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On "American Gropius" (Summer 2013)

The “American Gropius” issue was extraordinary in its content and format. Never before have I seen so many aspects of Walter Gropius’ life celebrated in one publication.

We at The Architects Collaborative (TAC) knew Grope as a man of great design insight and a philosopher in his own right — but also as an architect who faced the same design challenges we all struggled with. We honored his past achievements, trusted his judgment, and were more than slightly awed by his presence in the firm. He was our colleague and fellow collaborator, as well as our friend, with shared objectives for modern design.

When I joined TAC, Grope was already in his early 80s, but he made his presence felt. I recall one instance when he questioned the elevations of a hospital project we were doing in Minnesota. He wondered why the building façades were all the same and didn’t reflect different solar-orientation requirements. I gave him a rather lame answer, but since that day I have always tried to make my buildings more responsive to climate and natural conditions.

We all cherish the accomplishments of Walter Gropius and are grateful to ArchitectureBoston for presenting the man in three dimensions.

Perry King Neubauer FAIA
TAC president, 1989–93
Cambridge, Massachusetts   

The mix of essays in “American Gropius” is well chosen to demystify this central individual, who is often misinterpreted. They usefully open up an examination of the Silver Fox and what he did and did not achieve. Conspicuously absent from the list of topics — Gropius as founder, mentor, scientist, social theorist, teacher, and product designer — is a consideration of Gropius as architect. But the quotation from Sally Harkness, “Everyone wants to think of him as one of the world’s great architects; he wasn’t. He was one of the world’s great philosophers,” succinctly sets the record straight. Nevertheless, the exquisite photo essay on the Gropius-chosen objects for his house in Lincoln, and the commentary by the engineers responsible for the restoration of that building, show that the finest example of Gropius’ work as an architect in the United States is available to us all, through the stewardship of Historic New England.

Keith N. Morgan
Director of Architectural Studies, Boston University

Expanded version of a letter in print 
Congratulations on your issue on Gropius. There will probably be many letters either taking issue with claimed inaccuracies—or failures to praise enough. As a postwar student, architect, editor, educator, author, and critic, I find, along with many memories set in motion, several contradictions. Because this issue will become one more source that memorializes the phenomenon of Gropius, these need to be carefully examined now.

First, a brief scan: Jane Thompson has it right—and it could have been longer or, even better, printed as the final entry after she had a chance to do what I am trying to do now. So, let’s hear it for “continuity”: there’s a trustworthy word for Grope’s and our America. Jane truly knows, working all those wondrous years with Ben. Of all the splendid crew at The Architects Collaborative, Ben is the perfect and lasting example of what this is all about.

Near the start of “A Man of Parts,” we have the introduction of the term modernism (in the title of a book by professor Anthony Alofsin. Grope had no use for this form of labeling. He happily corrected people who insisted he taught “the International Style,” saying “The International Style is all of the Greek Temples spread throughout the world.” Alofsin’s simplification is fostered by some strange need to paste one more “-ism” onto the argot of architecture. One of Gropius’ “students,” Philip Johnson, who coined that international plug, found that it failed to protect his own artistic arrogance.

My thanks to Bob Campbell, my successor as architecture critic at The Boston Globe. His experience at Harvard has given us an understanding of Josep Lluis Sert at a time when the Graduate School of Design [GSD] was going through perfectly normal changes and modifications. His article does not hide behind those “-isms” that infect discussion of what is a socially, historically, technically, environmentally, and artistically rational process.

Henry Moss gives us a slightly different view of Grope, along with built-in blips such as “the delicacy and audacity of Gropius...did not cross the Atlantic.” We were all at the GSD after World War II when it was still coming ashore.

As students working across a war-weary world, we published a smart magazine, Task, that did not need idealistic coaching. Many of us became writers and workers in the long campaign to let others know of the benefits and options available through clearer thinking and honest ideas.

And good for you, Alex Cvijanovic. We met while I was writing up the graduate-housing project on the river. In my forthcoming “archive,” this stands out as an almost-perfect example of what Grope was about—but done by Sert’s firm. The territory you have chosen for us here should become required reading for those who find Tom Wolfe culturally erudite.

David Fixler’s pages start out with my standard disqualifier: semantics. I recommend [the philosopher] Alfred Korzybski to all who wonder why high-order abstractions such as “modernism” are blissfully impotent. Fixler is correct in challenging the word and suggesting that it can have extended meanings. But I had three courses with GSD dean Joe Hudnut and never once heard him suggest that there was something called “the Modernist Movement”—nor, over seven years in college and graduate school, did the word “postmodern” ever pop up.

When those who knew him speak of Grope as an educator, they include his faculty as an integral part of the experience. First off, “style” was a nonword—used to describe dead cultures because, as our history professor always explained in his adopted Greek: stylos meant “column.” Grope did not teach “modern architecture” or “modernism” or anything but common sense. By asking us first to solve all the “problems” of the design program, usually with useful options, the concept of “art” can naturally evolve. Although this may ask for program adjustments, it ensures that the higher-order abstractions such as looks, feelings, fears, community, environment, history, and cost can come into play when they will be more productive. He taught us what it was to be an architect, not an “-ist” of any kind.

For those parts of this essay that have validity, nothing stands out to give educators such as Colin Rowe the license to declare Gropius “inept” (or Fixler the courtesy to repeat it). I would not envy having to sit in the back of Cronin’s with any group of my classmates and argue the point. There were giants in those days because the ideas changing architecture challenged a society, not just industry, finance, art, and so on.

Grope, [Marcel] Breuer, [Alvar] Aalto, and even [Le Corbusier] had done their best, but the roots of the resistance reached deeply into the profession itself. We all knew how to design a solar house; compute heat loss and gain; frame a wooden house; calculate the members of a wood or steel truss; compute fire-exit sizes and paths; write and publish a magazine; design exhibits for both architectural students and the interested public; and, above all, how to ask questions. In 62 years of practicing architecture, I have needed all this and more, including, on occasion, the arrogance required of a student standing before something this big. What Grope did was to make common sense of its mysteries and to know when to get the hell out of the way so that ideas could have a chance to play.

Joseph L. Eldredge FAIA
West Tisbury, Massachusetts 

Michael Kubo’s excellent article, “The Cambridge School,” inspired me to recall what made TAC so special in my 20 years with the team.

Personal: TAC was my first large office experience after arriving in the post-Gropius era in 1970. My family and I lived at 60 Brattle Street, so I fell out of bed into the office and lived in the so-called “Architects’ Corner” 24 hours a day. Our sons, Chris and Jon, would sometimes drop by to draw on a nearby board, reinforcing John Sheehy’s comments about TAC being a “way of life.” TAC always encouraged its members to teach when possible, which reinforced the linkage between real-life practice and academia in which TAC was rooted.

Collaboration: There was a great deal of individual identity and competition within the collaborative process, but the final result was a TAC effort. I recall a moment in one of the design reviews when a talented young GSD student was referring to “my idea, my thinking,” when suddenly Louis McMillen interjected, saying, “Son, it is TAC’s scheme.” The rest of his presentation after this learning moment was a bit more humble.

Learning Lab: Open offices allowed people to interact and even overhear phone conversations. We could hear Howard Elkus talking with the developer on the Copley Place project about the magic of the interactive day-lit public spaces, as well as the functional net rentable spaces; Joe Hoskins engaging Bill LeMessurier about the size of the beam of the 37.5-foot cantilever off of the 3-4-5 triangular bay of our Johns Manville World Headquarters building outside Denver (while we were listening to “Rocky Mountain High” in the background); and the many nearby team meetings talking about energy and accessibility issues. We learned from the dialogue among engineers, clients, and vendors in open, interactive learning. It is quite different from today’s plugged-in, quiet offices.

The workday hardly ever ended at 5 pm, as we all worked nights at the Casablanca, Ha’Penny, Harvest, Blue Parrot, and Idler on napkins, tablecloths, and menus, returning to the studios to work until dawn. The drawings finally ended up at Charrette for Bob Beal to oversee the printing, after which we carted them off to Denver, Kuwait, or downtown Boston.

Michael Francis Gebhart FAIA
Michael F. Gebhart Architects
Cambridge, Massachusetts

I worked at The Architects Collaborative as assistant librarian from 1967–68 and saw Gropius almost every day. When I arrived at TAC’s new office building on Brattle Street, I did not really know what a special place it was. I became interested in architecture only during my senior year in college and wanted to learn more about it. What an extraordinary way to start!

The opportunity to “work” with Gropius came when TAC was assembling an art installation for one of its office buildings. I was brought along to take notes as Gropius and the architectural staff visited a private collection in the Back Bay. As we entered the very upscale residence, it was Gropius who took my coat. He was a gentleman in the true meaning of the word, a man respectful and considerate of those around him.

He was also very respectful of women. Two of TAC’s original seven partners were women, which was highly unusual for the time. I have to thank Gropius for my believing I, too, could be an architect.

Nancy Goodwin AIA
Finegold Alexander + Associates

Gordon Bruce’s article, “A Total Theory of Design,” is a well-constructed summary of his book on Eliot Noyes. His multiple years as a design professional at Noyes’ studio in New Canaan, Connecticut, followed by success in his own firm, give him credence. It is fair to say that, besides Harley Earl’s orchestration of General Motors’ first design departments, Eliot Noyes’ leadership at IBM was one of the first formally organized American corporate product-design and branding studios.

While Earl’s influence on American design and manufacturing was a combination of a self-taught and incomplete traditional engineering education, Noyes was fortunate to be educated by masters such as Gropius and Marcel Breuer, and was influenced by Harvard’s New Bauhaus training. Like Earl, what Noyes did better than others was translate his (often esoteric) academic experience into tangible and successful products that the user can actively engage with.

My enjoyment of Bruce’s article leads to this question: How can historical design-management education from the likes of Noyes and Earl be reintroduced to contem-porary students of design? From my daily interaction with young designers, it appears their knowledge of design history is limited. Few have any frame of reference further back than Apple and Jonathan Ive/Steve Jobs.

Communicating “how it has been done successfully before” to young professionals is often a grizzly and boring task. But the design- and business-management knowledge in this area is potentially most powerful in the hands of up-and-coming innovators.

We aficionados tend to spend too much time reminiscing on the past. While I am not a formal educator, we need new ways, contemporary and meaningful, to communicate this information to those outside the “history buff” circuit. Any takers?

Todd Ellis

Your “American Gropius” issue not only showed Gropius as an important teacher, as an architect, and as a thinker, but above all as a real person who was also a humanist. The issue should be required reading for all aspiring architects and designers.

Design Research (DR), the retail store founded by Ben Thompson [of TAC], was mentioned. But perhaps it should have gone a step further to give credit to DR’s leadership in introducing good design in ordinary products to the whole country — yet another achievement inspired by Walter Gropius.

Arnold Friedmann
University of Massachusetts/Amherst
Amherst, Massachusetts

Having spent 25 happy years at The Architects Collaborative, I found all of the “American Gropius” articles to be credible, thoughtful, and profound. The issue reaffirms for me that Walter Gropius wanted to be a citizen of a totally inclusive great society. In his vision, architecture and technology were never the end point: they were the means for a better life for everyone. Did he succeed in his lifetime, and how did it all work out? Perhaps Gropius the philosopher gives us a clue in the following letter he sent to students in 1964:

“For whatever profession, your inner devotion to the tasks you have set yourself must be so deep that you can never be deflected from your aim. However often the thread may be torn out of your hands, you must develop enough patience to wind it up again and again. Act as if you were going to live forever and cast your plans way ahead. By this I mean that you must feel responsible without time limitation, and the consideration whether you may not be around to see the results should never enter your thoughts. If your contribution has been vital, there will always be somebody to pick up where you left off, and that will be your claim to immortality.”

John P. Sheehy FAIA
Architecture International
San Francisco

Online exclusive
My wife and I had the good fortune to live at 35 Moon Hill Road in Lexington from 1978-–96. Sally Harkness, who designed the house, lived across the street.

We had a neighborhood meeting every year to sort out common business. I knew that we were in the right place the first year when, after 10 minutes of discussion about heating the just-rebuilt pool, someone said, “Page has worked really hard on managing the rebuilding of the pool, and she would like to see the pool heated.” Everyone there immediately agreed to heat the pool.

Somehow the neighborhood just seemed to attract cooperative people. And it wasn’t just cooperation; there was understanding and acceptance. When Jack and Nona Dreyer bought the house next to us, Jack had an ostentatious yellow Cadillac convertible— not Moon Hill style. At least five neighbors asked me if my new neighbor was “all right in this neighborhood.” I told them that Jack had been an outside salesman in the Detroit area, so he had to have a big flashy American car. They all understood the need to make a living and thanked me for clueing them in.

Jim Cravens

Correction: A photograph on page 36 of the “American Gropius” issue carried an inaccurate caption. It should have read “Hartford (Connecticut) Jewish Community Center, corner of the athletic wing.”