Walter Gropius

D51, Walter Gropius

Architecture; linear and constructive

Gropius’ D51 chair from 1922/23, with its backward-jutting armrests and straight back, looks pretty austere. “Straighten up,” it seems to whisper to the sitter. Its four wooden legs are arranged at an offset. The rear legs support the backrest, the front legs sweep freely into the room together with the protruding armrests. This is a small piece of architecture created by Walter Gropius, linear and constructive.

The chair and the D51-2 and D51-3 furniture series it gave rise to are a perfect match for the minimal architecture of the Fagus factory with its typical unsupported corner.

When Walter Gropius was commissioned to design the Fagus factory in the small town of Alfeld an der Leine in Lower Saxony in 1911, nobody would have imagined that he would make history.

But the architect did and simultaneously revolutionised the world of construction. Instead of choosing a historistic façade, he surrounded the production hall with a light curtain wall. The walls dissolved into large glass surfaces. Daylight, sun and air, the triad of modernity, are the driving forces towards a liberated architecture that seeks its rules solely in the necessities of the building project.

The Fagus factory has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2011. But its corresponding interiors communicated the idea of the dawn of modernism to the world long before that.

As it happened, over the course of time, this story was interwoven with Tecta’s story. Axel Bruchhäuser, partner of the company since 1972 and an important witness of the Bauhaus generation, recalls: “We sat in the foyer on chairs by Walter Gropius, of which the owners knew nothing at all. During my research I discovered a drawing of the chairs and got in touch with Ise Gropius in the USA for the first time. We asked her if we could produce this chair under licence and her reply was an enthusiastic: yes, that would be possible.”

The architect and founder of the Bauhaus, Walter Gropius (1883-1969), mocked traditional architecture as “salon art”. He descended from a family of great builders: his great uncle was Martin Gropius. Walter Gropius abandoned his architectural studies and initially joined the office of Peter Behrens – as had, incidentally, Adolf Meyer, Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier. A short time later, Gropius founded what we now call modernism – a major break from and with the conventions of the past.

One key feature was that he did not reject the principles of the industrial age – standardisation and prototypes – but made them productive tools for his work. “A resolute affirmation of the living environment of machines and vehicles,” wrote the Bauhaus director in 1926, who believed that “the creation of standard types for all practical commodities of everyday use is a social necessity.” This spirit not only gave rise to the Fagus factory as an icon of modern architecture and the Dessau Bauhaus, but also laid the foundations of what is still a driving force for us today.

“The objective of creating a set of standard prototypes which meet all the demands of economy, technology, and form, requires the selection of the best, most versatile, and most thoroughly educated men who are well grounded in workshop experience and who are imbued with an exact knowledge of the design elements of form and mechanics and their underlying laws.”

By founding the Bauhaus, Gropius launched a new school of thought, opposing the traditional architecture of which he was so critical. In 1919 Gropius was appointed director of the Grand Ducal Saxon School of Arts and Crafts in Weimar, Thuringia, and named the new school “State Bauhaus Weimar”.

Gropius’ driving vision was not only to construct a “building of the future” and a holistic work of art, but also the highly modern approach of maintaining the distinction between apprentice and master while intermeshing the two teachings in a novel manner. To work across the disciplines, with an interdisciplinary approach in the spirit of research and experimentation.

Gropius also knew how to translate architectural concepts into furniture design, exemplified by his unique penetration of volume and linearity that characterises many of his works. Walter Gropius directed the Bauhaus until its closure in 1933, emigrated to England in 1934 and to Cambridge, USA, in 1937 to teach as professor of architecture at Harvard University.