From Bauhaus to the Berkshires, by way of Japan

An Architect Discovers the Impact of Eastern Civilization on a Modernist Pioneer.

The Bauhaus, founded in 1919 by Walter Gropius in Germany, became one of the most influential art and design schools ever during its short lifespan. The school changed everything from furniture to graphic design to architecture. As the Bauhaus’s 100th anniversary is celebrated around the world, and the 50th anniversary of Gropius’ death is nearly upon us, I felt it appropriate to tell the story of finding one of the most influential pioneers of modern architecture at the core of one our own projects, the delight of pinpointing his inspiration, and eventually of extending his lines of thought.

When I first visited a small New England boarding school around 1998 for a meeting regarding a dormitory project, I was struck by one of the school’s buildings as being different from the rest. The building, called the Learning Center (LC), contained the school’s classrooms, library, auditorium and offices. Built in 1967, its taut construction of brick and steel presented a very modern aesthetic. But because of its distinctive roof form and large overhangs, its loggia, and its structure defining the edges of the enclosure system, I was immediately reminded of the famous Katsura Imperial Villa in Japan. Somehow this early 17th century masterpiece must have had some influence on the LC’s architects, but who were they and what was their thinking?

Learning-center

The Learning Center or LC

Katsura-imperial-Villa

Katsura imperial Villa     

Katsura Imperial Villa was originally constructed around 1620-30 by Prince Hachijō Toshihito. It was later added onto and renovated by his son in the 1650’s and was maintained off and on in the family line until about 1880 when the Imperial Household Agency took control. The buildings and gardens embody many traditional Japanese ideas such as tatami mat proportions, moving walls or shoji, and the integration of buildings with their landscapes.

 

Windigo has worked with this school for many years now, and every once in a while the former headmaster would tell me about the LC receiving an award and personally going to the awards luncheon on the architect’s behalf. As modest as the headmaster was, his favorite part of the story was about him standing next to I.M.Pei who also received an award that year. The Awards were presented during the 99th convention of the AIA at the New York Hilton, and a “who’s who” of architectural firms was there - Skidmore Owings and Merrill, Moore, Lyndon, Turnbull, Whittaker, and Edward Durrell Stone, among others. The headmaster never mentioned to me the name of the firm responsible for the design of the LC, but he did mention Sarah Harkness as the architect in charge of the project. Perhaps she was the one he had the most contact with.

 

It turns out that in 1965, the school hired The Architect’s Collaborative (TAC). Principals in Charge of the LC project were Sarah P. Harkness and Herbert K. Gallagher. Founded just after WWII, TAC had become one of the nation’s most famous and influential firms designing modernist architecture. The firm’s leader was Walter Gropius.

TAC-with-Sarah

TAC with Sarah Harkness looking at Gropius

Working with an associate architectural firm (Campbell & Aldrich), TAC’s charge was to design a new structure to replace an old, 19th-century, wood-framed carriage house that had been used as classrooms.

 

Orig-Classroom

Original classroom building to be replaced

 

In 1967 TAC won an AIA honor award with the Jury stating that "This project is intimate, understated and gracious, thoroughly appropriate to the age group served. It fits its site and is especially suitable to its purpose. Sensitively detailed." Despite winning a national award, The Learning Center is merely a mention in the portfolio of the TAC. 

 

 LC-at-Night

The Learning Center at Night

 

For years I knew the LC was influenced by Katsura but did not understand why. No one really showed the enthusiasm I had in seeing this connection, as my cocktail conversations regarding the topic just seemed to fall flat. Everyone involved with the project was long gone and truth be told, I also didn’t really put much effort into researching this further and merely left it as a question. Then one day back around 2013 as we were working on designs for renovating the LC and its later addition, one of our interns showed me the latest issue of a Japanese magazine (I forget the name) that did a piece on Gropius. When she opened the publication, a photo of Gropius touring Katsura was in it. It turns out Gropius toured Japan for three-months in 1954.

 

Gropius-touring

Walter Gropius touring Katsura in 1954

 

One of Gropius’ former fellow instructors at the Bauhaus, Bruno Taut, had invited Gropius to come to Japan (Taut was already living there) and see how a civilization had already embodied the design principles they were seeking as modernists. Gropius was enamored by the country’s architecture and traditions. On a postcard sent to Le Corbusier from Japan in June 1954 Gropius writes 'Dear Corbu, all we have been fighting for has its parallel in old Japanese culture.' And in 1960 Gropius also wrote an essay for Kenzo Tange’s book “Katsura: Tradition and Creation in Japanese Architecture”.

After wondering for so long, the feeling of seeing the photo of Gropius at Katsura was like finally finding that lost jigsaw puzzle piece and completing the picture. Though there are no references that I can find to substantiate the claim that Gropius and TAC had Katsura in mind when they designed the LC, it is hard to think that they weren’t just waiting for the right opportunity to adapt this structure in a modern way.

 

The architectural similarities between Katsura and the Learning center are strikingly obvious, although the LC’s use of concrete, brick and steel references a more regional palette of materials found throughout New England’s mill structures. It perhaps embodies Gropius’ philosophy of fusing modern industrial processes with regional craft traditions in a very simple and direct way.

 

recent-loggia

LC with recent loggia and upper floor addition

 

On July 5, 1969 - two years after the completion of the LC, and almost 50 years ago to the day of writing this piece, Gropius passed away at the age of 86. Why this New England boarding school became the location for his homage to Japan cannot be answered, as well as why this project was so much more of a literal translation of Katsura, when other works by TAC and Gropius are more abstract. The only answer I can offer at this time is that, like Katsura, the natural beauty of the campus presents itself as a place of retreat and perhaps the impressions of Katsura were so strong and fitting for this project, that Gropius could only update what had been done before.

 

Windigo has renovated and expanded the LC several times, each time honoring the existing lines and form of the structure while giving more space and better flow for its occupants and upgrading its infrastructure. In doing so, things have come full circle. Recently Windigo won an AIA award for the design of a Science, Art and Music addition adjacent to the Learning Center. Though very different in form, the new building (known as the Edward P. Evans Center), maintains the spirit of the LC, and its precedent Katsura.

 

Designing the modifications to TACs’ award winning structure has given me a much broader appreciation for Walter Gropius beyond his famed works in Europe. As only an Architect may understand this, the act of sketching out your own ideas over drawings made by someone else, is like having a conversation with the original creator. In this case, unrolling my trace paper over Sarah Harkness’s drawings of the LC and daydreaming of the conversations she may have had with Gropius, has led me on an intriguing journey through the heyday of American modernism, to its roots in Germany, and then catching a glimpse of the architectural soul of Japan.