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Review: Gropius Stereoscopic Performance

February 28, 2013

In a moment when slick 3D media is de rigueur, a room full of remarkably well-dressed observers awkwardly wearing identically flimsy paper glasses to view a stereoscopic slide show from 1944 feels both precious and comical. The content of the Gropius Stereoscopic Performance itself was less so. The curious set of 20 color images depicting Walter Gropius’ house in Lincoln, Massachusetts, are delicate beyond their obvious material aging, display a strong connection between architecture and landscape, and a tone of refreshing modesty.

Artists Katarina Burin and Amie Siegel recently uncovered the slides in the Harvard Graduate School of Design Special Collections archives. Each slide is entitled “Walter Gropius House” and includes the date, time of day, and a short written account of the image’s content. These passages, read out loud alongside the slides, describe environmental performance, spatial sequencing, and the general delight of living with design in a proper narrative voice that seems improbable in 2013. Both the images and the design they depict show an attention to the fragile intimacy of the everyday that is an outstanding compliment to Gropius’ monolithic legacy at the school.

The slides, all shot in the fall light of 1944, clearly illustrate the subject as a set of targeted design intentions but stand alone as a technological and representational experiment in their own right. It is worth noting that the photographer, Louis Sutro, was a design engineer who envisioned progressive three-dimensional representation techniques for the built environment and later for NASA’s unmanned space rovers on Mars. The interdisciplinary nature of the collaboration between Gropius and Sutro speaks to the inventiveness of the Bauhaus itself and is well displayed in the effective, if quaint, performance of the resurrected slides.

The slide show is part of the Carpenter Center for Visual Arts’ Brute exhibition and one of several 50th anniversary events celebrating Corbusier’s singular American building and the Bauhaus legacy at the school. While design thinking and visual communication have become an aspiration far beyond the realm of artists and designers - and retroactively validate the pursuit of the Gropius and the Bauhaus - the aging slides are evidence that Gropius’ thinking on visual research and culture remains progressive today in spite of the outdated media and technology. And, as the original Bauhaus exhibition at Harvard described in 1956, “perhaps at no moment in history since the invention of printing has man’s communication with his fellow man been so largely overtaken by visual media as today.”