Play Architecture, Build White Boxes

Daily Draw July 9th, 2012

Walter Gropius

Walter is an architect I have the least respect for. Many of the concrete housing projects he designed deteriorated and did not hold up to the elements or taste. His individual houses were boring although he sometimes did interesting things with stairs. White with flat roof and black trim. White with flat roof and black trim but two stories. White with flat roof and black trim and stairs outside the building. White with flat roof and black trim and big windows.

At one point in the early part of the century when Frank Lloyd Wright was getting attention for his Prairie House style, Walter and his friends in Europe admired Wright. Into the 1930s as the European architects like Gropius, Le Corbusier, and Mies van der Rohe gained acceptance for their “international style,” a touch of disdain for Wright started to creep in, even some ridicule of Wright for being stuck in the 19th century. In 1938 Wright designed Fallingwater, and blew them out of the design water, despite having borrowed some aesthetics from the European models. He didn’t care for the Bauhaus boys and he was very dismissive of Le Corbusier and said he was a bad painter, not to mention his dreadful architecture.

This is the way with generations, the creeping disdain for the old, the ridicule and gossip that goes both ways. Wright showed some tolerance for Van der Rohe, and Gropius was part of Wright’s Fellowship group connected to Taliesin in the late 1930s, but he was touchy about them, and they got their digs in at him. But then, isn’t that also often the way with Europeans and Americans, jostling with each other for favoured status as the ideal in art?

Still, there is no denying that Walter was not the best architect in the world. He got attention for being different, but being great is not a designation that time honours him with. Gropius couldn’t draw and was unable to draw his own designs and plans which is something fundamental to architecture for me. A good draftsman makes a good architect because you need to feel the idea and play around with it to get a good design. Was he an artist? Not to me.

Form may follow function but in looking at the early modern architects I don’t see much form or function. I don’t see how a box is necessarily functional in any innovative way. We could argue this point to death, truly. He was influential, he was a teacher, and I get a sense that he was a good administrator and communicator. I would say that was his particular talent. It wasn’t architecture or design. He dabbled in furniture design that was so-so, and I see mention of the door handles that have become “icons” of design. They probably feel nice in the hand, which makes them functional.

It’s very hard to disconnect from the prevalence of industrial design today and try to grasp what it was like for someone to be the first, a participant in a movement toward what we now take for granted. That’s why he is famous, for being part of a pioneering group, not for being an artist.



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