Walter Gropius-the Godfather of modernism

Updated: May 21, 2021


photo: bauhaus archives Berlin

If the bauhaus was the birthplace of modernism, then Walter Gropius was its father. As the director of the bauhaus from 1919-1928, many credit him for creating the playful atmosphere of collaboration, and experimentation that made the bauhaus unique. He assembled a faculty of twentieth century greats and managed their egos whlie protecting the school from the political forces of fascism. By all accounts he was a patient man with a good sense of humor .

Born in Berlin, both his father and grandfather were architects. He joined the office of Peter Behrens in 1908, after attending architecture schools in Munich and Berlin. In 1914 he was drafted and fought in WWI. In 1915 he married Alma Mahler - the original star-collector with whom he’d been having an affair while she was still married to composer Gustave Mahler.

Photo: courtesy of Historic New England

By 1920, the marriage was over. Alma had moved on to the writer Franz Werfel and Gropius was engrossed with his duties as director of the bauhaus. He met his future wife Ise at a lecture he was giving just days before she was to be married. Needless to say the wedding was canceled and they married in 1923. In 1928 Gropius stepped down from his position as the director of the bauhaus and returned to private architectural practice. In 1933 he fled Germany with Ise and their daughter Ati, leaving everything behind. They landed in London, where he briefly worked for the British design company Isokon, where many bauhaus refugees were given jobs and housing. They eventually made their way to the United States where he joined the faculty of the Graduate School of Design at Harvard in 1937. Shortly after his appointment he set about designing a house for his family in the suburbs of Boston that utilized many classic bauhaus design principles.The home, now known as the Gropius House, is considered a modernist masterpiece. Gropius leveraged his reputation to help as many of his fellow bauhaus refugees escape war-torn Europe as possible.


In 1945 one of Gropius' former students John Harkness, invited him to join his fledgling architecture practice with 7 other architects. This practice became The Architects Collaborative, better known as TAC. It is remarkable to think of an architect of Gropius' reputation joining a group of young unknowns instead of establishing a practice in his own name. Unlike most, if not all of his peers, Gropius did not believe in or promote the idea of the stand-alone genius. Also unlike his peers he acknowledged the teams of people working beside him. Come to think of it, this would be rather remarkable even for today's star-chitects. Gropius died in 1969, at the age of 86 due to complications from surgery. He was still an active principle at TAC at the time.


While the modernist style didn’t exactly catch on in New England residential design, it had a lasting influence on commercial and public buildings in New England (and the rest of the US) for decades. Sadly many of these modernist masterpieces such as Boston City Hall (by Paul Rudolph) have been under threat in recent years. Marcel Breuer's Pirelli building in New Haven was barely saved from the wrecking ball by preservation groups. The pockets of modern housing stock in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island remain highly sought after, although most New Englanders today still prefer the traditional "New England vernacular" aesthetic.

Thirsty for more? The Pegu Club Cocktail is as delicious as it is beautiful. Check out the recipe here

Before there was Mad Men, Design Within Reach, or Dwell there was Docomomo.(I could't have said it better myself-this was stolen directly from their website) Docomomo is dedicated to documenting,conserving and advocating for modernist buildings and neighborhoods. They are often the first and only advocates for modernist buildings at risk. When you become a member your fees help to support the preservation of At-Risk Modernist buildings. Join here.