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The Brooklyn Rail

MARCH 2021

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MARCH 2021 Issue
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New England Bauhaus

On Walter Gropius’s “Bauhaus Proclamation.”

When Walter Gropius published the Bauhaus manifesto in 1919, his ambition was to level the enervated hierarchies of Western art. No longer divided into specialized disciplines, the arts would recover their unity; “crafts” such as textiles, cabinetry, metallurgy, and typography would receive equal consideration with sculpture and painting. They would achieve the harmony of pure expression through architecture, the Gesamtkunstwerk (“complete work of art”). To realize this vision, Gropius established his experimental design school—“free of the divisive class pretensions that endeavored to raise a prideful barrier between craftsmen and artists”—in Weimar, the heart of German traditionalism.

In the century since its publication, Gropius’s manifesto has exerted an outsize influence. Many of today’s most recognizable brands, from Apple to IKEA, took their cues from the Bauhaus’s philosophy of beautiful functionalism, premised on the idea that sleekly designed housewares could radically restructure the rhythms of everyday life. Gropius and his collaborators believed that democratizing beauty through modular construction and humble materials might lead, ultimately, to the creation of a truly egalitarian society. Hospital curtains, theater lights, tubular steel: all were salvaged from their industrial roles and recast in the modern home. At its best, the Bauhaus embodied a deeply progressive notion that beauty could be found anywhere, and that everyone deserved access.

The Nazis closed the Bauhaus in 1933, declaring its curriculum “degenerate.” After a brief stint in England, Gropius was recruited to teach at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design; in 1937, he resettled with Ise, his wife, in Lincoln, Massachusetts, where the couple rented a modest colonial. At a fateful dinner party, Gropius met Helen Storrow, a Brahmin philanthropist who took a particular interest in his vision of contemporary life. Although skeptical that such ideas could “take root” in New England, she provided land for an experiment—four gently sloping acres graced with an apple orchard and unobstructed views of Walden Pond. The property was finished within six months, using materials like clapboard and fieldstone that sensitively quoted the existing built environment. Ise cultivated a garden of indigenous plantings.

Before long, communities of modern homes were underway in nearby Lexington, my hometown, birthplace of the American Revolution. Clustered in loosely arranged enclaves with vaguely pastoral names—Five Fields, Turning Mill, Peacock Farm—these homes offered a sense of communion with nature, seamlessly blending with yet refusing to sentimentalize the New England landscape. Walls of sheet glass blurred the distinction between indoor and outdoor; casually partitioned living spaces rejected the strict definition of traditional floorplans. Everything must have seemed bold, fresh, shorn of ornament and stripped to its essence, a far cry from the town’s elaborately sketched Victorians and the staid colonials surrounding its Battle Green.

The first of these developments was Six Moon Hill. Two young couples, both founding members of The Architects Collaborative, were splitting a triple-decker in Cambridge before they decamped for Lexington in 1947 with several like-minded colleagues, laying the groundwork for an intentional community of 29 modern homes spread across 22 acres. It was a midcentury utopia of designers and thinkers fleeing their cramped urban quarters for the promise of unshaped space, echoing the arrival of the Puritans more than 300 years earlier. The postwar boom colored the American imagination with a profound sense of upward mobility; the Marshall Plan promised a strong, productive relationship with Europe. Residents came to include two Nobel laureates, a famous mathematician, the chemist who pioneered synthetic penicillin.

For the young intelligentsia, these spare but glamorous homes promised suburban living with a cosmopolitan twist. Each house was built for between $10,000 and $22,000 on a half-acre lot, and there was little variation in market price. (Utopia is fair; utopia is affordable.) Bedrooms were kept deliberately small, square footage ceded to larger communal spaces that proposed, through coercive design, a family paradigm. To this day the neighborhood’s common spaces are maintained with annual dues, and a 2004 article in the Boston Globe claimed that there was not a single fence in the community.

The commercial world took notice of these desirable young people and their desirable lives. Vogue published a profile of the community, and soon their lifestyle was refashioned as a national trend, available at various price points. By the mid-1950s, the Massachusetts-based furniture company Selig had won a reputation for its imports of now-iconic Scandinavian designs by Ib Kofod-Larsen and Poul Jensen, which came to embody the era’s highest ideals of refinement. Advertisements refer to “exacting, old-world craftsmanship” that is “unhurried, durable.” Consumers are invited to make their home “a headquarters of good taste.” In 2016, Six Moon Hill joined the National Register of Historic Places.


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From my apartment in Brooklyn, I can go back to Moon Hill. Archived listings on Sotheby’s and Redfin offer virtual tours that allow uncanny access to these homes—intrusive, too intimate—on the rare occasion that one comes on the market. Since I’ve spent a significant portion of the pandemic browsing vintage furniture I can’t afford online, I’m now able to recognize a dining set by Niels Koefoed; a coffee table by Jens Risom; a sofa by Adrian Pearsall; rosewood wall units filled with books, asymmetrical ceramics, a Noguchi lamp. They were background noise when I was a child visiting friends on Moon Hill or Peacock Farm, objects I never gave a second thought. All of that understated luxury betraying a boast legible only to the trained eye.

In hindsight, it seems appropriate that the Bauhaus found its American home in New England. Just as Weimar and its associations with Germany’s literary heritage (Goethe, Schiller) provided a flatteringly conservative backdrop for the radical school, the suburbs of Boston—where so many quintessentially American authors spent their most productive years—served as a fine canvas for Gropius’s midcentury experiment. Both were key sites in their respective country’s cultural and political imaginaries, where national identity was forged through art and literature.

As with most fabulously successful endeavors, the Bauhaus’s popularity has eclipsed the potency of its earliest intentions. It has become respectable, historical, even a bit rarefied. Many of the hierarchies it hoped to disrupt have been overthrown and new orders have calcified. Corporations have mined the original spark for a profitable style and taken it to its blandest extremes, bright colors and simple forms long divorced from their utopian beginnings. Still, as I scroll through the online listings, one beautiful home after the other—modest, tasteful, fine—it’s easy to imagine how the vision of life they proposed might have seemed like the most promising of all possible futures.

Contributor

Christopher Alessandrini

is a writer based in Brooklyn.

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The Brooklyn Rail

MARCH 2021

All Issues