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Walter Gropius: Visionary Founder of the Bauhaus, Fiona MacCarthy 08 December 2019

2019 non-fiction, examining the life and work of Gropius.

This is another Book of the Week condensation, and I suspect that the work has been downplayed in favour of the life.

I am not particularly a fan of the architecture of the Bauhaus and its successors: all too often, it seems to me, they end up making great featureless or repetitive slabs with no space for human individuality (for example the beton brut design of the Barbican estate, while visually very appealing, ends up confusing people because every junction and corridor looks the same as every other, and it's hard to feel any attachment to your flat when you know it's the same as that of hundreds of your neighbours). For a factory building in the post-war industrialising Germany of the 1920s, that might make some sense; as an influence on every building everywhere, rather less so. So I listened to the condensation in the hope of finding out something about the influences on and thinking of Gropius.

But what I got instead was his early life and a lot of his affair, and then marriage, with Alma Mahler, a fine example of what a friend of mine once crudely expressed as "don't put it in the crazy". All right, it's clear that this was an influence on Gropius, to be able to support her in the style she insisted on; but taking Alma's own diaries, in which she is very obviously shading and fabulating to make herself look good, as in any way indicative of her own state of mind never mind that of Gropius, seems to me just another aspect of the problem of taking her at her word when she's talking about Mahler.

An odd omission is that the early buildings are the only designs of Gropius' own that get mentioned; after that it's the man as administrator, and not even much of that.

MacCarthy does her best to downplay Gropius' own flaws, not mentioning any of his other affairs (at least in this condensation), but insisting that his second wife change her first name before marrying him and cutting her off from her family and old friends certainly doesn't speak well of him. Similarly, there's nothing here about the way that female students at the Bauhaus were compelled to work in the weaving shop to support the school while the men, regarded as more capable of "authentic artistic expression", were allowed to pick their own media and subjects. A biography by someone who disliked the subject would be unlikely to be much good, and one has to excuse a certain amount of this kind of thing.

But the end result of all this sanding off of most of the edges is something like a hagiography, in which everything that ever went wrong for Gropius is someone else's fault… but then, because his work is barely mentioned, everything that went right is also someone else's fault ("he was offered a position at Harvard", but we don't learn about anything he'd done that might have influenced people to make that offer). As presented here, he's just this guy who wants to design stuff and run a school, you know? Apart from his sex life, and a brief early period in the Behrens office with van der Rohe and Le Corbusier which I couldn't help thinking could have used some expansion, nothing touches him and he touches nothing. There are some hints that he was drifting in communistic directions with his glorification of the working man, but nothing's ever made of that either.

All in all, a sad disappointment.

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