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Walter Gropius and Paul Schultze-Naumburg, "Who is Right? Traditional Architecture or Building in New Forms" (1926)

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Who is Right? Traditional Architecture or Building in New Forms


The pleasure taken in building, in lending form to our architectural structures and cities, is growing throughout the population. The complete change in the technological means of construction, which over two generations has entailed transformations surpassing perhaps the entire preceding millennium, has posed the world of building with such a multitude of new problems that, in practice, we are not yet fulfilling even the smallest fraction of what is possible.

Technical problems, the inspiration just a short while ago for utopian dreams, have been solved with the aid of newly-discovered forces—steam and electricity—with the result that the methods of our traditional way of life have been declared outmoded and left far behind. The natural inertia of the human heart hinders any quick adaptation to these recent advances. At first only a small portion of our needs will be met through the exploitation of the newly harnessed natural forces and their tool, the machine. But building in particular, that vast complex of heterogeneous crafts, still operates with the artisanal methods of the Middle Ages; the incorporation into this area of mechanical forces has just begun to cast off traditional materials, designs, and forms. The new materials—iron, concrete, glass—were available either not at all or only minimally to earlier generations. Their use today is beginning to give architecture a completely new, unexpected face. Just as we can identify a complete formal transformation of individual aspects of our surroundings, such as heating and lighting due to the application of industrial methods of production, the forms buildings take are beginning to change fundamentally.

This change becomes apparent first of all in buildings devoted to the new arrangements of space dictated by modern needs, such as factories, train stations, and bridges. These structures quite logically supplied architecture with a source of inspiration, for new inventions today, as always, are necessarily of critical significance for the development of architecture.

But ominously erroneous ideas interfere with the extension of these foregone conclusions to the great mass of other types of architectural design.

The decline of medieval handicrafts was accompanied by the rise of an academic concept of craft, and the custodians of architecture, architects, lost their natural connection to the technical advances spurred by the discovery of new materials and designs. They consequently became stuck in academic aestheticism, grew tired, gave in to convention, and ultimately let the formal vitality of dwellings and cities slip from their grasp. For the generation just prior to our own, the art of building declined into an enfeebled sentimentalism that saw its purpose in the formalistic employment of motifs, ornaments, and profiles attached to the body of buildings, so that the latter became, instead of living organisms, the carriers of dead, extrinsic, decorative forms.

The leaders of the modern movement in building took the field in decisive opposition to the exhausted and dying practice of a derivative, decorative architecture. In this technological epoch it cannot but seem senseless for people to surround themselves with imitations of past times—Gothic, Rococo, Renaissance, Baroque—so utterly different in structure from our own. Previous epochs never thought of imitating the past; they were proud to lend their own expression to their life. The effect of imitating past styles for both the interior and exterior of our buildings is just as silly as if we were to wander about our streets in the clothing and hairdos of those times. Modern individuals of 1926 need cities, buildings, dwellings, and appliances from their own time, the clear results in form and technology of the means and methods that our intellectual achievements have made available.

The subjection of all aspects of building for our needs to industry and the economy, to their precision and efficient exploitation of space and material, will determine the form of our creations. A resolute consideration of all modern methods in the erection of our buildings must be promoted, even if the resulting forms in diverging from the traditional appear strange and surprising. For the ability to make a building “beautiful” is founded on the mastery of the entire array of economic, technical, and formal preconditions, the result of which is the architectural organism. The way in which the builder orders the masses, materials, and colors of the building creates its characteristic face. Its cultural value lies in the proportions of this ordering not in the external application of decorative profiles and ornamentations. Such things disturb the clear contours of a building as soon as they are not functionally justified, which is to say, justified in a technical and spatial sense.

The new architecture articulates its affirmative manifesto as follows:

The formal development of things organically from the point of view of laws appropriate to the present, without romantic prettification and cuteness.

The exclusive use of typical fundamental forms and colors that are understandable to everyone.

Simplicity in multiplicity; the efficient exploitation of space, material, time, and money. The affirmation of the living environment of machines and vehicles, of their tempo and rhythm.

The mastery of increasingly daring formal devices to overcome the earth-bound inertia of buildings with the effect and appearance of suspension.

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