GROPIUS HOUSE. The Bauhaus & the American Dream

Gropius House surrounding

Walter Gropius |

Lincoln, USA [1938]

 

When talking about modern architecture, the Bauhaus School and Walter Gropius cannot be omitted. We already saw him in the Weissenhof, a revolutionary neighborhood in Sttutgart. Nevertheless, the houses he projected there did not survive the II World War.

Even if his most famous works are in Germany, it wasn’t until I arrived to the USA that I could visit one of his buildings, the Gropius House.


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We visited Lincoln -Massachusetts- during our trip to Boston, where Gropius landed in 1937. Actually, the architect and his family were not interested in moving to the USA, but they received a great opportunity that they could not refuse.


Gropius House main entrance


Birth of the Bauhaus School and its early closure

We have to go back some years after the I World War to understand what happened. Walter Gropius had just founded the famous German school of design Bauhaus, which later revolutionized the world of plastic arts. They defended the industrialized design and the mass production. Decoration elements were not included unless they were totally necessary: “Form follows function”, was their motto. This was meant to reduce costs in the design process as well as in the construction, something really needed in the post-war years.


Bauhaus design in USA


Nevertheless, this austere and revolutionary style was completely opposed to the Nazi regime. Adolf Hitler closed the Bauhaus in 1933. Then, many followers of the school had to leave Germany, and it was when Walter Gropius moved to London. He established his firm there, but it was 1937 and Europe was already preparing for the II World War.


Gropius House garden


Walter Gropius and the American Dream

Gropius was looking for a safe place to settle with his family, and it was then when he received a call from the Harvard University. Not only were they inviting him to teach Architecture in the prestigious School, but also he would have the opportunity to start a new life in the United States.

That same year, the architect and his family arrived in Cambridge, Massachusetts. They didn’t have enough money to build their new house, so they moved to an existing one in the historical region of New England. You can imagine the horror when Gropius saw his Bauhaus furniture in a colonial-style house. Thus, it was a great relief when Helen Storrow appeared. She was a millionaire and lover of the arts, so when she heard about Gropius situation she decided to help him. Ms. Storrow gave him a plot and funded the construction of his new home.


Gropius House living room


The Bauhaus style arrives in the United States

The modern style of the Gropius House was not received with gladness in the neighborhood. It was very different from the strong classic character of the other houses. Many people expected the house to be destroyed by the first snowfalls, thinking that the flat roofs would not support the snow weight.

Nevertheless, Gropius was very concerned about the extreme environmental conditions of the area. He wanted to find the best spot for their home to completely adapt to the location. Thus, he studied the traditional architecture of the surroundings and his plot carefully. Finally he located the house in the highest area of the land.


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Gropius House Tour

This is where our visit starts. We arrived to the house too early without planning, and it was still closed. I could walk in the garden and explore the facades as much as I wanted, enjoying the landscape and looking through the windows at the interior of the empty house. Not even the cold winter made me leave or stop taking pictures, although my fingers did not agree.

The house follows the design guidelines of the Bauhaus: a simple form with flat roof and ribbon windows, open floor plan and massive use of glass and industrial materials. However, the house was built with traditional materials of the area to integrate into the environment: white painted wood for the facades, a screened porch protecting the main entrance from the weather, a brick chimney, retaining walls and fieldstone foundation.


Gropius House panorama


The main entrance door already shows what you will find in the interior: a world of industrial design. Gropius used factory-made fixtures and building supplies to reduce costs. All the items, such as door handles, the peephole in the entrance or the glass blocks, were available from catalogs and supply houses.


Industrial door Bauhaus


Gropius was very concerned about the use of the house. Not only would it be their home but also his own architecture office. Thus, he chose functional materials, such as cork flooring to absorb the noise. Gropius did not want to bother his family with clients and students visits.


Gropius House entrance hall


Once you are inside the Gropius house, it looks like it is inhabited. When the family donated the house, they also left all their belongings. As a result, nowadays we can enjoy the wonderful furniture designed by Marcel Breuer, apart from seeing the exquisite taste of Ise, Gropius’ wife, for fashion and art.

It is a pleasure to walk around the rooms finding out every detail. However, I must point out the part of the house for Ati, his daughter. I admit that I enjoyed the following story very much.


Chair by Marcel Breuer


Ati did not want to move to the United States, so her parents promised her whatever she wished for her new bedroom. This is what the girl, with only 12 years old, asked for: a floor made of beach sand, where she could play; a starry sky, to sleep under the stars; and her own entrance to the house, looking for privacy.

Her parents firmly rejected the first wish (entirely understandable…), so Gropius had to satisfy the other two. For that purpose, he designed a lovely terrace in the west part of the house. Ati had access to this sun porch from both her room and via the spiral staircase located in the main façade.


Gropius House terrace view


The terrace was a perfect place to sleep under the stars, and with the spiral staircase she could enter and leave the house without giving explanations.

This is the dream of any teenager, but Ati did not realize that her private stair was right in front of her parents study.


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Even after the great success of Gropius in the United States, the architect did not want to move to a bigger and more luxurious house ever. He assured that in the Gropius House they had all they needed. Beautiful views, a perfect sunlight thanks to the planned exterior vegetation, energy solutions and amenities that were very advanced for its time, and a perfect layout to function both as studio and home.

We cannot forget that he had only a tight budget for the project. Nevertheless, the Gropius House ended up by being a perfect role model.


Gropius bedroom and dresser


Following you will see the small table in the dining room. Apart from the interesting and dramatic lighting –with a single spotlight that focus directly to the centre of the table-, there is room for only 4 guests.
The reason was that the architect did not like when there were simultaneous conversations in the same table.

Gropius was a very reserved and modest person. As an example of this, we can remember the name of the architectural firm he founded in the USA, called ‘The Architects Collaborative’.


bauhaus-furniture


The Gropius House became an icon in America

The house became a place of pilgrimage for architects and students in America. People were interested in learning from the revolutionary Bauhaus style. For that, Ise took charge of the guided visits.

I wish I had had the opportunity to enjoy one of these visits, although we really liked the one we did. Our guide made our tour very interesting and even special, thanks to her love for the house and her fun stories.


helena-ariza-gropius-house


Let me encourage you to visit one of the houses that changed the design world in the United States. Famous characters such as Alexander Calder, Joan Miró, and even Frank Lloyd Wright were guests at that time.
Besides enjoying the Gropius House, you can also find more examples of modern architecture. Marcel Breuer designed a house only some metres away.

To conclude, if you are interested in the area of ‘New England’ I recommend you to visit Historic New England. Here you can find information about exhibitions, tours and historical properties in the area. Besides, you can read a wonderful and more detailed description about the Gropius House and its history.

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