Walter Gropius has always seemed like the grayest man of the Bauhaus. Mies van der Rohe had his whiskey-colored skyscraper and book-matched marble. Marcel Breuer had his winking butterfly roofs and the cantilevered cane chairs at every architect’s dining table. Gropius’s design signifiers are much drier — flat roofs, glass corners — and have now been thoroughly absorbed into the general collection of modernist imagery. Even his one completed attempt at a signature skyscraper — Manhattan’s Pan Am tower, that prismatic doorstop straddling Park Avenue — is hard to love.
Fiona MacCarthy, the author of previous books on Lord Byron, Eric Gill and William Morris, acknowledges his image problem in her preface to “Gropius: The Man Who Built the Bauhaus.” “Not the least of the myths I have had to contend with in writing his life is the idea that Gropius was doctrinaire and boring,” she writes, laying blame for this characterization at the feet of Tom Wolfe, in “From Bauhaus to Our House,” and Alma Mahler, Gropius’s first wife, in her memoirs. MacCarthy perceives Gropius a bit differently — as one might hope for a biographer. “I see him as in many ways heroic, a romantic and optimist, a great survivor,” she writes. What’s more, “Sexually Gropius was far from negligible.”
The subtitle has a double meaning. Gropius, who was born in Berlin in 1883, built both the flat-roofed, glass-cornered building that housed the Bauhaus school in Dessau and the faculty and curriculum for a modern school of design.