There is a purpose why Bauhaus architects and designers struggled to forge careers in the UK, says Owen Hatherley in the most current instalment of our Bauhaus 100 series.
“My only criticism of Mr Moholy-Nagy is that he is a gentleman with a modernistic tendency who produces pastiches of photographs of a surrealist kind, and I am not at all clear that we ought to fall for this.”
This is Frank Choose, the well-known design and style director of London Transport, outlining his views of the Bauhaus designer in a letter to the architect Oliver Hill, designer of the British Pavilion at the Paris Expo of 1937.
This excellent exhibition, at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, became notorious for the juxtaposition of 3 pavilions. Two neoclassical monoliths, the Nazi and the Soviet, had been placed opposite, while cowering, crushed beneath them was the lightweight, modernist Spanish Republic Pavilion, which contained inside it Picasso’s Guernica – a portent of the catastrophe just about the corner.
Choose insisted that the British Pavilion be an island of British conservatism and frequent sense
In this maelstrom, Choose insisted that the British Pavilion be an island of British conservatism and frequent sense. For the reason that of this, Hill’s suggestion that the Bauhaus teacher Moholy-Nagy, then resident in London, function on photomontages to decorate the creating was sharply rejected.
“Let us leave the continent to pursue their personal tricks and go our personal way traditionally”, he brusquely concluded. Bauhaus just wasn’t British.
This is worth remembering, specifically since Choose was, by the requirements of British clientele, regarded as progressive. In reality, by way of the tube stations and posters and typefaces he commissioned, he produced London Transport into the nearest point Britain had to the Bauhaus, a total modernist artwork.
Compared with the actual establishment – like the RIBA’s president, Reginald Blomfield, whose book Modernismus bridges the gap among Nazi race theory and superior old-fashioned British bigotry – Choose would at least let the likes of Moholy-Nagy design and style the odd poster (two, showcasing escalators and the automatic doors of tube trains, respectively).
There was massive hostility in Britain to the Bauhaus and what it stood for
There was massive hostility in Britain to the Bauhaus and what it stood for: abstraction, theory, unashamed modernity and a really alien version of socialism. That is why the most well-known Bauhaus teachers to flee right here – Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer and Moholy-Nagy – got out as quickly as they could, for prestigious positions in American universities, who had been a great deal extra enthusiastic for their concepts than Oxford and Cambridge. Then, an additional tale begins, about what occurred to Bauhaus concepts below American influence.
But does this inform the complete story, or did a distinctively British Bauhaus genuinely exist?
That is what an increasingly well-liked revisionist trend in British art history would contend. Alexandra Harris’ broadly study Romantic Moderns aimed to challenge the narrative of Britain as an anti-modernist backwater, and replaced it with a single exactly where Breuer developed whimsical donkey-shaped bookcases, Moholy-Nagy documented rag and bone males in Petticoat Lane, and Gropius developed village schools in Cambridgeshire.
All these items did certainly occur. While it really is worth noting the emigres all lived in a gleaming constructivist property-commune in Belsize Park, developed by the Canadian architect Wells Coates – a showcase for the Isokon enterprise, for whom Breuer developed some delightful and now deeply retro-chic furnishings.
“Nowhere did the heritage of the Bauhaus obtain ground as fertile as in America”
It really is arguable that the complete “Cambridge college” of British modernist architecture can be dated to Walter Gropius’ Impington Village College – a mild, gently curved stock brick college set in beautiful, tree-filled grounds. But that impression that Britain tamed the Bauhaus could come from the reality that Impington is the only quickly visited Bauhaus creating in Britain. Gropius also managed to develop a difficult-to-obtain private wooden property in the Kent countryside and an unrecognisably altered property in Chelsea, subsequent door to a a great deal far better preserved villa by the extra industrial modernist Erich Mendelsohn. And it really is very best to leave the partly Gropius-developed 1960s Playboy Club on Park Lane nicely alone.
Similarly, Breuer’s only permanent creating in Britain is a private property in Angmering, Sussex, in private grounds by the sea. Very good luck discovering these, unless you know the fortunate particular person who lives in a single of them.
Emigres genuinely did transform British architecture immediately after 1945, but most of these who did had been not Bauhaus-educated
Emigres genuinely did transform British architecture immediately after 1945, but most of these who did – Goldfinger, Lubetkin, Moro – had been not Bauhaus-educated, and became achieved designers only immediately after they settled in London.
The story is stranger, although, when you branch out from the well-known names. London became property to a couple of lesser recognized Bauhausler, like the painter Ludwig Hirschfeld Mack, the photographer Grete Stern (quickly to depart to Australia and Argentina, respectively), and Bruno Adler, the art historian and broadcaster on the BBC’s German Service.
Other people had been unable to settle there, and faced the consequences. The textile artist Otti Berger, for instance, failed to obtain function in Britain, and returned to her native Croatia for the duration of the war she was deported to Auschwitz, exactly where she was killed. These folks did not move to Britain on a whim – they had been escaping the Third Reich, and really couple of in Britain in the 1930s had a great deal of an thought of what that genuinely meant.
Then, as now, there was small eagerness to take in refugees, and a pervasive sense that Britain was somehow not aspect of Europe. When the war forcibly produced it so, several of the escapees from fascism had been dumped in an internment camp in the Isle of Man, with the British authorities seemingly unable to have an understanding of why German Jews would not be eager to spy for the Nazis.
There was only a single Bauhausler who genuinely was all the things British conservatives had been afraid of. Right after marrying Communist physician Alexander Tudor-Hart in 1933, Austrian photographer Edith Suschitzky employed her time in Britain to use the ‘new vision’ she’d discovered at the Bauhaus Dessau to document not the cute eccentricity of the English, but the brutality and poverty of its class society, convulsed by the Excellent Depression. She was also recruiting spies for the NKVD, possessing identified a key function in the formation of the Cambridge Spy Ring.
Owen Hatherley is a critic and author, focusing on architecture, politics and culture. His books involve Militant Modernism (2009), A Guide to the New Ruins of Excellent Britain (2010), A New Type of Bleak: Journeys By means of Urban Britain (2012) and The Ministry of Nostalgia (2016).
Photo of Impington Village College is by Wikimedia Commons user Justinc.