born as ilse frank
marriage to walter gropius
in the bauhaus circle
lincoln – ostküste usa
»the woman at his side«
after the death of gropius she takes care of his legacy
becomes the museum of
»new england bauhaus«
An Evening with Ise Gropius
Ise Gropius, Courtesy of Historic New England
The following text is an excerpt from a lecture given by Ise Gropius in 1978 to the »Friends of the Busch-Reisinger and the Fogg Museum at Harvard University, Cambridge«.
At the start I should warn you that I am not going to talk about the »International Style«, this terrible misnomer which was invented by two Americans, Philip Johnson and Russell Hitchcock after they had visited the Bauhaus in Dessau as very young men early in the Twenties. They found that the school had published a book by Walter Gropius, called »Internationale Architektur« which was a far cry from »International Style« and only showed international examples of contemporary architecture by people with the most diverse design principles. All that united them was an honest approach to the solution of contemporary building problems without reverting to styles of the past. All this was misunderstood by the Americans who returned triumphantly to the U.S. reporting that they had fund a new »style« which could be taken over, copied and imitated.
I, personally, have been a witness to my husband’s career only from the year 1923 on, though he began his professional life already in 1906. When you think of the fact that his youth was spent during a period which was unacquainted with the invention of the automobile, the X-ray etc. you can imagine how difficult it is for somebody of the present generation to comprehend the frame of mind, the motives, the obstacles, the successes and failures of such a remote time.
The existence of these two buildings gave him a great reputation in Germany, which was then totally obscured by the outbreak of the first World War. After surviving four years in the tranches of the battlefields of France he could have returned to a promising private career but he was a changed man after the war and idea of simply picking up where he had left off seemed to him unthinkable. The long years in the trenches hat given him ample time to brood over the future development of the architectural profession and he had come to the conclusion that it was necessary to create a school in which he meant to develop educational methods and resources which would free the individual from the stereotyped prescription – learning of the past and set him on the path to find creative solutions for contemporary problems.
He wanted to put the emphasis on search rather than on research.
The Bauhaus was a cauldron of conflicting views and great in-fighting between various persuasions. But the interesting thing was that Gropius and his faculty never stifled these battles or attempted to shorten the conflicts by imposing their own convictions and experiences on the student body. It was against the principles of the school to present young people with shortcuts to solutions that were not of their own making.
One question I have often been asked refers to the faxt that Gropius engaged avant-garde artists like Kandinsky, Klee, Feininger and others when the students were actually to be trained as craftsmen and were asked to develop designs which could be mass-produced by industry.
They were of course trained in the various workshops by first class professional craft teachers and no student could advance further who had not absolved a stiff exam in one o the crafts under the supervision of the »Handwerkskammer« which demanded the highest standard of technical proficiency. Many schools that later tried to imitate the Bauhaus training left this out, wither because they thought the learning of a craft was old-fashioned, or because they found it very hard to find experienced teachers in this field. But at the Bauhaus this training was the backbone of the whole curriculum; it brought discipline and reliable knowledge about the qualities of the various materials to the student and informed them for the first time of three-dimensional construction. But Gropius knew that the craftsmen under the impact of the increasing industrialization had lost confidence in his form giving experience.
In his own working methods Gropius usually started on a new design with one overriding, emotionally sustained idea in command, but he had early trained himself to fortify this idea immediately with the necessary complementary factors which would insure its relevance from social. technical and aesthetic point of view. He didn’t care from wich of these fields the initial stimulation came as long as all of them were eventually brought into play.
He once described the desirable attitude with which to approach a new design as that »of a man who has been able to empty his mind of all prejudices and all non-essential considerations and who has thereby arrived at a state of new innocence which allows him to penetrate the very core of his task.«
Gropius’ nature was not responsive to abstract, speculative thinking divorced from practical experiment and anything that smacked of dogma repelled him. I have been asked wether he was an idealist or a visionary; I think you can call him that if, by that stipulation, you understand what the sculptor Lippold described with the words: »Have an illusion and then sustain it!« It was his sustaining power which created a climate in which the most diversely gifted people could breathe, work and play together.
What is now called Gropius’ philosophy has actually accumulated gradually like a kind of sediment from a constant active life process. Living his life in the only way he knew how, it became a demonstration of a philosophy not an abstract, speculative thought-construction. His thought was rooted in feeling and his feeling was tempered by thought; but eventually it all merged into action.
»Live what you preach« was his motto.
Walter Gropius, shoe last and punching knife factory Fagus, 1911. Brick, glass, iron. From the Bauhaus Book 01 International Architecture.
To explain this hands-off policy I should mention that, for instance, the faculty-council meetings which were, by the way, always attended by two student representatives, never came to decisions by majority vote. Whenever irreconcilable viewpoints persisted Gropius never tried to blunt the issues by compromises but let, instead, the opinions stand in sharp contrast to be worked out by continuing experiments and discussion.
Gropius saw in the contrasts that developed between the different protagonists always a source of stimulation, not of irritation.
He accepted this turmoil as a natural consequence of his efforts to reconcile groups of people who, during the last century, had completely drifted apart into isolated spheres of work and who found it understandably difficult to cooperate in the daily encounters.
If the Bauhaus seems to you sometimes contradictory or paradoxical it usually managed to draw strength from this fact.
All this has probably been best expressed in a letter by Paul Klee to Gropius. I quote:
»I welcome the fact that forces so differently orientated are working together in our Bauhaus. I also approve the conflict between the forces if its effect is evidenced in the final accomplishment. In general there is no right or wrong, our work lives and develops through the interplay of opposing forces, just as in nature the good and the bad work together productively in the long run.«
Walter Gropius, office building and factory at the Werkbund exhibition in Cologne, 1914. Iron, glass, lime sandstone.
The two buildings which he created before the first World War, the Fagus Shoelast Factory in 1911 and the model factory and office building for the Werkbund Exhibition at Cologne, Germany in 1914, incorporated clearly what he was to teach at the Bauhaus later on: complete independence of the heavy ponderous approach to design prevailing at that time; a construction technique that was not hidden behind a conventional stylistic cover-up, but exposed the new materials like glass, steel and concrete, making making them the domination design features, to face the 20th century directly and without subterfuges.
German translation of the lecture: form + zweck 1979. SLUB Dresden
Ise und Walter Gropius. Courtesy of Historic New England
Gropius House in Lincoln, MA. Courtesy of Historic New England
Gropius House, Lincoln, MA. Courtesy of Historic New England
When I joined it by marriage in 1923 during their first great exhibition I felt positively daunted after the first impact this enormously diversified, creative group of people had on me. Cut off from all my former moorings I found myself in a throbbing, exciting ne world, brimming with questions and new found answers, where no one was allowed to go off half-cocked. I felt unsure whether I would be able to get into the whole spirit by one big swoop and so I asked my future husband what would happen if he might be disappointed in me after a year. After all, he was 40 years old while I was only 26 and he had proposed to me after the shortest acquaintance. And then he gave me the wonderful answer which convinced me on the spot:
»I am completely immune to disappointment because I have trained myself never to judge people or situations on their present status but on their potential for development.«
This attitude inspired not only me but all the young people who came under his influence. And did they develop: He never deluded himself about the general level of qualifications people bring to their work, but he also knew that it was possible to propel them beyond their limitations when they were given a stimulating atmosphere in which to develop creative habit.
By that time the Bauhaus community had worked out a method of approach to their work which allowed everybody to find their own interpretation of the problems at hand but which was based on generally accepted scientific and material instruction as given by the various masters. It was held that art as such was teachable, but that there was a certain body of knowledge that could be handed on an then developed individually or in collaboration by experimental work and studies.
When the opportunity of directing the Kunstgewerbeschule of Weimar offered itself he demanded to have it combined with the Fine Arts School and then created an institute which he made the antithesis of all the teaching methods which had been practised on him; a school which made him the target for attacks from practically all established representatives of the Arts, the Architects and the all-powerful Crafts organizations. To visualize the climate of those years you have to remember that the country had just emerged from a lost war, that ist was heading into a fantastic inflation and that it consisted of a divided citizenry, half of whom looked with great suspicion on the new socialistic government which had replaced the Kaiser’s regime. The general poverty, hunger and desperation might have seemed enough to squelch all artistic impulses, but, strangely, this was not so.
Gropius called the new school the Bauhaus, a name which has a certain resemblance to the old German word »Bauhuette« which, in medieval times, referred to the brotherhoods of stone-masons and other guilds connected with building processes. Gropius sought this connotation because he had always been very impressed with the spirit of anonymous cooperation which animated the medieval cathedral builders. But the Bauhaus was anything but medieval.
»Evening with Ise Gropius«, April 5, 1978. Administrative Files of the Walter Gropius Archive.
Courtesy of Busch-Reisinger Museum. Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge.
The Bauhaus, on the other hand, challenged the students to become conscious of their own needs and their own desire for form and Gropius felt therefore that their horizon should be widened by giving them the feel of the spatial revolution which had occurred in the arts and the sciences. He brought them into contact with the leading exponents of the new approach to space and form and it is in this realm that you find the names of the painters, sculptors, graphic designers and others like dancers, theater performers etc.
Their teachings and example infused the whole school with a spirit of daring and discovery.
Gropius was firm in his belief in the primary importance of the artist’s vision for the whole of human concerns and endeavours. He was convinced that any new insight, gained by man about himself or the universe, ignites the imagination of the artist first and foremost, even before sciences and philosophy enter into it.
An assembly of such intensely idiosyncratic individuals, bent on working out a new visual vocabulary together, was bound to spank enormous controversies.
in the bauhaus circle
usa, east coast, lincoln
»the woman at his side«
after the death of gropius she takes care of his legacy
becomes the museum of »new england bauhaus«