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Designed for Living

My father never had any intention of preserving the home he built for our family in Lincoln, Massachusetts. He talked only about what was ahead, rarely dwelling on what was behind him. He was willing to let time take its toll on buildings, for he was not a sentimentalist. Walter Gropius was a forward-looking man, a teacher who sought to introduce the twentieth century to a new approach to design and problem solving that rejected old solutions that had been employed simply out of habit. Gropius embraced new materials and new ideas. He would say, "It is impossible to tackle new problems with your head turned back," so I often think his jaw would have dropped to learn that his small house in Lincoln is being preserved for posterity. Its design and construction in 1938 was not, after all, intended to result in a monument to the Modern movement, but simply in an economical and comfortable home that served the needs of our family. The approach my father took in designing his New England house was based on a philosophy that he had developed at the Bauhaus school in Germany nearly twenty years earlier. It was based on the time-honored, functional design process of nature: to let appearance be the result of performance, to let beauty be determined by function. This approach rejected the nineteenth-century way of achieving beauty through styles and applied ornament. As unusual as this approach seemed in the 1930s, it always resonated with visitors to our house. Happily, this fascination with the Gropius House continues today, which would delight my father. Not because the Gropius House is a relic from another century, but because he always believed that the approach he took to designing our house is timeless. So, although the house is now sixty-five years old, when seen through the proper lens, it presents a story not from the past, but of the present.

From the very conception of our new house the practical considerations were of paramount importance. My parents spent an inordinate amount of time selecting their particular piece of land and deciding on the exact placement of the house. Considerations included the need for easy access from the road, protection from the prevailing north winds, and exposure to the winter sun. Another practical decision was to use a box shape for the house itself, which they chose for utmost efficiency. Economy of construction, materials, energy, and maintenance was a philosophical and practical priority, and a significant part of the Bauhaus ethic.

ABOVE LEFT The glass walls in the living room erase the traditional distinction between indoors and out and allow the constantly changing landscape to enliven the interior.
ABOVE RIGHT By keeping the house plan open and flooding the entrance hall with light, my father achieved a sense of space within a very small frame.

But another concern was added to these pragmatic ones-the modern architect considers the psychological needs of the occupants of the house as much as he does the practical. What good would an econo-box serve if nobody was able to be comfortable or happy within it? My father often used the word "functional" to describe his approach to design; however, this implies that the architect is taking into consideration what will satisfy the occupants' sense of comfort. My parents included a fireplace in the living room not because it was a necessity in order to heat the house but because of the delight they both took in sitting before an open fire.

My father's planning of the house itself was, perhaps, the best expression of the Bauhaus philosophy. He always called it a "bottom up" approach rather than "top down," meaning that the structure and purpose should determine how the building will look rather than putting the image first. When my father set about developing the plan for our house, his greatest concern was for how it would function for his family rather than for its formal appearance. Traditional rules for symmetry were set aside in favor of a free plan. The organizing principles were to express the patterns of contemporary living and to let the form follow the function. Through this process, a beautiful house would emerge.

Over the winter of 1937-38, my father solicited the opinions of my mother and me, hoping to uncover both our absolute needs and deepest desires for our new home. Would my mother like the morning sun when getting up? Would she like a dressing room warmer than the sleeping room? Would she like a view of the orchard or the garden from the study? Would I like an entrance of my own into the house? Would I like my bed in an alcove or out in the open? In addition, he asked open-ended questions that allowed us to explore the potential of our new living environment without giving us all pre-formed questions that required a "yes" or a "no." These resulted in some of the most delightful features of the house, like the marvelous second story deck that he built off my bedroom.

ABOVE LEFT The glass wall separating my parents' bedroom from the dressing room allowed them to sleep in the cold and get dressed in the warmth. The "floating" mirror and built-in dressing table make the modestly sized room appear larger than it is.
ABOVE RIGHT My parents at breakfast on the screened porch in 1947. In summertime they used the porch as both living and dining room, enjoying cool breezes and views of the garden on three sides. In winter, they kept a ping pong table there for outdoor exercise when the roads were too icy for walking. Robert Damora photograph.

Over the next several months, spaces evolved that would answer our needs. Solutions like an open and flexible living space on the first floor that took full advantage of passive solar heat and featured spectacular views into the landscape during every season of the year; and a screened porch projecting into the landscape provided delightful breezes, with views to the garden on three sides and easy access from all the family's living spaces, which didn't darken any of the house's principal rooms. These were simple, logical, and elegant solutions to our combined needs.

Whenever possible, my father opened one space into another to give a sense of flow and freedom to otherwise small confines. When, for practical reasons, he could not open rooms to each other physically, he did it visually. The narrow, north-facing study was one such situation. Southern light comes into the study through the glass brick partition and allows the room to appear wider and brighter. And by placing that glass wall at a slightly different angle to the other walls, the space is dynamic and not at all boxy. This was also true of the two-story central hall with its wide, open, curved staircase, which was a deliberate creation of free-flowing space within the frame of a box. As is always the case, psychological and practical needs were considered of equal importance in the design process, no matter how small the budget.

Looking beyond the practical was particularly important when considering the relationship of a house to its natural surroundings. There was a new relationship of intimacy suddenly made possible by the availability of large plates of glass. This product of the industrial age, like many others, allowed new freedom and a greater variety of affordable options to the house builder. Plate glass brought about a sudden breakdown of the rules that had always forced a firm division between the interior and the exterior. My parents employed walls of glass to make the ever changing world of our garden a year-round extension of the living room.

ABOVE Views of the guest room, living room, and dining area. Much of the furniture had been designed by Bauhaus master Marcel Breuer and made in the Bauhaus workshops. In the 1920s, Breuer experimented with chrome-plated tubular steel, an industrial material that he adapted to a variety of furniture types.

As much as my father was delighted by the natural beauty of the world around him, he was equally exhilarated by the fresh appearance of industrial products that expressed a forward-moving technology and ingenuity. Chrome-plated steel, for example, was an industrial product that could be used for lighting fixtures or stair balusters. Glass blocks could be used anywhere one wanted light but also privacy and insulation. A sense of beauty was derived from the intrinsic qualities of these materials and their contrasting textures and surfaces.

This fascination and appreciation of modern materials was also seen in the furnishings my parents had in the house. New materials such as laminated wood, which was recognized for its resilience and capacity to take on any curved shape, were celebrated by the Modern movement. The wood could follow and support the curves of a reclining body almost effortlessly. The light and simple structure of the long chair in the living room was preferred over the complexity of a heavy wooden armchair with its steel springs and upholstery. The long chair does the same job with a quarter of the effort and utilizes the full structural capacity of the material. All the furnishings were chosen for their simplicity and elegance, which in every case were derived from practical and innovative design. After all, the house was not intended as a showplace but as a comfortable and low-maintenance home.

This way of approaching design is seen everywhere within the house. It is a total environmental approach, which means that every visual form and relationship has significance and is illustrative of a coherent vision springing from the core beliefs. These are: that elegant design solutions result from taking a fresh approach to problem-solving; that technology and modern materials are vital components in designing for contemporary needs; and that all materials, whether man-made or organic, must be recognized for their intrinsic characteristics. At my parents' house, this philosophy led to the elimination of the barrier between indoors and outdoors. Plants and objects from nature were set against man-made surfaces in order to highlight the intrinsic beauty of both. No problem during the design process was ignored or simply given over to a stale or inefficient solution. No opportunity to appreciate beauty, whether natural or man-made, was ever missed.

To many of my friends, when I was growing up, this house was indeed a curiosity. They loved to visit our unusual house which was so different from theirs. I remember a woman once asked my mother, "Mrs. Gropius, don't you find it terribly exhausting to always live so far ahead of your time?" Our family always found this response to our lifestyle quite funny, because we always saw ourselves as living in the present, as opposed to so many others we saw living in the past.

ABOVE When my father built our family home in 1938, many visitors found it hard to believe that modern architecture would ever be embraced by New Englanders. Today, as one of SPNEA's most visited museums, the house shows thousands of visitors each year how Gropius's approach to design can still be used to improve the way ordinary people live.

Although this house was associated with the Bauhaus "style," my father al-ways maintained that the Bauhaus was not a formula or a prescription. It was an approach that was adaptable to any problem or personal need. My father once wrote that the Bauhaus philosophy "will be alive as long as it does not cling to form but seeks the fluidity of life behind all mutable form." As soon as trendsetters labeled it "The International Style," however, it came to be seen as little more than an architectural fashion constructed from a menu of design options that always included plenty of glass and flat roofs. As the "style" grew in popularity in the 1950s and modern-looking houses began to dot the landscape, the fresh approach to solving design problems, which was the movement's central message, was all but lost. Unattractive and impractical cookie-cutter houses with ribbon windows became, for many, the legacy the Modern movement.

It is for this reason that the Gropius House holds such significance. It was not conceived of as a monument to the Modern movement but designed and built according to its core beliefs, which makes it a natural laboratory in which to discover the Bauhaus approach to design and problem solving. My parents recognized this from the very beginning, and my father quickly invited his students to see the house under construction. Once the house was completed, my mother escorted a never ending parade of visitors through the house, explaining how our family had solved many everyday problems, resulting in less housework, easier entertaining, and a light and stimulating environment. My parents were always careful to state that the house was the answer to their particular needs and not the formula for every home. "The Lincoln house fits us like a glove," my mother would say. This was her way of encouraging visitors to consider how their own modern house might be different.

When Modern architecture fell out of fashion in the 1970s, my mother continued to bring in groups to see the house in the hope that people would learn about the true goals of the Modern movement. It was for this reason that she gave the house to SPNEA, so that as different ways of approaching architecture and design came and went, the Gropius House would always be there to present my father's philosophical approach. I am heartened that thousands are discovering (or rediscovering) the Modern movement through visits to the Gropius House. Although my father would be somewhat shocked to see his modern house labeled a New England antiquity, I know he would be delighted to see how much this house can still teach about innovative problem solving some sixty-five years after he built it.

-Ati Gropius Johansen

The Gropius House is open year round. For hours and directions, please call (781) 259-8098 or click here to view this information online.

Designed for Living