The biographer of British designer and writer William Morris and the Romantic poet Lord Byron takes on the visionary architect behind the influential German school of art and design, examining his complicated life as well as the urges that drove Euro-American modernism as a whole.
Biographies of artists are an unwieldy yet wildly rewarding genre, with authors heroically flexing their muscles to do justice to both the personal histories and artworks of their subjects. Fiona MacCarthy’s thick and scrupulously researched Walter Gropius: Visionary Founder of the Bauhaus is no exception ... MacCarthy’s middle chapters more than do justice to Gropius’s visionary approach to architecture as a complete, totalizing art ... MacCarthy regales readers with wonderful details ... MacCarthy also peppers her tale with the first grumbles of discontent, possibly peer envy, among Bauhaus circles ... Throughout, MacCarthy presents a mostly wholesome image of Gropius as a consummate, apolitical artist, but she does make note of some of his flaws ... Walter Gropius is a luminous, vigorous study of a prodigiously gifted man driven by singular passion.
Do we need another architect hero? Gropius himself might cringe at [MacCarthy's] approach, as he spent much of his career working against the idea of the singular genius, and for an architecture that collaborated with many other fields. His roof and his curriculum gave other people room to develop their talents, and that’s a kind of building worth celebrating. MacCarthy doesn’t seem to appreciate the importance of collective innovation. Instead, she gives the reader a sea of names, the details of a surprising number of pre- and extramarital love affairs, leaving it to others to provide commentary on the work ... MacCarthy’s biography, from the cover and preface on, doesn’t read like a product of 2019. Heroism, romanticism, the singular designer—these are not the preoccupations of architecture and design history now ... The Bauhaus building, as an avatar of the school, and as a piece of architecture, is one of Gropius’s most important achievements. It deserves to be described in detail and in context ... This should be a career apex for Gropius, both individually and for the Bauhaus as a group, and MacCarthy speeds by ... MacCarthy gives short shrift to TAC [the Architects Collaborative] ... The lives and skills of Gropius’s partners hardly come alive. They seem like gray shadows compared with the Bauhaus students ... Yet TAC’s experiment with nonhierarchical leadership, its inclusion of women as equal partners, and Gropius and Harkness’s call to dismantle the cult of the lone male genius, are far more relevant to the discourse in architecture today than one man, one skyscraper.
This is not the man portrayed in Tom Wolfe’s 1981 book From Bauhaus to Our House, which pilloried Gropius as a bore, concerned only with the elitist project of modern architecture. MacCarthy transforms him from a dull institutionalist...into a stylistic rebel who lived and loved in an exuberant community of artist outcasts that would be scattered across the world after Weimar Germany became the Third Reich. Whereas critics of the Bauhaus have seen it as the harbinger of giant faceless office towers and superhighways slicing through cities, MacCarthy presents the school as a fount of idealism ... Most of all, MacCarthy shows that Gropius’s true legacy was the talent he nurtured in others—I.M. Pei, Philip Johnson, Paul Klee, Marcel Breuer, and Wassily Kandinsky, to name but a few ... If, as has been said, the Bauhaus was the ultimate art school, Gropius was the definitive dean.