Dreamer and Masterbuilder
Damned at once by the Hitlerites as Bolshevist, by the Russians as bourgeois, and by critics in the United States as a lunatic advocate of soulless mechanization, Walter Gropius is today nevertheless the humbly proud Papa of a New Architecture which has tenaciously taken root to challenge traditionalist patterns. A self-exile from Nazi Germany, he trooped to this country with the giant company of expatriate European intellectuals ten years ago and now heads the Department of Architecture. In 1947 only Frank Lloyd Wright and possibly France's Le Corbusier rank ahead of him in the general esteem.
Gropius catapulted into the world's eye during the early Twenties when he directed the Bauhaus school at Dessau. Here was a driving educational experiment founded on the iconoclastic thesis that an architect "is not an artist but a coordinator who must make all of his decisions from the point of view of the improved community." Beauty in a building is not skin- deep, held Gropius, but an integral part of the complete unity; more important, by "building" he did not mean an isolated structure but the street, town, region, nation.
To Gropius architecture and city planning are part and parcel of the same problem: bettering the physical environment and thus the well-being of Man. This is his point of departure from Wright, for whom he has the greatest admiration. Although a rebel to the core, past master of the concrete-pipe-and-plate-glass school, Wright nonetheless remains an individualist devoted solely to personal artistic triumph. The greatest glory for Gropius must always be the ideal of an organically-planned community, free from slums, smoke, and congestion and their atendant social ills. Near his residence in Lincoln (a severe-lined affair of his own design atop a windy hill) he has pointedly noted in the Village Common model of Concord and Lexington a bygone "human scale small enough for each citizen . . . a scale which we have lost."
Small 'd' democrat personally and politically in the strictest sense, Gropius is simultaneously an elegant Teuton and an acclimatized New Englander who, "feels very positive toward this country." With his second wife Ise he likes to ride horseback by the shore of Walden Pond, a stone's throw from his home. "I'm so acquainted with the Massachusetts landscape," he laughs, "I know the foxes and grouse personally." An untiring host for visiting Europeans and student disciples, he is a connoisseur of French foods and the delicate Continental wines of which there are "only imitations in this country but for one I have discovered in the Finger Lakes of New York State." Those who meet him and withdraw at an apparent forbidding austerity soon learn that Gropius possesses a keen sense of humor (hampered somewhat by an incomplete appreciation of American slang) and the greatest warmth for people who are young-in years or in ideas. At Robinson Hall his carefully screened graduate students from the four corners of the earth hold him in something close to worship. One Czech girl exploded: "We're all in love with him!"
With all of his idealism, Gropius has articulated the most down-to-earth of educational methods stressing that an architect cannot be a sissy with a mere hand for sketching but must understand materials and production systems as well. A prophet of prefabrication since 1910, he heads the prefab field in the U. S. today with his General Panel Corporation. A distinctive Gropius feature, "component parts," provides for the manufacture of separate construction units, rather than whole houses, ready for assembly to suit any man's individuality. In intelligent use of prefabrication he feels much of our housing problem will be solved.
It is the compound of dreamer and practical masterbuilder which hoists Gropius to his commanding position. Colleagues may gain his grasp of industrial civilization's new demands upon the architect, but they are not likely to catch up to the stride of his dynamic evolving personal philosophy. To the older elements in the profession everything he stands for is still poison: these are men who are aware that the New Architecture steadily gains ground but who are doggedly wed to pat formulas and the Roman column.