Walter Gropius’ “Appraisal of the Development of Modern Architecture” (1934)

Translated from the German by Roger Banham.

From The Scope of Total Architecture.

(MacMillan Publishing Company.  New York, NY: 1980).

• • •

Today we are in a position to prove conclusively that the outward forms of modern architecture are not the whim of a few architects hungry for innovation, but the inevitable consequential product of the intellectual, social and technical conditions of our age.  It has taken a quarter of a century of earnest and pregnant struggle to bring these forms into being — forms which evince so many fundamental structural changes when compared with those of the past.  I think the present situation can be summed up as follows: a breach has been made with the past which enables us to envisage a new aspect of architecture corresponding to the technical civilization of the age we live in; the morphology of dead styles has been destroyed and we are returning to honesty of thought and feeling; the general public, which was formerly indifferent to everything to do with building, has been shaken out of its torpor; personal interest in architecture as something that concern every one of us in our daily lives has been aroused in wide circles; and the lines of future development have become clearly manifest throughout Europe.

But this development has encountered obstacles: confusing theories, dogmas and personal manifestoes; technical difficulties and finally the dangers arising from formalistic will-o’-the-wisps.  The worst of all of these was that modern architecture became fashionable in several countries! Imitation, snobbery and mediocrity have distorted the fundamentals of truth and simplicity on which this renaissance was based.   [59] Spurious phrases like “functionalism” and “fitness for purpose equals beauty” have deflected appreciation of the new architecture into minor and purely external channels.  This one-sided characterization is reflected in that frequent ignorance of the true motives of its founders, and a fatal obsession which impels superficial people to try to relegate this phenomenon to one isolated province instead of perceiving that it is a bridge which unites opposite poles of thought.

The idea of rationalization, which many people aver is the outstanding characteristic of the new architecture, is only its purifying role.  The other aspect, the satisfaction of the human soul, is just as important as the material.  Both find their counterpart in that unity which is life itself.  The liberation of architecture from the mass of ornament, the emphasis on the functions of its structural members and the quest for concise and economical solutions, only represent the material side of that formalizing process on which the practical value of the new architecture depends.  What is far more important than this structural economy and its functional emphasis is the intellectual achievement which has made possible a new spatial vision — for whereas the practical side of building is a matter of construction and materials, the very nature of architecture makes it dependent on the mastery of space.

The transformation from manual to machine production so preoccupied humanity for a century that instead of pressing forward to tackle the real problems of design, men were long content with borrowed styles and formalistic decorations.

This state of affairs is over at last.  A new conception of building, based on realities, has developed; and with it has come new and changed perception of space.  The very different appearance of the numerous good examples of the new architecture which already exist exemplify these changes and the new technical means we now use to express them.

How far has the struggle progressed in the meantime, and what parts have the various nations played in it? I will begin with the precursors of the prewar era, and confine myself to contrasting the actual founders of the new architecture up to 1914: Berlage, Behrens, myself, Poelzig, Loos, Perret, Sullivan and St. Elia; and drawing up a brief balance of their joint achievement.  The governing factors in my choice will be, not [61] the esthetics of the buildings concerned, but the degree of independence and creative achievement with which in these buildings their architects have definitely enriched the movement.  With one exception this choice is based not on paper projects, but executed designs: a consideration which seems to me of some importance.

Germany played the leading role in the development of the new architecture.  Long before the war the Deutscher Werkbund had been formed in Germany.  At that time such an outstanding leader as Peter Behrens was not a strange or isolated phenomenon.  On the contrary, he already had a powerful backing in the Deutscher Werkbund, a body which formed a reservoir of the forces of progress and renewal.  I well remember the animated discussion at the Werkbund’s public sessions during the Cologne Exhibition of 1914 which so many foreigners attended; and the publication of the first of the Werkbund’s well-known yearbooks at about the same time.  It was in active collaboration in the latter that I gained my first comprehensive insight into the movement as a result of drawing up a sort of inventory of the existing state of architecture.  Between 1912 and 1914, too, I designed my first two important buildings: the Fagus Factory at Alfeld, and the Office Building for the Cologne Exhibition, both of which clearly evince that emphasis on function which characterizes the new architecture.

During this same prewar period Auguste Perret was the leading personality in France.  The Théâtre des Champs Elysées in Paris, built in 1911-13, was designed by Perret in collaboration with the Belgian Van de Velde, who was then living in Weimar and working in close contact with the

Deutscher Werkbund.  Perret’s chief title to fame is his extraordinary constructive skill, which altogether surpasses his gifts as spatial designer.  Although more engineer than architect, he indubitably belongs to the founders of modern architecture, for it was he who succeeded in freeing architecture from its ponderous monumentalism by his audacious and wholly unprecedented forms of construction.  Yet this great pioneer for long remained a voice crying in the wilderness as far as France was concerned.

In Austria, Otto Wagner had built his Post Office Savings [62] Headquarters in Vienna at the turn of the century.  Wagner dared to expose plain surfaces entirely free of decoration and moldings.  Today, it is almost impossible for us to imagine what a revolution such a step implied.  Simultaneously Adolph Loos, another Viennese, began writing those articles and books in which he set forth the fundamentals of the new architecture, and building that large shop in the Michaelplatz, immediately opposite the Hofburg in Vienna, which so inflamed the passions of a population accustomed to Baroque forms.

In 1913 Futurism was launched in Italy, of which St. Elia, who unfortunately died in the war, was one of the leading adherents.  At the 1933 Triennial Exhibition in Milan his memory was invoked by Marinetti, the founder of Futurism, as one of the great originators of the new architecture.  St. Elia wrote astonishingly accurate anticipations of the ideology of the coming architecture, but he never had a chance to carry out any practical work.  His project for a skyscraper on a four-tiered street remained a paper design.

In Holland development was slower.  Berlage, De Bazel and Lauweriks, who based their work on anthropological premises, had reanimated the use of geometrical systems in design, and had also, in emulation of those important English pioneers, Ruskin and Morris, inspired a revival of handicrafts.  A romantic mystical school continued in Holland until well into the postwar decade.  It was in 1917, three years after the Cologne Exhibition, that the group known as “Stijl” was formed, of which Oud and Van Doesburg became the leaders.  In 1914 the most advanced buildings in Holland were Berlage’s office buildings and De Klerk’s housing blocks.

In the United States the revival of architecture had begun as far back as the eighties, simultaneously with the development of a new constructional technique.

Root built a brick skyscraper in Chicago in 1883.  About the end of the century Sullivan — Frank Lloyd Wright’s far too little recognized master — constructed buildings of this type which are epoch-making, and also formulated architectural principles which contain the pith of the functional doctrines of today.

We must not forget that it was Sullivan who wrote, “Form should follow function.”  Intellectually speaking, he was more articulate in his ideas than Frank Lloyd Wright, who was later [63] to inspire so many European architects in both a spatial and a structural sense.  Later on, and more particularly in the postwar period, Frank Lloyd Wright began to manifest a growing attachment to romanticism in his lectures and articles that was in sharp contradiction to the European development of the new architecture.  At the present moment the Americans have the most fully developed constructional technique of any nation in the world — as I had an opportunity of seeing for myself in the course of my investigations in the United States.  But in spite of Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright and a very highly developed technical organization, their artistic evolution has remained in abeyance.  The intellectual and cultural background necessary for its preparation does not as yet exist.

This outlines the most important development in the period prior to the war.  The war intervened, but at its close the new architecture blossomed forth simultaneously in several centers.  The most organic and continuous progress was made in Germany, where the leaders of the movement were all moving spirits in the Deutscher Werkbund, and a wide circle of supporters was soon found to share their views.  In 1919 the Bauhaus was founded at Weimar, and later on its practical influence on housing developments in the cities with its marked social effect became apparent.  Thereafter the movement began to be welcomed by public authorities at large.

In Holland the “Stijl” movement began to take root; Oud, Rietveld, and Van Loghem built their first buildings, and the City of Amsterdam its extensive housing estates.  The “Stijl” movement had a marked effect as propaganda, but it overemphasized formalistic tendencies, and so provided the impulse that made “cubic” forms fashionable.  The structural concepts of the new architecture are now beginning to oust the theories which inspired the Dutch Modernists.

About the same time, the French-Swiss [Le] Corbusier, who had studied for a time under Peter Behrens, began to work in France.  In 1916 he was still using pilasters and cornices, but shortly afterward he started to edit L’Esprit Nouveau, and to produce architectural and literary work of an astonishingly wide scope which made a profound impression on the young generation in every country.  But in contrast to Germany, where a whole following had sprung up in and around the Bauhaus, [64] the movement in France developed only as the purely personal concern of a few individuals; and people in general remained indifferent, with the result that no new school arose as a logical result of their activities.

Switzerland produced a number of capable architects after the war who considerably influenced the movement, more particularly in regard to town planning.

The Stockholm Exhibition of 1930 was an important success for the new architecture in the Scandinavian countries.

England’s contribution has been confined to housing and town planning; but Sir Raymond Unwin’s ideas and the English garden cities have influenced the whole European housing movement.

Bourgeois accomplished useful pioneering work in Belgium, and has taken a successful part in the replanning of Brussels.

Vigorous young groups have been formed in Czechoslovakia, Poland, Spain and England; while a very active Japanese group exists at Osaka.

In the United States, the Austrian Neutra and the Dane Lönberg-Holm, who have made their home there, and who are both men of outstanding initiative and energy, are carrying on the movement.  The younger generation of Americans, some of whom studied at the Bauhaus, are slowly beginning to find their bearings and evolve their own formal components.

The appearance of co-operative working groups, to which I have just drawn attention, is characteristic of the latest development of the new architecture.  In countries which might be supposed to have least in common with one another similar free organizations of young architects have been formed, roughly speaking, on the Bauhaus model, who collaborate in practical and experimental work.  I consider this co-operative principle particularly promising, and very appropriate to the spirit of our age; especially when (hose groups include engineers and economists.  Such groups — when led by men who possess the right qualifications for holding (heir members together and inspiring the team spirit — are a guarantee for the thoroughness and many-sidedness of the work produced, as each member inspires his fellow.  But groups of this kind must be founded on a voluntary basis.  It is impossible to run them within the usual frame of rules and regulations.

[65]

An international organization based on the same principles called “Les Congrés Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne” (CIAM) was formed in Switzerland; to which twenty-seven national groups have since adhered.  The objects of the congress are to pool the experience of the different countries, and to co-ordinate the results so as to provide practical data and sound directives for town planning and to insure their recognition and adoption in the various countries.  This orientation of the congress work is not, of course, accidental, but represents a direct continuation of the original principles of the new architecture applied to the larger unit of the town.  The conception which the new kind of architect has of his calling, as that of a co-ordinating organizer, whose business it is to resolve all formal, technical, sociological and commercial problems and combine them in a comprehensive unity, has inevitably extended his researches beyond the house to the street, from the street to the more complete organism which is the city itself; and ultimately into the wider field of regional and national planning.  I believe that the future development of the new architecture is bound to embrace these wider spheres, and concern itself with all their congruent details; and that it must inevitably progress toward an ever fuller conception of the province of design and construction as one vast indivisible whole whose roots are embedded in life itself.

In the face of these proofs of the genuineness of the movement no one who takes the trouble to investigate its sources can possibly still maintain that it is based on an antitraditional obsession for technique qua technique which blindly seeks to destroy deeper loyalties and is doomed to lead to the deification of pure materialism.  The order by which it seeks to restrict arbitrary caprice is the result of a most thorough social, technical, and artistic investigation.  I believe that our conception of the new architecture is nowhere in opposition to that of tradition; since respect for tradition does not imply an esthetic preoccupation with bygone forms of art, but is, and always has been, a struggle for essentialsthat is to say, a struggle to get at what is at the back of all technique, which is forever seeking visible expression with its help.

[From The Journal of the Royal Institute of British Architects, London: May 19, 1934]

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~ by Ross Wolfe on October 29, 2010.

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