Last autumn we were a partner in the exhibition "The Bauhaus #itsalldesign", designed by the Vitra Design Museum and the Art and Exhibition Hall of the Federal Republic of Germany (Bundeskunsthalle) at mudac - Musée de design et d'arts appliqués contemporains in Lausanne.
We participated with Viorel Ionita architect, Bruno Marchand, Professor of Theory and History, EPFL; and Doris Wälchli, President of the Foundation for the Culture of the CUB Building at the round table discussion on the issue of architecture at the Bauhaus and its heritage.

Today Bruno Marchand answers the question in Tracés magazine, is the founder of the Bauhaus an overvalued figure in world architecture?



By Valérie Hoffmeyer / Tracées Image Walter Gropius, left, discussing plans with a student © Jerry Cooke / Corbis Getty Images

Is the founder of the Bauhaus an overrated figure in world architecture? Yes, answers Bruno Marchand, professor of architectural theory. But he is also an exciting man, who leaves an extraordinarily complex mark on the history of modern architecture.

Enigmatic, strange and indistinguishable. These are the words that articulate Bruno Marchand's story when he evokes his editorial project around Walter Gropius. For years now, the architect has been a document on the founder of the Bauhaus. An approach that is increasingly similar to a companionship, where the scientific approach ends, necessarily, by becoming imbued with a kind of familiarity, with its moments of admiration and delight, of irritation too. "But no weariness. Gropius remains mysterious enough to keep me on my toes: the complexity of the man he was, very much in tune with his time, interests me as much as the figure he has become in the history of architecture," says the professor of architectural theory at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL), who prefers not to announce a date for the publication of this book, which promises to be a more personal than academic project. This will fill an astonishing editorial void: while Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe, the other three members of the "first generation" of modern architects, are the subject of almost annual publications, the master of the Bauhaus remains rather shy. The most important monograph on his work, written by Winfried Nerdinger, was published in 1985, his biography of Reginald R. Issacs in 19831. What if this quasi indifference was fuelled by the idea that, apart from the manifest objects that have made his immense fame, Gropius was a rather mediocre architect, largely overvalued? An inflammatory thesis put forward by the author, who immediately nuances it with the formidable complexity of man and the Gropius myth.

Tracés: What do you like so much about the austere Gropius?

Bruno Marchand: I can't summarize it in one of its aspects. When I think I have understood something about him, other elements tell me otherwise. It is resistant to interpretation. First of all, he is a fascinating creator of myths, starting with the Bauhaus. We think it's a school of architecture: not at all!
In the early years, architecture was not even taught there, except for a few seminars. He himself has never given an architecture course there, which is incredible. The teaching method is based on the workshop, where we learn processes of design and manufacture of everyday objects. They are the ones who will make and still make the reputation of the Bauhaus, more than architecture. Gropius is also a man of conviction, in the sense of one who knows how to convince others but without imposing a vision on them. Not only does it attract the most outstanding figures of its time, including the artist Paul Klee, to name but it also offers them immense creative spaces. Everyone is free to develop their own educational project. Surprisingly, when he finally introduced an architecture course into the program, Gropius called on Hannes Meyer, the most functionalist of all.
The artistic charge, which, by the way, never inhabits his work, is not an end in itself. It cannot be dissociated, according to him, from the necessary industrialization of architecture.

If man is so complex, what does his work say about him?
He has shaped three major manifesto objects, which in a way express his ability to feel early on what the future of architecture will look like: the Fagus factory in 1911, the model factory at the German Werkbund exhibition in Cologne in 1914 (fig. 3) and finally the Bauhaus school in Dessau in 1925. He was then in tune with the social issues of his time, capturing and translating the major trends in society into architecture. But the scale of the individual and the everyday - the ergonomics and elegance of the door handle, to put it in a nutshell - do not interest him. We can say that his work is devoid of any form of emotion.

What was the next step in his post-war career?
He often does mediocre things, just think of the Pan Am building (1958-1963) in New York (fig. 4) or the catastrophic whole of southern Berlin, called "Gropius Stadt". Curiously, he doesn't pursue the Bauhaus at all. He is not a good draftsman, unlike other modern artists whose artistic load is as much in the drawn space as it is built. It's quite striking when Gropius finds himself in competition, for example against the extraordinary talent of Alvar Aalto. At Harvard, its student accommodation buildings (1948-1950), arranged around the courtyards, were no match for the sinuous strength of the Finnish master's Baker House (1947-1949). Similarly, at the Interbau in Berlin (IBA) in 1957, its housing, which is based on the typologies of the 1930s, is much less interesting and innovative than that of Aalto.

What is left of Gropius for today's architects?
At first glance, not much. I do not know of a single contemporary architect who would explicitly mention it. But if we think about it carefully, there are still many things, which are more a matter of attitude than reference. For example, it can be argued that the process interested him more than the architectural object. He also had a deep sense of collective work. Maybe because he wasn't drawing very well, precisely - and it's very easy to check. He had to discuss the projects a lot with his colleagues in his office. During his American career, his company name has always been referred to with the names of his partners, under the acronym TAC for The Architects Collaborative. »

So what is to be learned from Gropius' work?
The idea of signing should not occupy him so much, even if he had no problem of self-confidence (it is even said, quite frankly, that he was full of himself when he arrived in the United States after the war). As for the suspicion of a purely industrial and functional vision of architecture, which could imply a form of contempt for culture and art, it would of course be reductive, especially in view of the network of artists it has built around the Bauhaus project. His true work, which has had an immense influence, is the school and the educational project. Probably that's where he gave his best. Moreover, after the war, he devoted himself almost exclusively to teaching, which neither Le Corbusier nor Mies van der Rohe ever did. 

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