This weekend I finished Fiona MacCarthy’s new biography of Walter Gropius. Gropius was a modern architect and the founder of the Bauhaus. Before I started the book I only knew a little about the subject. As an undergraduate in Berlin I took a class on 20th century design, taught by the then-president of the Bauhaus Archive. I’d also read some of Alma Mahler-Werfel’s autobiography Mein Leben.
Gropius’s connections to other architects and designers were particularly fascinating: working closely with Marcel Breuer, teaching at Black Mountain College alongside Buckminster Fuller, jousting with Frank Lloyd Wright, and touring Japan and the Katsura Palace as an urban planning advisor after the war.
MacCarthy portrays Gropius as a great man who was thwarted by circumstances far too many times: the rise of the Nazis, the British not appreciating modern architecture when Gropius tried to get commissions there after fleeing the Nazis, fall-outs with colleagues. Gropius also made some poor decisions, like marrying Alma Mahler. Directing the Bauhaus was a greater accomplishment than most people could hope for in a lifetime, but the book made me wonder how much more Gropius could have done, given the right opportunities.
I’m looking forward to reading MacCarthy’s biographies of William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones. The latter is one of my favorite artists. Unfortunately my copies of those books are in storage, so I’ll be starting John Julius Norwich’s multi-volume history of Byzantium next. I loved his History of France, both the content and the style. I’ve been discovering historians of the previous generation; I find them more relatable than many of the popular historians writing today, who often try to “jazz up” history in order to appeal to a broader audience, and lose something in the process. History is fascinating enough already.