of Arts and Crafts in Berlin, now known as the Martin Gropius Bau.
2. He did not have a degree
The founder of the most important school of architecture and design never completed his studies. He dropped out after five years and in 1907 joined the most highly regarded firm of architects at the time, headed by Peter Behrens – one of the first industrial designers, the inventor of corporate design (he had just done a logo for AEG) and star architect (for example, in the 1930s he built Alexanderplatz in Berlin). Who needs a degree if you’ve got a teacher like that?
Meeting in the Deutsche Werkbund exhibition at the "Salon des Artistes Décorateurs" in Paris: Professor Gropius and his wife with the French architect Corbusier (undated (1931)) by unknownBauhaus Dessau Foundation
Behrens attracted the biggest talents. In his firm Gropius met the young Le Corbusier (a bit older here, on the right) and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe – and forged an old boys’ network for life.
3. He couldn’t draw
Gropius was completely hopeless at one of the most important skills of an architect. In a letter to his mother written in 1907 he wrote, “I am unable to draw a straight line (…) I get a cramp in my hand straight away, keep snapping off the point of my pencil and have to rest after five minutes.” This deficit meant that all his life Gropius joined up with partners and got other people to do the drawing for him (like Carl Fieger). Teamwork –which he pronounced “teamwerk” – was of existential importance for him.
4. He invented the Bauhaus
Even as a soldier in the First World War, Walter Gropius was already working on his idea for a school where he wanted to unite art and handcraft. He was inspired by the Bauhütten, the guild masons’ lodges of the mediaeval Gothic era, the workshop associations in which all the craftsmen involved in the building of a church organised themselves and while they were at it trained up the next generation. Gropius simply turned the Hütte, the lodge or hut, into a house – et voilá the Bauhaus! As simple as that, a stroke of genius!
In 1926 together with his students he built the house to match – the Bauhaus building in Dessau …
… had a lot of space for creativity.
5. He inspired people
Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, Lyonel Feininger – Walter Gropius got the great painters of his time excited about his Bauhaus and even in difficult times created for them a feel-good atmosphere that today’s New Work bosses have to work hard for. It is also to Gropius’ credit that he promoted and fostered new talents and made them great, people like …
Marcel Breuer with his Harem (from l. to r.: Marcel Breuer, Martha Erps, Katt Both, Ruth Hollos) (1926) by Erich Consemüller (Photo)Bauhaus Dessau Foundation
... tubular steel furniture inventor Marcel Breuer ...
Untitled (Bauhauslers on the shore of the Elbe, including: Hinnerk Scheper, K. Wiegand, Ernst Neufert, Marcel Breuer, Herbert Bayer, Xanti Schawinsky, László Moholy-Nagy) (1921-05-21) by Irene Angela Bayer (née Hecht)Bauhaus Dessau Foundation
... or font inventor Herbert Bayer (second from left). He even discovered multi-media genius László Moholy-Nagy (the man with the glasses) for the Bauhaus.
6. He encouraged creativity over good grades
No exam stress and no marks, instead plenty of creative space and a fairly good relationship between teachers and students – the educational approach of the Bauhaus was completely unusual for its time and grew out of Gropius’ “conviction that the teacher must stand back from imposing his own vocabulary of form on his students and must instead let them find their own way themselves, even if that means taking a circuitous route”.
7. He was the godfather of the prefab
Well, he meant well... Gropius wanted to tackle the housing shortage in the big cities with big estates with perfectly laid-out houses giving residents plenty of light and air (both in very short supply in Berlin’s back yards!). To keep costs down, his idea was for the building elements to be prefabricated. And that was the seed from which very soon those bleak high-rise estates grew that were to breed quite different social problems of their own.
8. He was popular with women
When Gropius founded the Bauhaus in 1919 he had a woman at his side who today’s tabloids would really go to town on – Alma Mahler. The Austrian with the bright blue eyes collected big names for her bed just as Gropius did for his Bauhaus: Gustav Klimt, Gustav Mahler, Oskar Kokoschka, Franz Werfel, they all fell at her feet. Including Walter Gropius, who eventually found his wife’s escapades too much to put up with. The marriage ended in divorce after five years.
Isokon, Ise and Walter Gropius on the terrace, July 1935 (1935)Original Source: Pritchard Papers / University of East Anglia
Then Walter Gropius took his next wife by storm – he enticed her just a day before her wedding. Ise Gropius became more than just a wife – she was his secretary, editor, co-author and ghost writer: in short, she was “Mrs. Bauhaus” as he lovingly called her.
9. He frustrated the New Yorkers
His Pan Am Building, now called the Met Life Building, built by Gropius in the early 1960s, was not a hit with the New Yorkers. They were not particularly fond of this skyscraper in the middle of Park Avenue right behind Grand Central Station. In a poll in 1987 they even voted it the building they would most like to tear down. It blocks the view, was their criticism, and it disrupts traffic.
10. He liked to party
How would Gropius have celebrated the centenary of the Bauhaus? With a really big, loud party! Parties were already part of the programme in his 1919 manifesto. The Bauhaus parties (the most exquisite themed parties!) were legendary. Another firm fixture in the Bauhaus event calendar was Gropius’ birthday on 18 May, traditionally celebrated with a lantern procession and a big booze-up.
Grand Central Skyscraper (1959-02) by Andreas FeiningerLIFE Photo Collection
By the way, the parties carried on right up to the end. Before Walter Gropius died in Boston in 1969 at the age of 86 he made a wish for – instead of a mournful funeral – a joyful party!
Text / Concept / Realisation: Cornelia Jeske
Editing: Astrid Alexander, Cornelia Jeske
Translation: Catherine Hales, Stephan Schmidt
© Stiftung Bauhaus Dessau