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How the Bauhaus built the future

In 1919, Walter Gropius established an art school in sleepy Weimar. Before long it had invented a new way of living for the 20th century.

When I was at school in the mid-1970s, I would customarily bunk off on Wednesday afternoons when I should have been attending Games. Sport was not my thing. Instead I roamed the junk shops of Southampton where, on one expedition, I found a PEL (Practical Equipment Ltd) cantilever chair. It was authentic 1930s, a scion of the Bauhaus, occupying almost no space at all save for its green Rexine-covered seat and back, and the incredibly satisfying chrome loop of its structure. I carried it home, looped around my body like a trophy, with one eye over my shoulder in case my PE teacher spotted me.

Bauhaus. Glamour in two syllables. As Alan Powers acknowledges in his sparky and rigorously researched book, Bauhaus Goes West, Walter Gropius’s gesamtkunstwerk wouldn’t have gone down in history if it hadn’t been so easy to say. A hundred years after it was founded, the power of Bauhaus lies in its austere appeal; buyable, but still somehow unobtainable. It was born out of German Romanticism, but would end up in Habitat and even MFI. You can hear its soundtrack in Kraftwerk and relive its vision in a thousand glossy magazine spreads. But you will never get it. In every dream home a heartache, as Roxy Music sang. An illusion of perfection, deluxe and delightful.

Fiona MacCarthy’s enthralling biography – as stylish as any cantilever chair – charts Gropius’s life as a series of reinventions: from well-born Prussian to dutiful hussar to inept draughtsman who, in 1905, somehow gained his first architectural commission, a sort of Rapunzel’s tower, heavily influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement and William Morris. Travelling in Spain, Gropius met Gaudí in Barcelona; visiting England with Peter Behrens, his architect employer, he studied its industrial design. His mother told him about Frank Lloyd Wright.

But it was the frenzy of Berlin that shaped Gropius: “Everything races, takes flight.” He imagined a glass building created out of light like a medieval cathedral, “a crystal symbol of a new faith”. This was architecture as liquidity rather than stone or brick, a hymn to industrial futurity. “I am convinced that work is the only true deity of our time,” Gropius said, and his first modernist work, the Faguswerk shoe factory near Hanover, featured a floating staircase encased in glass. When occupying American soldiers encountered it after the Second World War, they couldn’t believe it was designed in 1911.

Compared to all this control, Gropius’s personal life was a tumult. His affair with Alma Mahler, carried on while her composer husband was still alive, and the subsequent marriage was so charged with sex that like those American soldiers, the reader finds it hard to believe it is playing out in the second decade of the 20th century and not in the pages of a Bret Easton Ellis novel. A scion of the Viennese Secession, Alma wore no brassiere or corset; she demanded oral sex, pre-ordering it in pornographic letters to Gropius. Never loyal, she conducted affairs with Oskar Kokoschka and Franz Werfel, a Jewish poet with whom she fantasised about having “crippled” sex. Gropius turned his blame elsewhere: “The Jews, this poison which I begin to hate more and more, are destroying us.”

Like many others, he saw the First World War, in which he fought and which would leave him shell-shocked, as a means of cleansing. In his case, war is the violent seed that produces the utopian Bauhaus. MacCarthy explains Gropius’s anti-Semitism as part of his culture, but Powers says history has glossed over an “evolution to eugenics” dynamic that was present at the birth of the movement.

In 1919, Gropius established his school (Bauhaus meaning literally “school of building”, though it actually taught a design aesthetic that combined all the arts) in sleepy Weimar – MacCarthy likens it to Cheltenham. It was soon invaded with crop-headed young men and women dressed in Russian blouses left over from the war and dyed vivid blue or green. They bathed naked together in the river and threw wild if highly designed parties, all the while inventing a new way of living for the 20th century.

“The ultimate aim of all creative activity is the building!” Gropius declared. He hired Kandinsky and Klee as masters and sold the family silver to buy a field to cultivate food for his vastly extended family. They loved him. He could barely understand why. Alma left him; he moved through a series of lovers, while Germany – which for those few years offered the possibility of being rebuilt in the Bauhaus image – began to sunder.

In 1928, Gropius left for Berlin in an attempt to escape the political pressures on his school. He cut his fringe dramatically short, a modernist gesture of resistance; the designer was turning into one of his revolutionary designs. He started his own practice in the city, working with Bauhaus colleagues – László Moholy-Nagy, Marcel Breuer and Herbert Bayer. Denounced by the Nazis as un-German and Bolshevist, in April 1933 the reformed Bauhaus in the town of Dessau was raided by storm troopers. “Clear light and clear dark shades, pure white and pure black, and a variety of clear, clean stages of grey – this was the world of colour that the evil brown and blighted red of the Third Reich broke into,” one Bauhäusler recalled. The project was at an end. In 1934, Gropius and his wife, Ise, left for England, where, as Powers writes, the architect was “treated like a creature from another planet”.

The ambassador from the future was installed in London, in the reassuringly modernist Lawn Road Flats in Belsize Park. Designed by Wells Coates, the building became a kind of Bauhaus hotel, complete with its Isobar restaurant. Gropius joined the architect Maxwell Fry in partnership – their office in Victoria was far from the style of Berlin and his sun-worshipping buildings. The fog depressed him. Gropius hoped to recreate the Bauhaus at Dartington in Devon. But as with many of his British projects, he felt underappreciated and the commission fell through. Anthony Blunt declared in the Spectator that functionality was not English, not “homey”. People didn’t want to buy chrome chairs inspired by bicycles.

Despite such splendours as an ocean-liner-looking house designed for the playwright Benn Levy and his actor wife, Constance Cummings, in Chelsea’s Old Church Street, Gropius felt his future lay across the Atlantic. Powers explains this “failure” in terms of Gropius’s intimidating German professionalism versus British amateurism. His hard-edged architectural statements were difficult to take. The Hungarian Moholy-Nagy – whom Powers compares to Harpo Marx – and his interior designs for Simpsons, his modernist photography and films were easier to accept.

Powers’s book is beautifully illustrated with furniture, architecture and textiles designed in Britain and America under Breuer and Moholy-Nagy’s influence. It is also strong on female artists such as the weaver Margarete Leischner, who taught at the Royal College of Art, and the ceramicist Marguerite Wildenhain, who challenged the handmade aesthetic of potters such as Bernard Leach by celebrating the machine as a tool to be used but not adored.

It’s a story dealt with even more comprehensively in Elizabeth Otto and Patrick Rössler’s excellent Bauhaus Women, which identifies 45 female designers, artists and architects. From Michiko Yamawaki in Japan to Ivana Tomljenoic in Zagreb, the book is an eye-opening survey of arresting photo-montages, choreography and costumes that evoke 1970s punk or 1980s new romanticism as much the totalitarian regimes under which these artists worked.

 In 1937 Gropius left old Europe and sailed to New York, taking up an appointment at Harvard. He saw potential in a country he regarded as having an “often primitive, naive quality”. He found the sun on Cape Cod’s beaches, and built a house for himself close to Henry Thoreau’s Walden Pond, a utopian resonance in which he delighted. The architectural theorist and critic Lewis Mumford hailed it as: “The most original example of the New England house! The New England of a new world!” When Breuer joined Gropius in the US, the pair operated a kind of double act. They designed the Frank House in Pittsburgh and were accused of becoming a bit Hollywood.

A Bauhaus 1919-1928 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1938 staked Gropius’s claim to the movement, although Powers sees the exhibition as “the first warning sign that the Bauhaus was emerging as a kind of zombie, capable of deceiving people into believing it was the real thing”. They were seeing a simplified caricature. “This zombie is still walking the planet,” says Powers. Visitors to the original Bauhaus sites in Berlin, Weimar and Dessau, he contends, are fed a commodified version of the original ideal.

In March 1944 Gropius became a US citizen, but as MacCarthy says, he would never really feel American. He returned, as an adviser, to a devastated Berlin in 1946. It was, he said, “a disintegrated corpse! Impossible to describe”. It was the negation of all he had tried to achieve. Darkness where there had been light. There was nothing he could do. The future was catching up with him.

His most astonishing American commission, the Pan Am building, rose out of midtown Manhattan from 1959 to 1963, as if preordained as a set for Mad Men. It was accused of blocking the view down Park Avenue and some thought Gropius had betrayed his principles. But as MacCarthy notes, it was the apotheosis of all “those old dreams of prismatic Glasarchitektur”. Gropius, like the Bauhaus, was a god of his own making, and it seems no coincidence that he died in New England on Independence Day, 1969, just as his cult was being revived. Five years later, I found my chair. I still sit on it. 

Philip Hoare’s most recent book is “RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR” (Fourth Estate)

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

Bauhaus Goes West: Modern Art and Design in Britain and America
Alan Powers
Thames & Hudson, 304pp, £24.95

Bauhaus Women: a Global Perspective
Elizabeth Otto and Patrick Rössler
Herbert Press, 192pp, £30

Philip Hoare’s books include Wilde’s Last Stand, England’s Lost Eden, and Spike IslandLeviathan or, The Whale won the Samuel Johnson Prize for 2009, and The Sea Inside was published in 2013. He is professor of creative writing at the University of Southampton, and co-curator of the Moby-Dick Big Read. His website is www.philiphoare.co.uk, and he is on Twitter @philipwhale.

This article appears in the 12 July 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The state we’re in