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Focus Group: Walter Gropius and his Cambridge circle

David Fixler: One of the big underlying questions that’s always been there about Gropius is: Did he ever really design anything? Or was he really an educator, a thinker, a guider, a teacher? Somebody who said, “Okay, this is what we should do. I’m not going to do it, you’re going to do it. But I’m going to make sure it comes out this way – "

Henry Moss: You think Adolf Meyer designed all the buildings in Germany?

DF: I don’t know. I know less about his work in Germany. But in general -- I mean, meeting Herbert Beckhard, [Marcel] Breuer’s partner, he said even for his own house, Gropius’ own house, that Breuer did the drawings for that. Some of this may be apocryphal. One has to be careful to keep that in perspective. But even at TAC [The Architects Collaborative], the public attribution of TAC’s work is all about Gropius. It’s very interesting – I’m starting to do some reading on the Athens Chancery [at the US Embassy], “designed by Walter Gropius.” Well, it wasn’t. There’s always a partner-in-charge besides Gropius. He put his name there, but it was mostly about making sure that things got done a certain way.

Relative to Henry’s point, though, there are a number of buildings in Europe that are iconic and significant to the history of 20th-century architecture that he was involved with [the Bauhaus, Werkbund Building, Fagus Factory]. And once you get into the postwar period and into this work, this is good and solid corporate work, but it has lost that edge. It is no longer work that is of any sort of highest rank that is moving the profession of architecture and the idea of architecture forward.

Maybe it was simply what one had to do to build a large practice and to do work on that scale. You can argue that point. On the one hand, he got exactly what he wanted; this is what he always dreamed of. This is a big, collaborative practice, and he built it, and it was incredibly successful. One had the impression, being there in the 1970s, that it was a devil’s bargain because by that time they were entirely beholden to Middle Eastern oil interests. And eventually they paid the price by having to go bankrupt because these people didn’t pay their bills.

Michael Kubo: The end began for TAC in 1983, when the boom in crude oil prices collapsed. It was also a crucial year politically in the two countries where TAC was working most heavily in the Middle East: it was the turning point in the Iran-Iraq war, when Iraq was on the defensive and their oil pipelines were shut off, and in Kuwait, where there was a massive black-market stock exchange that collapsed and took the construction industry with it. They were on the decline from then until 1995 when they finally went bankrupt.

Renée Loth: Why were they beholden to Middle East oil interests? Were they clients?

DF: Because in the 1970s that’s where the work was. When I got out of undergraduate school in 1975, I had a BA in art history. I wanted to work for an architect. Forty-five percent of the architects in this town were unemployed at that time. I went to work in the GSD library, then finally got a job at TAC. But the fact is, 80 percent of their work was in the Middle East. That’s where the money was. They couldn’t survive without that.

RL: Were they unique in that role?

DF: No, not at all.

MK: Their involvement in the Middle East did begin earlier than almost all other US offices, with the University of Baghdad commission after 1957. That involvement put them into more than 25 years of work in the region, first in Iraq and later in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, and various other places in the Gulf. The peak of that work—as with many other US firms that were building there—was between 1973 and 1983, during the boom in crude oil prices and the corresponding energy crisis here. I would argue that whatever TAC was doing, and wherever they were doing it, was largely representative of the state of the field at that moment. They were by no means alone—if you wanted to be a large, robust architecture practice in those decades, that’s where the work and the money were.

Julie Michaels: You mentioned earlier that Gropius came out of Weimar Germany and this whole idea of social democracy and building factories and building houses for workers. Was there an element of socialism? I mean, there is a great irony that socialism ended up building buildings for oil companies. But was collaboration something out of a political ideology? Is that something he brought to the US, that idea of community?

MK: There were definitely communal ideals reflected in those attitudes toward collective methods of practice, but again it wasn’t unique to Gropius — he reflects a longer tradition in architecture. The Bauhaus, for example, came out of the immediate context of the Werkbund in Germany before World War I. The social ideals attached to collaborative artistic practice can be traced from there back to the Arts and Crafts movement in England in the 19th century. All of these movements invoked the medieval guild, for example, as an ideal of collaboration and artistic community.

JM: That’s what he did with the Bauhaus.

MK: Socialism was very deeply embedded in all of those movements.

JM: It’s overlooked, maybe.

HM: It’s too hard to sell in a totally capitalist society.

JM: So you keep the decoration and get rid of the philosophy.

MK: But there was very much a climate of thinking about and trying to achieve a certain ideal of a unified society, in artistic production as much as at the political level. Art and life were seen to be unified in a certain way, and it was in that context that a lot of younger architects were interested in collaboration, teamwork, as against the idea of the singular, romantic genius, which is still propagated today.

DF: In an interview that I had with Sally Harkness about 10 years ago, she was quite articulate in saying, “We were all a bunch of young socialists. We didn't talk about it, but that’s what we were.” Whether the rest of them would say that, I don’t know.

Robert Campbell: I’ve talked to Fletch and Chip, and they say the same thing. And a couple of them had passed on the draft because of being opposed to war.

MK: You see that communal social model in the structure of the partners at TAC but also in the physical layout of its original offices, which were in a sort of village of little houses around Harvard Square before they built their own headquarters on Brattle Street. It mirrors the structure of Six Moon Hill, the residential community they built for themselves, in the way in which each house reflected its individual designer, but all came together as part of a community. They lived together, they worked together. There’s a relationship between the community and the individual that’s calibrated quite nicely. There’s a way you can frame that relationship among the partners that is really interesting.

JM: So is that something that TAC architects romantically intuited from Gropius?

MK: My sense is that it was rather a set of younger architects interested in a lot of these things, and at the point where Gropius intersected with that circle, his work and his thinking were very much sympathetic. They were on the same page. They tried to absorb Gropius rather than getting it from him.

JM: They had the same idea. They were best friends, they said, ‘let’s start a practice together,’ and there was Gropius.

HM: But I would have thought that something vaguer, and in a sense maybe even more powerful, was happening. Because there’s no question in my mind that when he was in Germany, political specifics of the ideology set aside, he was trying to put together an image for a new society, which would be clearly distinct from everything that had been there before. So, whether that’s social democracy or socialism, in those days my guess is that he probably wasn’t terribly fluent talking about those things, either. But that break, he was symbolizing architecturally, in a way for which there was no counterpart here. My guess is that they were very moved by that and wanted to distinguish themselves from their parents’ pasts.

DF: And mind you, in America the popular perception of the Modern Movement was absolutely that it was a socialist movement. And that was one of the great sources of resistance to it. Although it’s interesting that if you look at the architects in the highest realm -- Alvar Alto, Mies van der Rohe, Gropius -- all of them except Oscar Niemeyer were remarkably politically ambiguous. They really were very aloof and removed from politics. There was a lot swarming around them, but they themselves did not get involved, with the notable exception of Niemeyer, who was a devout Communist. Even LeCorbusier did not get involved.

JM: But the thing is, if you came from Europe at that time, you probably learned very quickly not to identify your politics. It was a survival thing.

MK: I think it’s important to connect the realities of architectural practice and what it means to be an architect who wants to practice — to be able to do work and support an office — with the political question. That tension plays itself out through all of these figures in Europe as well as in the US. In the case of Gropius, so much of his writing is about the broader sociological issues that surround architectural practice. In a way, he’s more dedicated to the question of what social problems architecture deals with, and of how you contribute to a broader society. He writes much more on that than on any specific prescriptions for how architecture should be made or what it should look like.

And then the question is, how does that match up with the opportunities for practice in a given period? Take a project like the Pan Am building, which became contentious fairly quickly, with critics calling out Gropius and saying, “You professors are the most committed to a set of social ideals, yet you willingly allow yourself to participate in a developer project that seems to produce negative effects.” Yet Gropius felt that taking on a project of that scale, on that site, was precisely the way in which an architect could engage with those social questions.

RL: That was exactly going to be my question. Did the buildings that Gropius and his circle produce express this interest in social problems through their architecture?

DF: The early ones.

RL: And how? That interests me. How does a physical structure express a political or a social ideal?

MK: On the simplest level, through the program of the building.

HM: Inexpensive construction, too. Very important.

DF: Flexible space, like in schools, the idea that you can combine classrooms. That teachers have control of their environments in a way that they perhaps did not have before. And welcomed feedback from the students in a way that perhaps had not been fostered before, that kind of thing.

HM: Do you remember when we were talking to the former TAC partners, I was transported through their language back two or three decades. They kept talking about modular construction, for example, as something really to be sought after. And that’s related, I think, to Robert’s observation about an affordable civic architecture.

RC: That is very important that they wanted to take advantage of the Industrial Revolution. They wanted to be contemporary in that way.

DF: And one of the real technical things that Gropius did was engage in experimenting with modular systems of construction. He was very interested.

But what goes into the program, a program for one school and another school, for example, may be very different. And depending upon how you structure the program, where the emphasis is, how big the classrooms are, how much support space, how they relate to one another, completely changes the character of what the building will be like.

MK: You can track the project types that TAC was building most heavily in each period from 1945 onwards, and how they built the practice through that work. Initially, they built a lot of schools, for example. The shift in their work largely mirrors the growth of the Baby Boom: first elementary schools, then high schools, then colleges, then offices and institutional buildings. That’s where the commissions were through the years. So the social and political questions are often less in the type of commission, over which architects have less control, than in how each project is dealt with. At the point where you’re building very many schools, for example, how you articulate the program — what is your attitude toward the educational functions, how they are organized? — is the domain in which architects can take a position.

Participant Bios:

David Fixler FAIA is a historic preservation specialist at EYP in Boston. A recognized expert on mid-century modern buildings, he is co-founder and president of the New England chapter of DOCOMOMO (Documentation and Conservation of buildings, sites and neighborhoods of the Modern Movement).

Henry Moss AIA is a principal at Bruner/Cott & Associates, whose architectural practice includes adaptive reuse of historic industrial buildings and rehabilitation of mid-century modern architecture.

Michael Kubo is co-director of pinkcomma gallery in Boston. A PhD candidate in History, Theory, and Criticism of Architecture at MIT, his work focuses on The Architects Collaborative and the environment in which corporate architectural practice took shape after World War II

Renée Loth is editor of ArchitectureBoston

Julie Michaels is a member of the ArchitectureBoston editorial board and served as visiting editor on this issue.

Robert Campbell FAIA, architect and writer, is the Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic for The Boston Globe.