Design for living and loving

The three lives of Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus

Jeffrey Meyers

Walter Gropius  had three lives: Germany until 1934, England until 1937, America until his death in 1969. During World War One, wearing a flamboyant Hussar’s uniform that made him a perfect target, he narrowly escaped a rifle ambush and almost lost his life. He later survived the explosion of a mortar grenade, emerged from a plane crash that killed the pilot and was buried alive for three days.

From April to June 1914 Gropius’s monumental office building and modern machine factory for the Deutscher Werkbund in Cologne appeared in an exhibition that attracted more than three million visitors. Made of iron and glass, supported by pillars and decorated with a stone relief by Gerhard Marcks, it united industry and art. D.H. Lawrence, who visited Heidelberg in June 1914, may have seen photographs of this rather grim and widely-publicised building. He probably used it in Women in Love (1920) as the mysterious and hitherto unidentified model for Loerke’s sinister factory frieze in Cologne. Gropius conceived his building as an “atonement” for modern mechanised life. Lawrence thought the building epitomised modern warfare and emphasised the stark and soulless aspects of the design.

Gropius’s greatest achievement was the creation in 1919 of the Bauhaus art school which, MacCarthy writes, “played a crucial role in the development of European modernism in the years between the wars”. He recruited an outstanding faculty that included Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, Marcel Breuer, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Lyonel Feininger and Josef Albers. Gropius’s concept of Gesamtkunstwerk inspired practical training in pottery, carpentry, metalwork and weaving—along with nude swimming and free love. The apostle of rationality and clean lines fused art and craft, technology and industry. Robert Oppenheimer, who directed research for the atomic bomb in wartime New Mexico, had the same combination of brilliant mind and inspiring leadership as Gropius.

The fortunes of the Bauhaus were closely connected to German politics. It was first supported then attacked in Weimar, and attacked again when it moved to Dessau, where it was condemned “as a Jewish-Bolshevistic enclave, artistically crazy and racially impure”. The East German communists attacked and then revived it. The fate of the widely dispersed anti-Nazi Bauhaus exiles ranged from prosperity in America to death in Auschwitz. The Bauhaus’s influence extended from the progressive Dartington School in England to the experimental Black Mountain arts college in North Carolina. The Bauhaus also left its imprint on stores that sold well-designed furnishings: Design Research in America, Habitat in England, Ikea in Sweden.

The handsome Gropius, a rather stiff Prussian, was decent, urbane, charismatic, even witty and unbuttoned. He felt he should get circumcised to sympathise with persecuted Jewish colleagues, and told one of his lovers: “Put a flower between your lovely thighs when you are hot from thoughts of me and send it to me in a letter . . . I kiss your sanctuaries.”

The emotional core of Gropius’s biography is his connection with Alma Mahler. As she unchained her libido in the sexual hothouse of Vienna, her high-minded lovers didn’t know whether to sleep with her or kill themselves in a frenzied Liebestod. She was a Protestant, Catholic convert, Theosophist, anti-Semite and Nazi sympathiser who had two Jewish husbands and an affair with a Catholic priest. She defied social conventions, eagerly expressed her desires and was keen for polymorphous perversions. She didn’t wear a bra or girdle and, like T.S. Eliot’s Grishkin, her uncorseted bust “gave promise of pneumatic bliss”.

Alma’s letters, begging for sex, were seductive and erotic. She wrote to Gropius, “There is not one spot on your body that I would not like to caress with my tongue . . . I want to suck you in from all sides like a polyp . . . pour your sweet stream into me.” She juggled several competing lovers at the same time and fuelled her old flame while arousing her latest conquest. Gropius was miserably married to her for five years. Their beloved daughter, Manon, whom Alma cruelly kept from him, became paralysed by polio and died, aged 18, in 1935. Erich Maria Remarque, who met Alma in wartime Los Angeles, wittily flayed her as “a wild, blonde wench, violent, boozing. Has already put  Mahler under the earth. She was with Gropius and [Oskar] Kokoschka, who seem to have escaped from her clutches. [Franz] Werfel won’t.”

Beginning in 1923 Gropius had a long and mostly happy marriage to Ise Frank, who had an expert knowledge of English and gave vital help with translations and correspondence. In 1930, when she fell in love with his Bauhaus design colleague Herbert Bayer, Gropius vainly pleaded with her “to respect their marriage”. He then adopted a “super-magnanimous” role and allowed her liaison to continue on numerous skiing holidays.

Anxious to retain Gropius’s friendship, Bayer half-apologised for his treachery but also sent postcards showing what a great time they were having. Ise callously asked Gropius to buy a pair of sandals for his rival. In 1936, when the affair petered out, Gropius and Ise adopted Ati, the ten-year-old daughter of her late sister. She replaced the recently dead Manon, but, despite Gropius’s tender love, Ati sensed his deep detachment and never really felt she was his daughter.

Like Thomas Mann, Gropius was a disciplined North German Protestant from a haut-bourgeois family, who went into voluntary exile. MacCarthy states, “He had broken completely with all he had built up professionally in Germany, his hopes of future work there, his roots, his culture, his huge array of contacts, his whole familiar, absorbing way of life.” Mann publicly criticised the Nazis and lost his houses, possessions, manuscripts and savings. But he knew English, had all his books published in America and England, and had a successful exile.

Though Gropius also opposed the Nazis, he never actually broke with the regime and managed to get all his valuable possessions (though not his money) out of Germany. Like Mann, he generously helped his fellow exiles when he settled in America.

In 1937 Gropius became chair of the Graduate School of Architecture at Harvard, where his students included I.M. Pei and Philip Johnson. His English was now much better and he was more self-assured. Always loyal to his old Bauhaus colleagues, even after they had betrayed him, he hired Bayer and Marcel Breuer, who later quarrelled bitterly with him. MacCarthy ambiguously describes Breuer’s close relations with Ise as “part-brotherly, part amorous”. In 1938, the Museum of Modern Art held a Bauhaus exhibition that defiantly responded to the Nazi Degenerate Art show of 1937. Gropius, who thought he’d secured a lifetime position at Harvard, was shocked when he was brutally forced out in 1952 by the jealous dean who had originally hired him.

MacCarthy has written a thorough and competent book, but she does not explain that Gropius’s recurrent pattern of bonding with cuckolded husbands and with Bayer gave him perverse sexual pleasure by sharing a woman with another man. Nor does MacCarthy explain why he tolerated Bayer’s affair with his wife and even remained on close terms with him. Gropius believed Ise would remain faithful, needed her practical help and didn’t want a divorce. He was loyal to her and generous to Bayer, and forgave them for behaving as he had done with Alma and other married women in the past.

MacCarthy defends Gropius against his critics: the narcissistic Alma, the harsh Tom Wolfe and Evelyn Waugh, who portrayed him in Decline and Fall (1928). Waugh satirised a vulnerable spot, also perceived by Lawrence, when Professor Silenus exclaims, “The only perfect building must be the factory, because that is built to house machines, not men.” MacCarthy sees Gropius as          “heroic, a romantic and optimist, a great survivor”, but concedes that his buildings lack the “transcendent personal qualities of architecture by his contemporaries Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe”.


Walter Gropius:  Visionary Founder of the Bauhaus
By Fiona MacCarthy
Faber & Faber, 560pp, £30

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