Gropius, Mies and the Nazis.

Although many architects see themselves as having special importance and impact in regard to moral issues, architects have no more and no less responsibility to speak out than any other citizen.   

Normally there is no political match between architects and their clients, nor in normal situations does there have to be.  An accountant is not concerned about his clients' views when he does their tax returns as long as they don't break the tax law, and a doctor doesn't seek to know the political views of his patients before he treats them!

As a result some of the best architects end up working for the worst corporate crooks, housing them in the most immaculately designed office buildings, and it has often been remarked that some of the best modern churches have been designed by non believers. 

Good design is a thing apart that guarantees nothing.

A case from the Thirties in Germany asks to what extent should architects be concerned about the politics and morality of their clients?  The review below is critical of two leaders of the modern movement in architecture who participated in an architectural competition sponsored by the newly elected Nazi Party.  

'Shortly after Hitler was appointed chancellor he ordered a competition to design the new Reichsbank in Berlin. A committee identified 30 architects to submit designs. Two of the architects were Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius and Bauhaus director Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. The Bauhaus was the most highly regarded art school in Europe at the time. It was also firmly identified with the Weimar Republic, which made it anathema to the Nazis'.

 'Yet here were two of its leaders asked to undertake a design for Hitler's first public building,' writes Jonathan Petropoulos in his important new book, Artists Under Hitler.  Gropius and Mies complied, and although neither won the commission for the building that was built the following year, their attempts appear to have been sincere.

Indeed, Gropius provided a great deal more material than was called for, including blueprints, cost estimates, a philosophical statement, and photographs of a mock-up. The image of Walter Gropius working feverishly on the Reichsbank headquarters in early 1933 and hoping that he would become an official architect in the Third Reich needs to be integrated into the cultural history of Nazi Germany.

The last sentence, implying that Gropius was politically sympathetic to the Nazis, has been too influenced by historical hindsight.  We all know the unsavoury later history of the Nazis but Gropius couldn't see the future at that stage  more than anyone else.  Hitler had just been popularly re-elected and was successful in making the economy work and reducing unemployment and inflation.

Most architects wouldn't find involvement at that stage at all strange.  Architects wouldn't have any work if they worried about the politics of their clients, and at worst, the Nazis probably seemed like just another bunch of political upstarts.  It took another next five years before Kristalnacht revealed their brutal intentions to the whole world.

In 1926 Mies had designed a monument in Berlin to Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg for the Communist Party, a wonderful brick memorial to two communists who had been murdered, and he clearly regarded the Nazi Party as just another potential client! 

Both Gropius and Mies took the straightforward view that the newly elected Nazis government wanted a major new building designed, that they had been invited to participate and there was a big job up for grabs so who cares about their politics!  I suggest that most architects would have had no qualms about being involved in that situation. 

As things developed however, it became increasingly clear that in Nazi Germany you had to support their politics or pay a high price. Both Gropius and Mies recognized the different situation that had developed, and were both quick to leave Germany with many other artists and intellectuals. 

In my opinion the reviewer is mistaken to imply Gropius and Mies were closet Nazis for following their professional instincts.  One can argue that they should have been more politically astute and foreseen coming events but most people didn't in 1932.  The Nazis were still operating within a parliamentary framework, Hitler was building autobahns and had created jobs for the unemployed and provided hope after years of despair.  It took another ten years before the full enormity of their 'final solution' was fully revealed.

A contemporary parallel would be if I were asked to design a building for the Abbott government.  I would have no hesitation in accepting although I don't agree with most of their policies. But what if in 12 months time and doing badly in the polls, they used the quite legal powers vested in them under the Security and Terrorism Act to declare a state of emergency. All written or spoken mention of actions on climate change were banned as not being in the national security of a coal rich country, and the Prime Minister described people who advocated environmental action as eco-terrorists.  This blog would become illegal!

I'm being tongue in cheek of course, but don't laugh, the security agencies in Canada have already labeled anti-petroleum activists there as a threat to national security.  I think I'd be leaving for New Zealand on the next flight!

Ambition is a powerful force of course, and we can only speculate what Gropius may have done if he'd won the competition. How long could he have maintained the role of an independent consultant or would he have been seduced to join the Nazi Party?  I doubt the latter as they had strongly opposed his role in the Bauhaus and he already had an international reputation; indeed it's most likely that the Nazis only included he and Mies in the competition in order to show how politically even handed they were. 

Gropius left for England in 1934 where he collaborated with Maxwell Fry before moving in 1937 to the United States. A year later he was invited to be Chairman of the Department of Architecture at Harvard University. In this role he changed the course of modern architecture in the United States by educating a whole generation of good architects, including one who came to Australia'.

Walter Gropius and Harry Seidler
Walter Gropius and Harry Seidler at Turramurra 1954 (Max Dupain)

Hitler's architect Albert Speer on the other hand was quite upfront about his ambition declaring: '' For the commission to do a great building, I would have sold my soul like Faust. "

Whether it was ambition or conviction about the Nazi cause, or both, he joined the Party in 1931 (well before the competition) and became Hitler's chief architect before he was appointed Minister of Armaments and War Production in 1942.

After the war, he served 20 years in prison for this wartime role, principally for the use of forced labour.  He claimed to have known nothing about the death camps, was released in 1966 and resumed architectural practice in West Germany. 

Most architects will take on any building, providing grounds for the old quip that this makes them the second oldest profession. It's not common but to avoid misunderstanding, some architects have a page on their website that details their architectural convictions upfront so potential clients can appreciate their views. 

For example some architects won't work on anything to do with nuclear power or accept commissions for the defense forces, or for prisons and detention camps. Others will only design buildings where the owner is prepared to take serious steps to be sustainable.  And others express a conviction to only design housing or some other particular building type.

There is rarely any conflict as competitive submissions are required for most jobs so architects can simply avoid the jobs they disapprove of by not submitting.

And my normal response to students who tell me they are not interested in the social and political aspects of architecture is to make them sit down and look at the films of the death camps and the gas ovens.  It's hard to remain unmoved and still say you're only interested in aesthetics!

Don Gazzard LFAIA
Mid-March 2015