Last week I visited the Gropius House in Lincoln, Massachusetts. The structure was built in 1938 by Walter Gropius after he left Germany to teach at Harvard University. Previously in Germany, he had founded the Bauhaus School and taught that in the practical arts like architecture functionality should take precedence over form. Another largely influential idea that came out of the Bauhaus was the idea that art and architecture should change based on the spirit of the age, or zeitgeist. During the twenties and thirties, this zeitgeist (in Germany and Russia especially) was a new beginning after suffering through the First World War and the Russian Revolution. As a result, Gropius’s style had few historical influences and used modern materials, like reinforced concrete and acoustic plaster, and construction techniques. Unfortunately, the Bauhaus style in Germany did not last long- when the Nazis came to power modernist art and architecture was labeled as “degenerate” and Gropius’s school was shut down.
When Gropius came to America, he was compelled to spread his style, as support for it was waning in Germany. A Massachusetts patron gave him land in Lincoln to build the Gropius House. The Gropius House was built inexpensively- $18000 at the time- and is therefore very simple in form. It is shaped mostly like a shoebox, except for the the entranceway (at an acute angle to the rest of the house), a screen porch, and a walkway passing under the corner of the roof to the back door. Unlike Gropius’s German buildings, it takes cues from the local architecture, with a traditional New England foundation and wooden siding (albeit positioned vertically). Gropius created a diverse interior. Very small rooms contrast with large open spaces like the living/dining room and upstairs porch. Materials vary from room to room, including cork, acoustic plaster, wooden siding, and square glass blocks. Barriers dividing rooms are in many cases unorthodox, and include clear glass, translucent glass blocks, and curtains.
The most impressive part of the design is Gropius’s mastery of light. This is apparent from the moment one enters the building. The foyer is mainly illuminated by natural light coming from the second floor, drawing the eye up the staircase. Half-chrome light bulbs are used throughout the house- with the top of the bulb covered by metal, they can be hung from the ceiling without providing too harsh a glare. This is an example of the sort of simplicity that was such a key part of the design. On the south elevation, massive windows open up towards the sun, providing copious natural light. On the north side, the windows are narrow and horizontal to minimize heat loss. However, Gropius positioned them at head height to give the impression that they provide much more light than they actually do. Finally, the study and dining room are divided by a wall of glass blocks, with a treelike plant on the study side of the wall. In the evening, the dining room would be illuminated by a spotlight in the study. As well as providing an unusual ambience, this would cast the shadow of the tree on the wall, allowing diners to see the contrast of the organic form and the industrial blocks.
The Gropius House was a sensation when built, prompting the construction of modernist designs elsewhere in the US. Frank Lloyd Wright had previously been the only voice of American modernism, but now Gropius presented an inexpensive vision of the future. European modernist homes became especially popular on the west coast- some famous examples include the Eames House and the Case Study Houses. However, Bauhaus residences were never truly mass-produced as Gropius wished. Perhaps this is for the best- while the Gropius House is pleasant because Gropius meticulously designed every aspect, the mass-production of cheaply and poorly designed white boxes would create some very dystopian suburbs.
I would strongly recommend a visit to the Gropius House. It has changed very little since Gropius lived there, and the optimism and futurism of the thirties can still be felt. If you don’t come for the architecture, come for the art and furniture. Many artworks or furniture pieces are donations from friends of the Gropiuses, like Marcel Breuer, Eliel Saarinen, Henry Moore, and Diego Rivera (works by Paul Klee also once hung in the house). Tours are $15 for adults and $8 for students.
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