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Beyond the glass curtain

An examination of Walter Gropius — his life and legacy — is a study of modern architecture, of course. But it is also a meditation on fame.

From the Bauhaus in Dessau, Germany, to The Architects Collaborative in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Gropius aimed for anonymity, elevating the concept of teamwork almost to the level of ideology. It was a communal approach more familiar to the cultures of Asia than to Europe or America. Gropius believed in “the common citizenship of all forms of creative work and their logical interdependence upon one another.” This, he said, would prove more enduring than any individual achievement.

And yet Gropius is the one remembered as the magnetic “Silver Fox” — dominating the textbooks, celebrated with an annual lecture at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design — while many of his colleagues are lost to history or tacked on as acolytes. Fame is a fickle mistress, but she is also given to a smirking irony.

Nearly 44 years after his death, Gropius remains an enigma, provoking fierce debate among scholars and students alike. Was he an architect with a singular vision, or did he lean on others? His design concepts were powerful — the glass curtainwall, the spiral staircase — but could he even draw? Where is his proper place in the pantheon of great architects? As a teacher? A theorist? A marketer? The five essays that introduce this magazine’s theme suggest he was all these, and more.

When Gropius joined the faculty at Harvard in 1937, his best pure architecture may have been behind him. The Architects Collaborative he later helped found was at one point the largest design practice in America, and hundreds of his students went on to teach the stark, honest principles of Modernism in schools around the world. Yet by the time Gropius died, in 1969, Ada Louise Huxtable wrote in a tribute that the utopian ideals of Modernism had “moved into absurdity, tragedy, chaos and decay.”

The intellectual firepower Gropius brought to bear may be what attracted his followers the most. His ideas were prescient. Today, the benefit of teamwork and collaboration is something every business-degree student learns. The seamless way he moved from the Arts and Crafts movement to machine-age tools and materials eluded many at the time. (“Art and technology — the new unity,” he said.) And the efficient, economic house he built in Lincoln, Massachusetts, employed sustainable techniques decades before “sustainability” became a buzzword.

Just look at his thoroughly contemporary prescription for a family house, written in 1931: “It should be of light construction, full of bright daylight and sunshine, alterable, time-saving, economical and useful in the last degree to its occupants….” Gropius, like many in Europe, experienced terrible deprivation in the ruins of World War I. He absorbed the lesson of postscarcity economics and turned it into a compelling style.

Today the Gropius House in Lincoln is Historic New England’s most popular property. Visitors come to feel his presence — and place their own interpretations on his life.
The truth is, you can’t control your own legacy. The culture and the times will impose their own analyses. You can only hope that your life and deeds match your stated ideals.

On the funeral program from July 1969 is this quote from Walter Gropius: “It would be beautiful if all my friends of the present and of the past would get together in a little while for a fiesta à la Bauhaus — drinking, laughing, loving. Then I shall surely join in….”

In that spirit, we offer this issue of ArchitectureBoston as a kind of belated party favor.  

Special thanks to Julie Michaels, a member of the ArchitectureBoston editorial board, for stepping in as visiting editor on this issue. And welcome to Fiona Luis, longtime arts and features editor of The Boston Globe, who joined the magazine as deputy editor in April.