Book review: Walter Gropius, An Illustrated Biography

New Gropius biography humanizes the Bauhaus luminary.

Walter Gropius, An Illustrated Biography by Magnus Englund and Leyla Daybelge / Publisher: PHAIDON / Format: Hardback (12 × 9 3/8 in), 320 pp, 377 illustrations / ISBN: 9781838664213

A new biography of Walter Gropius offers fresh insights into the life behind some of the most iconic designs of the 20th century. The researchers selected for this project are Bauhaus scholars Leyla Daybelge and Magnus Englund, whose 2019 book, Isokon and the Bauhaus in Britain, examines his time in London in the 1930s. Readers familiar with that title will know to expect an objective-yet-sympathetic approach in this new biography which is both accessible and arguably the most accurate portrait of Gropius thus far.

In terms of balanced reporting, Walter Gropius, An Illustrated Biography falls somewhere between the unabashedly celebratory portrait of Gropius by Fiona McCarthy in her 2019 biography Walter Gropius: Visionary Founder of the Bauhaus and the lambasting delivered by Tom Wolfe in his 1985 polemic From Bauhaus to Our House.

Inside, Gropius’ life is crisply narrated from his very early childhood in Berlin through his time as an officer in a Hussar cavalry regiment to his class and political disillusionment with what he termed his bourgeois contemporaries then finally to his exodus first to England and then the United States. For supporting evidence, the biography presents a plethora of photographs, letters, sketches and other ephemera to accompany the text, fully 377 illustrations in 320 pages.

Walter Gropius: An Illustrated Biography. Leyla Daybelge and Magnus Englund. Chapter 7: USA and the World, 1952-1969. Clockwise from top left: The Architects Collaborative (TAC), Stichweh House, Hanover, 1951–3; Gropius, Le Corbusier, Marcel Breuer and Sven Markelius discussing the UNESCO headquarters in Paris, 1952; Exhibition poster for Walter Gropius: Ein Weg Zur Einheit Künstlerischer Gestaltung (Walter Gropius: A Path to the Unity of Artistic Design), 1952. Designed by Felix Müller and Karl Oskar Blasé (pages 260-261)

While organised into chapters, the reader is led confidently and seamlessly through each period of Walter Gropius’ life. But what sets this book apart is how it humanizes Gropius rather than celebrates or vilifies him.

With his impact on design and architecture arguably no longer an issue, the authors of this new biography proffer a portrait of Walter Adolph Georg Gropius as a complex, wilful, sensitive, loving, and ultimately, human-scale individual who valued cooperation and collegiality as much as, if not more than, his professional concerns.

Walter Gropius, Spain, circa 1907. (page 28). In 1907, Gropius received a substantial inheritance from a great-aunt. He left the Technische Hochschule without completing his examinations and spent a year travelling around Spain with his friend Helmuth Grisebach [Picture credit: Originally published in Gropius: An Illustrated Biography of the Creator of the Bauhaus, Reginald Isaacs, Bullfinch Press, 1991]

Bulent Akman teaches Writing Design Manifestos; Social Competences for Designers (School of Form); and Audio-Visual Publishing (Polish-Japanese Academy of Information Technology New Media Department). He lives in Warsaw, Poland.