RIBA Exhibition Tells the Oft-Neglected Story of the “British Bauhaus”
Before moving on to America, Walter Gropius, László Moholy-Nagy, and other Bauhaus protagonists spent a productive spell in the U.K.
Stepping into Beyond Bauhaus: Modernism in Britain 1933–66, the current exhibition at RIBA in London, it is immediately apparent that this take on the famed design school has ditched the laudatory attitude typical of its centenary celebration. A forest of colorful columns sprouts up from the dark blue carpet of a dimly lit gallery. As visitors progress through the exhibit, designed by Chilean architects Pezo von Ellrichshausen, the supports take on hues of burnt orange, evergreen, and plum. Somehow both futuristic and retro, the color palette is a bold departure from the monochromatic purism that has come to stand in as the image of Modernism, and remain a popular design trope for exhibitions about the Bauhaus. But then again, Britain’s particular relationship with the European vanguard who tumbled through the island in the 1930s and radicalized its architecture scene, has never been the typical story.
With Beyond Bauhaus, co-curators Pete Collard and Valeria Carullo offer a new angle on the history of the Bauhaus, as told from the perspective of a country that has historically been unreceptive about new ideas from the outside world. The exhibition layout—a “choose your own adventure” assemblage of multiple narratives from Britain’s run-in with the Bauhaus—offers many ways to navigate RIBA’s wares. The exhibition works its way through a plethora of material, ranging from the crucial to the incidental: Christmas cards; gossipy meeting notes from the MARS group, England’s own visionary architectural society; and drawings of unrealized buildings (of which there were many).
Orange is the starting point: Focusing on friendships and ideas, it explores the migration of European architects, artists, and writers into British society and the collaborations they developed with homegrown talent. Plum represents the moment these ideas crystallized into buildings (mostly villas for the upper middle-class to start). Finally, evergreen reveals the most illuminating chapter of the British Bauhaus, i.e., the post-war building boom of the 1950s, by which point many of the original Bauhausler had already exited the scene; stainless steel and white render had been superseded by brick and wood; and a shift from the private to the public realm of schools, hospitals, and social housing had taken place.
Beyond Bauhaus begins with the year 1933, when Britain first participated in the Architects Congress, an international architectural society initiated in 1928, where all the big boys (because it was always men) of Modernism discussed matters of planning, material innovations, and aesthetics. It was in this moment, the curators claim, that British architects began cultivating connections to their European counterparts, building an ideological bridge across the channel that would forever change the island’s architectural culture. Blighted by the continent’s descent into fascism, the European intelligentsia fled to the U.K., where they recommenced practicing their radical ideas more or less uncontested.
Uncontested by private clients, that is. The most revolutionary large-scale propositions—Walter Gropius’s futuristic housing complex Isokon 3 in Windsor (1935), and Marcel Breuer’s hallucinogenic “Garden City of the Future” (1936) among them—were rejected outright by the public and those in power. (“Let us leave the continent to pursue their own tricks, and go our own way traditionally,” opined Frank Pick, the famous design director of London Transport.) Unwilling to wait for British opinion to warm to them, Breuer and Gropius packed up and moved on to the more open-minded U.S. a few years later, where they would live their best lives: teaching at prestigious universities and amassing portfolios at a rate they couldn’t have imagined in Europe, building museums, college campuses, and even office towers. So the story goes, repeated ad nauseam throughout the glut of centenary exhibitions this year.
Except for this one. In Beyond Bauhaus, drawings of Isokon 3 and Garden City of the Future make a faithful appearance, as do Bauhaus superstar László Moholy-Nagy’s menus for Gropius’s farewell dinner, but they are hardly the stars of the show. Acknowledging Breuer and Gropius are the uncontested poster children of the Bauhaus movement, Beyond Bauhaus follows the boys on their U.K. tour until they quit the island, and then takes its leave from them. Lesser-known and non-Bauhaus educated architects are introduced in sections two (evergreen) and three (plum). The work of these upstarts first takes the form of materially ambitious, if socially exclusive, domestic projects for upper-middle class clients, before expanding to large-scale public structures.
“Rather than focusing on the school and its well-known protagonists, we wanted to follow the thread of the movement’s influence in Britain and the work it inspired decades later,” explains Collard. Archival photographs of a number of private residential projects built in the ’30s—such as Willow Road by Ernö Goldfinger; Brackenfell house in Cumbria by Leslie Martin and Sadie Speight; and Shawms in Cambridge by Margaret Justin Blanco White—illuminate this very British strain of Modernism. Cumbrian stone and timber- and brick-clad facades are a far cry from the white-stucco boxes imported from Europe, and stand as evidence to the diffusion and absorption of Bauhaus ideas into regional styles. Even Gropius couldn’t resist Britain’s favorite material in his short stay on the island: In 1939, he and Maxwell Fry completed Impington Village College, a gently curving structure made from stock brick.
Beyond Bauhaus shines a much-needed spotlight on a number of trailblazing female Modernists, including Margaret Blanco-White, Norah Aiton and Betty Scott, Elizabeth Denby, and Mary Crowley. Denby was a crucial advocate for affordable, community-centric housing that integrated ideas from the continent with British design. In 1937, while most other Modernists were building private homes and elite college campuses, Denby was working with Fry on Kensal House, an affordable housing estate in London’s west end that came complete with a nursery. Later, she designed All-Europe House (1939), which integrated ideas of community-centric design she picked up in Sweden into a modern redux of the traditional British terraced house.
Crowley, meanwhile, headed up post-war education reform from a national position, following the government’s 1944 Education Act. Taking the Bauhaus philosophy and applying it to the context of Hertfordshire, a part of rural England, Crowley designed a prototype school that placed the playground and courtyard at the heart of the building. Her design was used as the basis for 100 new schools built over the next decade.
“More than any male architect in Britain, Denby and Crowley worked tirelessly to bring ideas of the Bauhaus to the public,” explains Denby. As two of the first female architects to graduate from the AA, they were pushing for modern design brought in from Europe—ideas that the majority of the country found unpalatable. “It was twice or three times as tough for Denby and Crowley to do all they did, and that’s what makes their story so necessary to tell,” suggests Collard.
Beyond Bauhaus examines an era of British history where an open, receptive, and collaborative spirit—even if sometimes strained by the country’s love of tradition—produced something better and extraordinary on the island. As the Brexit deadline looms over the UK amid the rise of increasingly nationalistic and xenophobic politics worldwide, Beyond Bauhaus serves as a timely reminder that architecture and design, like all other human endeavors, needs diversity in order to flourish.