August 01, 2008

A Visit to Gropius House, Lincoln MA

For apostles of Modernism and the Avant Garde, the name Walter Gropius inspires reverence and veneration. For good reason - as the founder of the school of design known as the Bauhaus, Gropius had an enormous and lasting influence on modern architecture, the applied and graphic arts and theater and interior design.

Walter Gropius (1883-1969) founded the Bauhaus School (Bauen = to build, Haus = house) in Weimar, Germany in 1919. Based on the principles of the British Arts and Crafts movement established by William Morris, both disciplines proposed that art and architecture should meet the needs of society and there should be no special status conferred upon the fine arts as opposed to practical crafts. Marked by an absence of ornamentation and an appreciation for economy, the Bauhaus endeavored to utilize modern materials and technology in an aesthetically pleasing and communally friendly way.

Gropius' new school attracted many followers including the designer Marcel Breuer and artists Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, Lyonel Feininger and László Moholy-Nagy, and in 1925 the headquarters were relocated into a large group of concrete and glass buildings in Dessau. In 1930, the Bauhaus came under the directorship of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, then in 1933 the institute was closed by the Nazis as "subversive" and "un-German".

Recognizing the increasingly dangerous atmosphere in Germany, Walter Gropius managed to leave the country using the pretext of a temporary job in England. Eventually he was approached by Harvard University, where, in 1937, he became a Professor of Architecture at their Graduate School of Design. He, his wife Ilse and their 12 year old daughter Ati arrived in the United States almost as refugees with very few possessions and no where to live. A generous patron offered the Gropius' 6 acres of verdant land in Lincoln, Massachusetts, and he set to work designing a residence that would combine the principles of the Bauhaus movement with the practical needs and aesthetics of living in New England.

In 1938 what came to be know as The Gropius House was completed. It was a modest but totally functional family home that incorporated his ideals of form, practicality and modern technology while using traditional elements of New England architecture. The result is a combination of customary materials such as wood, brick and fieldstone with mass produced industrial products like glass blocks, acoustical plaster, cork flooring and chrome banisters. Gropius' goals of efficiency in design, simplicity, harmony with nature and economy of cost were all successfully integrated in this revolutionary construction.

Walter Gropius lived in this house until his death in 1969 and his wife remained until she passed away in the 1980's. It is now a National Historic Landmark and is open to the public for guided tours operated by the Historic New England preservation organization. Visitors will be fascinated not only by the design and construction, but also the interior that remains fully furnished with an impressive collection of vintage Bauhaus furniture by Marcel Breuer. Personal touches such as correspondence, books, clothing and dishes make this much more than a museum but a glimpse into the private life of one of the 20th Century's great innovators.

With thanks to our guide, Henry Hoover, for his entertaining and very informative insight into the house and its history.

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