Gropius: The Man Who Built the Bauhaus by Fiona McCarthy

Gropius: The Man Who Built the Bauhaus
By Fiona McCarthy
The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2019

Gropius: The Man Who Built the Bauhaus   By Fiona McCarthy The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2019

“Because his genius was untethered to his misery, and because he often handed his ideas off to others,” Dan Chiasson writes in his New Yorker review of Fiona McCarthy’s Gropius: The Man Who Built the Bauhaus, “Gropius is a tricky subject for a biographer.”

Tricky he may be, but in no small measure because Gropius has been attracting this kind of contortedly euphemistic commentary virtually from the very beginning of his long, long career of making ugly things. That career began in 1908, lasted virtually to the end of his life in 1969 in Boston, and encompassed dozens of ugly buildings, ugly monuments, ugly chairs, ugly staircases, and ugly relationships. It saw, of course, the founding and unaccountable flourishing of the Bauhaus School and its spreading spores of modernist monstrosities. Pace Chiasson, this long stretch includes not the smallest faint flicker of genius, only pan-shallow (and often self-consciously vamped) misery, and as often credit handed back to himself as ideas handed off to others. It was a life of stiff, marzipan self-promotion and dead-eyed solipsism at almost every turn, which does, one supposes, provide a tricky subject for a biographer.

It’s lucky for Gropius, luckier than he deserves, that Fiona McCarthy is a superb biographer. She seems to find nothing elusive about her subject, about whom Frank Lloyd Wright once said “he isn’t an architect - just an engineer.” Evelyn Waugh was more detailed and more scathing when he lampooned Gropius as Professor Otto Friedrich Silenus in Decline and Fall:

‘The problem of architecture as I see it,’ he told a journalist who had come to report on the progress of his surprising creation of ferro-concrete and aluminium, ‘is the problem of all art - the elimination of the human element from the consideration of form. The only perfect building must be the factory, because that is built to house machines, not men.’

McCarthy is a wonderfully sympathetic biographer, and her reading and research in these pages is vast. In her search to provide the endearing flesh-and-blood human behind the Bauhaus legend, she’s obliged to supply most of the flesh, blood, and humanity herself, but this is a fascinating thing to watch in its own right. And she frequently steps back to view her subject in an attractively broader perspective:

Beyond his belief in technological progress there was a romantic, idealistic undercurrent to all Gropius’s endeavours. And here he was indeed like William Morris, imaginatively generous in his beliefs. All his life he continued to see art not as an adjunct to life but a necessity. Like Morris he believed that art is life itself. It was architectural soullessness, the despoilation of nature, the denial of community that brought out his fiercest opprobrium.

This note - that Gropius’s fiercest opprobrium was evoked by architectural soullessness - is offered with a po-faced complete lack of irony that’s downright entertaining. Architecture aficionados who feel compelled to read an entire long biography of Gropius will never need to read another after this one.  

—Steve Donoghue is a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, The Spectator, The Washington Post, and The American Conservative. He writes regularly for The Vineyard Gazette, and The Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.