Ahead of the Curve
"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately," the American poet and philosopher Henry David Thoreau famously wrote in Walden, published in 1854.
One need travel only a mile from where he built his iconic one-room cabin in Massachusetts to encounter another masterpiece of deliberate living, the residence of the great architect of the Modernist period, Walter Gropius.
Born in Berlin in 1883, Gropius was instrumental in defining Modernism not simply as an aesthetic movement but also as a design philosophy capable of uniting the benefits of industrial production and manual craftsmanship. This he achieved largely through his teachings at the Bauhaus, the legendary school he founded in Weimar, Germany, between the two World Wars.
Although judiciousness of means was a central tenet of the Bauhaus philosophy, it was not only for doctrinal reasons that the Gropius House was built with extreme economy. The Gropiuses arrived in the United States with little money, having abandoned Germany to flee the Nazi regime.
Lured to Massachusetts in 1937 by the offer of the chair of architecture at Harvard University Graduate School of Design, Gropius relocated with his wife, Ise, and their young daughter, Ati.
He was immediately confronted by the question of where to settle. "We rented a house near one of the lakes," Ise writes in a brief 1977 memoir on the origins of the residence. "But our Bauhaus furniture looked indeed very strange in the small rooms of this prim little house of Colonial style."
Gropius was intent on designing a home for his family according to Bauhaus principles. But in 1938, obtaining a mortgage for a flat-roofed house was an unlikely proposition.
The breakthrough came when he was introduced to Helen Storrow, a wealthy New England patron and landowner who agreed to provide a parcel of land and the funds to construct a home, which Gropius would then rent (and eventually buy) from her.
Marcel Breuer, another Bauhaus luminary, was offered a similar arrangement on an adjacent plot. These were to be their first architectural projects in the United States.
Built with an overall construction budget of $18,000 ($275,000 today), the Gropius House must be one of the least expensive architectural masterpieces of the twentieth century.
Located on a rise overlooking an apple orchard to the front and a copse to the rear, the house reproposes the flat roof, ribbon windows, and overall aesthetic hygiene typical of what became known as the International Style (a label Gropius detested but was unable to shake off entirely). On closer inspection, however, it becomes clear that the design celebrates both local craftsmanship and American industrial production.
True to the spirit of the Bauhaus, the Gropius House combines traditional elements of New England architecture, such as clapboard, fieldstone, and brick; new materials, including glass blocks and chrome balusters; and the latest technology in fixtures -- all ordered from stock catalogs. Local techniques are honored but often subverted: The clapboard, for example, runs vertically, not horizontally, as in neighboring Colonial farmhouses.
Completed within the year, the house was a collaborative family effort. In what was to become a defining characteristic of the project, the Gropiuses fashioned the architecture around the furniture, creating a series of intimate, exquisitely functional spaces.
Ati took an active role in the design process, explicitly requesting that she and her friends be able to access her quarters without passing through the main entrance. "Our 12-year-old daughter had some extra wishes," Ise writes. "Her father always paid great attention to the spontaneous ideas of children, because he found them stimulating and less encumbered with the preconceived stylistic notions of their elders." This request became the genesis of the spiral staircase that so gracefully interrupts the house's emphatically horizontal north elevation.
Gropius and his wife inhabited the house until their deaths in 1969 and 1983, respectively. Before she passed away, Ise transferred the ownership of the residence and its contents to the preservation organization Historic New England. The house remains in its hands, immaculately preserved in every detail.
The society's great achievement is to have created a sense of suspended animation, largely thanks to the meticulous preservation not simply of the building itself but also of so many of the Gropiuses' personal effects. The house, in all its modern splendor, looks as if the couple could have just gone out for a walk -- perhaps to Walden Pond, a place of pilgrimage for all those who have lived deliberately.
photo gallery for more images of the Gropius House.
Text by Joseph Grima