Walter Gropius: What is Architecture?

What is architecture? The crystalline expression of man’s noblest thoughts, his ardour, his humanity, his faith, his religion! That is what it once was! But who of those living in our age that is cursed with practicality still comprehends its all-embracing, soul-giving nature? We walk through our streets and cities and do not howl with shame at such deserts of ugliness. Let us be quite clear: these grey, hollow, spiritless mock-ups, in which we live and work, will be shameful evidence for posterity of the spiritual descent into hell of our generation, which forgot that great, unique art: architecture. Let us not deceive ourselves, in our European arrogance, that the wretched buildings of our era could alter the overall picture. All our works are nothing but splinters. Structures created by practical requirements and necessity do not satisfy the longing for a world of beauty built anew from the bottom up, for the rebirth of that spiritual unity which ascended to the miracle of the Gothic cathedrals. We shall not live to see it. But there is one consolation for us: the idea, the building up of an ardent, bold, forward-looking architectural idea to be fulfilled by a happier age that must come. Artists, let us at last break down the walls erected by our deforming academic training between the ‘arts’ and all of us become builders again! Let us together will, think out, create the new idea of architecture. Painters and sculptors, break through the barriers to architecture and become fellow builders, fellow strugglers for the final goal of art: the creative conception of the cathedral of the future, which will once again be all in one shape, architecture and sculpture and painting.
But ideas die as soon as they become compromises. Hence there must be clear watersheds between dream and reality, between longing for the stars and everyday labour. Architects, sculptors, painters, we must all return to the crafts! For there is no ‘professional art’. Artists arc craftsmen in the original sense of the word, and only in rare, blessed moments of revelation that lie outside the power of their will can art blossom unconsciously from the work of their hands. Painters and sculptors, become craftsmen again, smash the frame of salon art that is round your pictures, go into the buildings, bless them with fairy tales of colour, chisel ideas into the bare walls – and build in imagination unconcerned about technical difficulties. The boon of imagination is always more important than all technique, which always adapts itself to man’s creative will. There are no architects today, we are all of us merely preparing the way for him who will once again deserve the name of architect, that means: lord of art, who will build gardens out of deserts and pile up wonders to the sky.

Originally published in 1919
Arbeitsrat für Kunst, Berlin

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