A labyrinth called biography

Toppling a monument in the Bauhaus anniversary year? What a great idea. Thought Bernd Polster and put his reputation as an author at risk.
by Thomas Edelmann | 5/21/2019

It was only a question of time before “alternative facts” in publications also included the topic of architecture and design. What this specifically does not relate to: The familiar mistakes, sloppiness and imprecision ubiquitous in reporting on design and difficult to avoid at all times in architecture publications. Instead, the focus here is on a methodical spreading of half-truths and lies. The protagonists of this tactic like to proclaim that they are “finally” able to give the long-mislead public the dirt on the issue in question. The method is employed both in the political sphere and in the media by those no longer able to command attention in other ways when faced with the maelstrom of digital images and news.

The better argument and precise research count for little – all the more so do appeals to feelings and instincts. A popular ruse is the allegation that something has hitherto been “kept almost completely secret”. Bernd Polster, an adept writer on design and architecture themes thus far and a newbie in the field of historical biography, sets the basic tone of his book with the introduction: “Even as a young man, Walter Gropius was a veritable master of the unsaid.” Of course the unsaid is notoriously hard to document, and cannot be questioned or contradicted. With “Walter Gropius – Der Architekt seines Ruhms” Polster does truly pioneering work in the highly questionable sector of writing alternative architecture history.

While audiences up and down the country are celebrating the anniversary and much superficial knowledge is being spread on the Avant Garde art school in Weimar, Dessau and Berlin, there is a distinct lack of critical, possibly even polemic voices of dissent. However, Polster’s fanciful non-fiction book with footnotes is not among these.

For the most part, Polster unfurls facts that have been public knowledge for decades and that have been discussed, assessed and integrated into the subject literature and the features sections of the big newspapers. Others have already outlined these research results in comprehensible and coherent ways. Annemarie Jaeggi already presented her monograph on Adolf Meyer on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the Bauhaus 25 years ago. The catalog publication “Der zweite Mann – Ein Architekt im Schatten von Walter Gropius” is an extended version of the 1992 dissertation by the current Bauhaus archive director. She here painstakingly lists, in line with the insights of the time of writing, what Adolf Meyer designed as Gropius’ partner and which works they created together. Earlier still, in 1985, Winfried Nerdinger had already published his critical monographic catalog on Gropius’ life and work. Those interested will have known as of that point in time that Gropius the architect did not have a degree, a trait he shared with many others – Modernists and Anti-Modernists alike – including Peter Behrens, Le Corbusier and Buckminster Fuller. In contrast to Mies van der Rohe, who also did not hold a university degree, Gropius had at least spent two semesters attending a technical university. Evidently the first half of the 20thcentury offered different opportunities for advancing in the occupation that were not tied to certificates and qualifications, in contrast to what may appear necessary for success in the field in our day. Much other unfavorable information on the Bauhaus founder has likewise been common knowledge for a long time. But does that justify sensational chapter titles such as “Walterchens Welt” (Little Walter’s world), “Aufstieg aus Besessenheit” (Ascent through obsession), “Alma, Sex und Avantgarde” (Alma, sex and the Avant Garde) or “Der leibhaftige Gropius” (“Gropius in the flesh”)?

Reginald R. Isaacs, who authored the extensive two-volume monograph rich in material, which was issued in German in 1982 (vol. 1) and 1984 (vol.2) respectively, had already published a letter written by Gropius to his mother in the year 1907, in which he stated, in detail, his “absolute inability to bring even the most simple things to paper”. Gropius wrote: “I am unable to draw a single straight line.” In short: The emerging architect couldn’t draw. And this was not a temporary deficit that could be remedied through training: Instead, he established an “almost physical impossibility” in himself, seeing as his “hand immediately begins to cramp, I perpetually break the pencil tips and need to rest after just five minutes”. It was Gropius’ biographer Isaacs who published these facts. Despite the general closeness the latter felt to Gropius at Harvard: The sociologist and urban planner owed his appointment as Endowed Professorship for Regional Planning at the renowned university to the architect. Based on these personal links, a certain fundamental skepticism towards Isaac’s conclusions may certainly be justified. Yet does this warrant Polster’s characterization of Isaac’s work as a “tool of his (Gropius’) systematically practiced self-stylization” – seeing as Polster also bases his book on Isaac’s research?

Author Bernd Polster

What Polster obfuscates as mysterious, namely Gropius’ conversation-based design practice, which always required a counterpart, a person to implement it, was already researched and outlined in detail by Nerdinger in 1985. As was the fact of the issues this brought with it, in particular in relation to the ongoing implementation of the work. Nerdinger expressed, at the time, that he saw Gropius’ work lacking a consistent formal rigor – in contrast to that of Le Corbusier or Mies van der Rohe. Yet we are now familiar with large architecture firms: While their heads may lend these studios their name, considerably less famous staff members tend to be the ones to execute the designs. While Norman Foster, Renzo Piano and Zaha Hadid can or could draw, a great number of their projects were penned by often unnamed co-workers of theirs.

We have long since lost important contemporaries of Gropius, who could provide information on his life and work. Any current examination – Polster’s included – must thus inevitably be based on historical records and letters, catalogs and old documents. Ati Gropius, Walter and Ise Gropius’ adoptive daughter, with whom Polster conducted long interviews, died in 2014. In the previous year, German radio station WDR broadcast a radio feature by Bernd Polster that included direct quotes by her. In the piece, which was also titled “Der Architekt seines Ruhmes,” Polster summed it up as follows: “Gropius bore the imprint of the 19th century, in which he was born, within himself.” That may not be a particularly original insight, but it isn’t incorrect, either. Polster now contends that his protagonist was a man of ancient history, a braggart and fraud, a “Felix Krull,” “a hussar,” with the latter alluding to his military training, while his ability to ride a horse makes him a “Gentleman-Jockey” in Polter’s eyes, and his relatives east of the River Elbe make him a Junker, a young German nobleman. Polster asks, with a view to the fact that Gropius’ parents had servants working for them, whether these had to sleep on the “mezzanine floor,” which he calls an “installation typical of Berlin”? Hussar, gentleman-jockey, fraud, plagiarist – the author scatters his text with judgements at every suitable opportunity, and repeats himself tiresomely in doing so. This also holds true for the “dungeons of oblivion,” to which Gropius allegedly consigned his overlooked victims and former companions when it came to securing his own position. To top this, Polster also cites “fairy godmothers” when he reaches an impasse, when he simply doesn’t understand how his protagonist managed once more to shuffle out of responsibility, to twist himself free from deserved punishment or at least public shame.

Gropius’ entire life is presented as a series of occupational accidents. His becoming director of the Bauhaus: A tragic mistake, seeing as he didn’t have the academic qualifications that would have been necessary for the job. And so it goes on and on, one disgrace follows the next – rather tiring for those readers unwilling to accept Polster’s conspiracy theories at face value. The expulsion of a formerly favored right-wing student happened to an “outcast disciple”. Whatever occurs in this book with around 653 pages including footnotes: Gropius is the transgressor and culprit.

Is this merely a boring book, or also a malicious one? It is one story among many.

During the 1937 construction of the building designed by Marcel Breuer in Lincoln, Massachusetts, the “female part of the nuclear family had its say,” as Polster relates in the book. Daughter Ati complained about the windows in her room, which were installed so high, “just like in the Törten settlement, it’s impossible for a child to look out.” Gropius justified this with wanting to protect his daughter’s privacy – despite there not being any neighbors or passers-by around. End of story. In the 2013 radio feature on the other hand Ati recounted: “But I, as a child, said: That will never do. You can’t make the window as high as in a prison. And so he actually changed it, just imagine. He tore them down, just because a twelve-year old frog said: No, that won’t do!” A somewhat different punchline.

A further example: Isaacs relates that shortly before his death in 1969 Walter Gropius personally turned his attention to the design of a restaurant in the Berlin high-rise settlement “Britz-Buckow-Rudow,” now renamed Gropiusstadt. The biographer describes the location in the western section of the residential high-rise of the building society Ideal-Baugenossenschaft. This was the “last piece of work Walter Gropius was able to carry out.” Polster’s take on this: As the “tragedy of history would have it, the traces of this hospitable space were lost somewhere in the upheavals of the 20th century.” He goes on: “In truth, this cast concrete neighborhood tavern probably never existed. It was just a fib. In the labyrinth called biography it is just a small byway of those countless, deceptively real looking make-believe paths that all lead nowhere”. A simple phone call to Ideal-Baugenossenschaft and a chat with their acting service manager Dirk Mügge, who has been working for the building society for 45 years, reveals that the tavern in question is in fact the “Ideal-Pavillon,” which was constructed at the same time as the high-rise. And while it certainly isn’t a Bauhaus pilgrimage site, you absolutely can play darts on a machine here, drink beer or think of Walter Gropius. For example on July 5th, the 50th anniversary of his death. Cheers! Or, if you prefer: Bottoms up! 

Bernd Polster
Walter Gropius. Der Architekt seines Ruhms

653 p, hardcover
Hanser Verlag, Munich 2019
ISBN 978-3-446-26263-8
32.00 Euro