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The Pied Piper of Modernism

The man, the myths, the movement.

Modernism is an infinitely complex phenomenon, one that has been under active dissection for decades and that continues to be an area of energetic discovery and debate. There are Apollonians, Dionysians, true believers, and skeptics, but if one craves a single orthodox symbol of the arc of the Modern Movement from 1911 to 1969, it may very well lie in the person of Walter Gropius.

Gropius arrived in America in 1937 from an increasingly troubled Europe to assume the chairman-ship of the architecture department at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. This event had many consequences in shaping the trajectory of modern architecture in this country, but two are particularly of note. The first is that Modernism suddenly acquired an academic legitimacy that it had not previously enjoyed by the fact that the movement’s best-known educator — a founder of the Bauhaus — had assumed a critical position at the head of the architecture school in what is arguably America’s leading academic institution.

The coming of Gropius to America was chronicled by the Swiss architectural historian Sigfried Giedion, his longtime friend and contemporary at Harvard and the author of the first complete draft of the history of Modernism, Space, Time & Architecture. Giedion’s chronicle simultaneously simplifies and augments the outsize influence that Gropius was to have on the course of American architecture.

And therein lies the second consequence. Conspicuously absent in Giedion’s telling is GSD dean Joseph Hudnut’s pioneering work in establishing a Modernist pedagogy at Harvard, and equally conspicuously noted is the notion that when Gropius completed his house in Lincoln, Massachusetts, people would come to see his modern house, of which “not a single example could be found within a radius of upwards of a hundred miles.” Both of these statements downplayed the degree to which Modernism had already gained a foothold in the culture of New England — modern houses had existed in Greater Boston since 1932, and there were in fact examples already in his new hometown —  and helped to establish the myth that Gropius bore almost singular responsibility for forever changing the course of both architecture and architectural education in America.

Modernism became the architectural symbol of liberal western democracy following World War II, a victory ratified in its choice for the United Nations headquarters in New York City (1947–52). It quickly supplanted most of what was left of the Beaux- Arts system in American education and was embraced by the building industry for its promised potential for speed and efficiency in construction. A key element of this success is the association of Modernism with science and technological progress — often in the form of mass production — all developed to foster social justice and uplift the human condition. Gropius embodied these ideals as a Modernist in a way that was most understandable to the greatest number of people, and, in this way (with Giedion’s assistance), he became its Pied Piper.

By contrast, the other great European transplant architect and educator, Mies van der Rohe, was a purist whose relentless pursuit of universal space and the perfect detail was too rarified a quest to engender mass appeal, while Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Alvar Aalto were greater artists — and perhaps even more in touch as designers with real human need — but they never developed Gropius’ method as an educator, which proclaimed a system of design for the masses, ready to tackle the problems confronting the postwar world on a large scale.

The Cambridge academic and research communities, which drew Gropius here in the first place, believed strongly in the potential of Modernism to physically and intellectually reshape America and the world into the utopia that had always been held out as the ultimate goal of the Total Design project promoted by the Bauhaus. Thus Gropius, by temperament, academic position, and geographic location, was perfectly positioned to take advantage of the excitement engendered by the promise of Modernism in the immediate postwar era and to consolidate his position as America’s premier architectural educator.

Concurrently, Gropius was approached by some former students and younger colleagues and formed The Architects Collaborative (TAC), which embraced Gropius’ ideals of community and team-based design. Although the work of TAC is evaluated elsewhere in this issue, a brief digression on one project — the Harvard Graduate Center (1948) — illustrates both Gropius’ design philosophy and its shortcomings.

In many ways the Graduate Center is the extension and last project of Gropius’ Heroic prewar period: More than almost any other building of its era, it repre- sents the Bauhaus ideals in siting, form, and material, and could easily be mistaken for a Central European housing estate, circa 1926–30. Although the complex is designed with a finely calibrated adherence to a “scientific” program, its abstracted universal expression in no way acknowledges the particular spirit of Cambridge. This, coupled with the severe space standards in the dormitory rooms, has consistently prevented its broad acceptance within the physical and cultural fabric of Harvard.

It is enlightening to compare the Graduate Center with Aalto’s Baker House residence hall at MIT — its exact contemporary, two miles away, by another giant of European Modernism. Aalto is no less abstract and modern in his approach to form and social ideals, but there are critical distinctions in the clues that Aalto takes from the context of MIT and Boston, and in his ultimate focus on designing for a panoply of needs to ensure that both the private space of the individual and the collective space of the community form a successfully integrated living environment. These strategies have contributed to the enduring success of Baker House, both as a building and as an integral part of MIT’s culture.

Gropius retired from Harvard in 1953, though his educational methods largely remained in place for some time under a succession of administrations. He increasingly focused his energies on TAC and took on the mantle of senior statesman, traveling the world serving on blue-ribbon panels and juries, and lecturing on a broad range of topics. At the same time, Modernism’s postwar hegemony began to slowly come apart as questions mounted concerning its perceived inability to acknowledge or accommodate diversity in human need and experience.

It is at this point — as the first Gropius acolytes go out into practice and TAC itself begins to build on a large scale — that the mystique of Gropius enlarges in the public eye, and, simultaneously, Modernism’s conceptual flaws first become evident. Much of this critique is focused on method: the rigorous diagram-matic functionalism that removed any sense of wonder, continuity with history, or monumental expression from the act of creating architecture — turning it, in essence, from an art into a process.

On the positive side, a “Cambridge Modern” style emerged in the output of TAC and its numerous offshoots, representing a regional softening of the harder edges of Modernism, which, though ultimately owing only token guidance to Gropius, is writ large in the rest of the world under his name. It is perhaps ironic that TAC and its closest cousins in Cambridge became the rare exception among the best-known firms created by Gropius students, such as those of Philip Johnson, Paul Rudolph, Edward Larrabee Barnes, and I.M. Pei, which all evolved, in large part, along a more traditional atelier model with the signature figure at the head and often (sometimes famously) struggled with the Bauhaus/Harvard pedagogy as they evolved into mature practices.

In his essay Apollo in the Democracy, published in a volume of collected writings of the same name in 1968, Gropius speaks — perhaps for the first time —  of the “creation of beauty and … its reverberations within the democratic society.” This is poignant, as the critique of orthodox Modernism was building to a crescendo at this time and was in considerable part based on the fact that concern with beauty in its largest sense — as the creation of that which fulfills deep human aspiration and desire — was largely absent from the Bauhaus/Harvard method.

Although we need not go so far as Colin Rowe —  arguably Gropius’ successor as the most influential architectural educator of the latter part of the 20th century — in proclaiming Gropius to be “largely inept” as both an architect and an educator at the nadir of Modernism’s slide in the public eye in the early 1980s, it is nonetheless in our best interest to look at his role with a clear eye and a critical voice, for only then will the many positive aspects of his legacy be able to stand tall beside — and with acknowledgment of — its flaws.