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  • Writer's pictureLucy Walker

A Brief History of the Gropius Bau in Berlin

What is the Gropius Bau?

The Gropius Bau, full name ‘Martin-Gropius-Bau’, is a Space for modern and contemporary art and archaeological exhibitions in Berlin, that was founded in the late 19th century as a Museum of Applied Arts.

Gropius Bau

Gropius Bau History

The Gropius Bau offers us a novel glimpse of what Berlin looked like before the Second World War. Its Renaissance-revival building was designed by Martin Gropius and Heino Schmieden in the 1870s; they acknowledge their indebtedness to the stately architecture of Karl Friedrich Schinkel, who designed the Konzerthaus in Gendarmenmarkt. Schinkel’s design principles were integral to 18th- and 19th-century town planning in Berlin. Take note of the mosaic panels (containing allegorical figures representing different cultures) at the top of the building, and the lines of frieze sculpture that run beneath them. These demonstrate Schinkel’s fluency in both Gothic and Neoclassical architectural language, and his ability adeptly to combine them.

The Gropius Bau opened in 1881 as a museum of applied arts. It displayed precious decorative art from across the globe, and showcased the work produced at the prestigious arts and crafts school next door. Gropius’s surname might ring uncannily familiar to art lovers, thanks to his more famous descendant: his great-nephew was Walter Gropius, a modernist architect who helped to found the influential Bauhaus school of art. The Bauhaus aimed to unify fine art, craft and technology, and in this respect the younger Gropius was influenced by his great-uncle’s involvement with the decorative arts. Therefore, Modernism as a general cultural philosophy, and to a lesser extent as an architectural style, doesn’t begin after the First World War, but rather in the late 19th century.

In 1918, Kaiser Wilhelm II was forced to abdicate following Germany’s crushing defeat in the First World War. Until that point the Berliner Schloss (or Berlin Palace) had been a royal residence for centuries. Part of it took on a new museum of decorative arts, which in turn prompted the Gropius Bau to remodel itself; it duly did, becoming a Museum of Prehistory and East Asian Art. During the events of the century’s remainder, the Gropius Bau was a rare constant in a turbulent and traumatised city. For some reason, the gallery was never converted by the Nazis. When the Second World War broke out, the entire library of the neighbouring art school was moved into the museum for safekeeping. The art school was subsequently demolished and, sadly, the site was converted into the headquarters of the Secret Police.

Berlin was hit by 363 air raids over the course of the Second World War. Despite its central location, the gallery remained intact until 1945, when it was severely damaged in one of the last major Allied bombing raids. The north façade and upper floors were all but destroyed. The ruin was earmarked for demolition but was saved by a campaign run by the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation and individuals like Walter Gropius.

Today, the Gropius Bau continues in the tradition of the Bauhaus and other Modernist movements that flourished in the Weimar Republic. Its diverse exhibition programme promotes modern and contemporary art, while looking back to the material cultures of our ancestors with exhibitions on archaeology.

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