Walter Gropius and the Development of the Curtain Wall
"The achievement [of transparency] brought poetry to the
process and seemed even to celebrate the efficiency of the machine." 1
The intention of this brief paper is to explore the significance
Gropius' use of the glass curtain wall. Historically, it was the
development of modern technology (e.g. steel frame construction and glass)
that fostered the idea that the existence of the glass curtain wall was
possible. Gropius then took full advantage of these new products to create
what he viewed as an industrial kind of beauty.
Walter Gropius was associated with the Bauhaus movement
1919-1933. Edwin Hoag described the Bauhaus as " more than a school- it
(was) a bridge between art and technology."2 It was here that Gropius
perfected and taught the fundamentals required for modern architecture, as
he knew them. A former student of Gropius' once stated "Gropius was the
first man who interpreted the industrial revolution to us in terms of
architecture, in terms of designhe constantly investigated the great
potential of industrial society and showed us how to assimilate them to
our ever-changing needs"3 Walter Gropius' use of glass curtain walls in
his structures conveyed a new quality of weightlessness and transparency
that would influence the way modern architects designed for generation to
Gropius believed that the technological advances of the
time, such as
Bessemers steel process and Monier's reinforced concrete, allowed the
architect to design structures that appeared less rigid. The use of a
steel frame allowed him to pull back the actual support wall and
incorporate the glass curtain wall as an exterior non-load-bearing wall.
This not only revealed the intrinsic beauty of modern materials by letting
them be seen through the curtain wall but also allowed for the
introduction of a new indoor-outdoor relation. According to Gropius, "4 The
role of the walls becomes restricted to that of mere screens stretched
between the upright columns of the framework to keep out rain, cold, and
Gropius first used the glass curtain wall in 1911 when he designed
the Fagus Shoe-Last Factory in Alfeld, Germany (figure 1). By using
cantilevered steel-frame construction the outer wall becomes but a screen
of glass. The traditional corner supports were altogether removed, thus
allowing for a fully unobstructed view into the structure. The Fagus
factory stood as proof that the traditional corner support piers, as those
used by Behrens on the AEG Factory (figure 2), were no longer necessary.
This use of advanced technology led James Fitch to state, " By giving
architecture expression to the trend toward transparency and
weightlessness the duality between architecture and construction
techniques that had persisted throughout the nineteenth century was
resolved for the first time."5
Gropius also incorporated the same construction techniques
designed the Werkbund Exhibition Model Factory (circa 1914) in Cologne,
Germany (figure 3) and The Bauhaus Building (circa 1925) in Dessau,
Germany (figure 4). In both instances the windows wrap around the
structure at the most critical structural points, the corners. This
placement of glass, where previously there had been masonry piers, led one
critic to state that, "The 'dematerialization' of the corners indicates
that the structure itself should be sought within"6 In all of the above
stated structures the introduction of transparency through the use of
glass forced the visual focus of these structures to be the horizontal
line as opposed to the vertical plane that a solid wall would have
This method of construction and the technique of incorporating
curtain walls into structures had a strong influence on other architects
of the time. Bruno Taut is noted to have said, " Glass architecture which turns the humble dwelling of men into cathedrals will exert the same beneficial influence
over them."7 Taut was not the only contemporary of Gropius' that
recreated the glass curtain wall in their own designs. Gerrit Thomas
Rietveld incorporated one into his plan for the Schroder House in 1923
(figure 5) as did Johannes Duiker in his Open-Air School of 1929 (figure
6). The utilization of the glass curtain wall was not only limited to
Gropius' peers however, but became a constant visual feature in
architecture for years to come. (figures 7,8,&9)
In summation, it is clear that Walter Gropius' innovative use of
steel frame construction to incorporate glass curtain walls into his
structures opened architecture to a new set of visual standards. He
himself said, " our endeavors were to find a new approach which would
promote a creative state of mind in those taking part and which would
finally lead to a new attitude toward life."8 This new approach evoked a
sense of transparency and weightlessness in Gropius' structures that has
been replicated with such success, that it can still be found in the
skyscrapers of today.
1 Edwin and Joy Hoag, Masters of Modern Architecture, Frank Lloyd Wright,
Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, and Walter Gropius (Indianapolis: The
Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc, 1977), p.167.
2 Ibid., p. 171.
3 S. Giedion, Walter Gropius Work and Teamwork (New York: Reinhold
Publishing Company, 1954), p. 11.
4 Ibid., p. 23.
5 Ise Gropius, Walter Gropius Building, Plans, and Projects 1906-1969,
with introduction by James Marston Fitch (Meridan, Connecticut: By the
author, 1972), p. 9.
6 Giedion, p.55.
7 Ibid., p. 47.
8 Wurttembergischer Kunstverein, 50 years Bauhaus (London: Royal Academy
of Arts, 1968) p. 14.
Gay, Peter. Art and Act: On Causes in History-Manet, Gropius, Mondrian.
New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1976.
Giedion, S. Walter Gropius Work and Teamwork. New
Publishing Corporation, 1954.
Greenberg, Allen C. Artists and Revolution: Dada and the
1917-1925. Ann Arbor, Michigan: University Microfilms International, 1979.
Gropius, Ise. Walter Gropius Building, Plans, Projects
Introduction by James Marston Fitch. Meriden, Conn.: By the author, 1972.
Herdeg, Klaus. The Decorated Diagram: Harvard Architecture
and the Failure
of the Bauhaus Legacy. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1983.
Hoag, Edwin and Joy. Masters of Modern Architecture: Frank
Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius. Indianapolis: The
Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc. 1977.
Four Great Makers of Modern Architecture: Gropius, Le
Corbusier, Mies van
der Rohe, Wright. The Verbatim Record of a Symposium Held at the School of
Architecture, Columbia University, March-May, 1961. New York: Da Capo
Kunstverein, Wurttembergischer. 50 years bauhaus.
London: Royal Academy
of Arts, 1968.
(Note: Images not included in this web version of paper)