The Bauhaus was the short-lived German art school that opened its doors 100 years ago, but whose effects can still be seen across the world today. We take a look at some of the overlooked buildings of Britain designed by the Bauhaus émigrés.
Following the school’s closure due to increasing pressure from the Nazi regime, teachers and students found new opportunities in Britain and the United States. Bauhaus Goes West tells a story of cultural exchange between the Bauhaus émigrés and the countries to which they moved. The following text and images are taken from Alan Powers’ Bauhaus Goes West.
In the case of Britain, it is often said that during the time they spent in London, Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer and László Moholy- Nagy – three major Bauhaus figures – had insufficient opportunities, prompting their decisions to move on to America. This is unjust: their stay in the UK might not have been a spectacular success, but neither was it a failure.
Prejudice and unrealistic expectations have tended to obscure the evidence and prevent a fair assessment of what might have been expected for them. Apart from these three world-famous individuals, there were other former Bauhaus students and teachers who remained in Britain and made contributions to industry and education that have been largely forgotten. In the centenary year of the Bauhaus, we have the opportunity to view these events afresh, in the light of changing understandings of the strengths and weaknesses in the Bauhaus itself.
New Ways, Northampton, Peter Behrens, 1925-26
The beginning of the sequence leading to the adoption in Britain of ‘proper’ modernism is usually traced to a house designed by Peter Behrens in Northampton in 1925. In every way, this house was an anomaly, with its slightly Expressionist decorative details over the entrance and a plan that did nothing special to develop a sense of space. In German terms it was old-fashioned, although outlandish enough in England to provoke comment.
Rothes Colliery in Fife, Egon Riss, 1960
Egon Riss, appears not to have enrolled at the Bauhaus on a formal basis, but spent some time at the school in the Weimar period, after studying at the Wiener Technische Hochschule. He had a notable career in his native Austria up to 1938, specializing in buildings related to healthcare, but at the Anschluss he escaped to Britain via Prague. Settling in London, he lodged at the Lawn Road Flats in return for doing odd jobs, with his rent of £1 per week paid by the Architects’ Czech Refugee Fund. Prior to the start of the Second World War Riss designed a series of witty domestic objects for Jack Pritchard’s Isokon furniture range, including the Isokon Donkey.
After war service, Egon Riss worked as an architect for the coal industry in Scotland, creating dramatic pithead buildings, such as this example at the short-lived Rothes Colliery in Fife, 1960. The winding towers were destroyed with explosives in 1993.
Impington Village College, near Cambridge, Walter Gropius and Maxwell Fry, 1936 -39
Faced with the actual building at Impington, which has been well preserved over the course of more than seventy years of use, with extensions tactfully made at a sufficient distance, the visitor might be tempted to ask, ‘Is that all?’ – especially if they have been prepared by Nikolaus Pevsner for ‘one of the best buildings of its date in England, if not the best’. The response of a later guidebook writer, Norman Scarfe, was that, ‘Forty years on, the building looks surprisingly commonplace, which is perhaps its best tribute.’It is not the gleaming-white Bauhaus, but built of the same local brick as its predecessors, which has weathered well.
A school with additional adult facilities, the fourth to be completed in Henry Morris’s visionary scheme, Impington’s materials and forms are local in character and slotted in among the older trees on the site.
The Wood House, Kent, Walter Gropius and Maxwell Fry, 1937
Jack Donaldson (later a Labour peer) and his wife, Frances, were supporters of the Pioneer Health Centre in Peckham. When in 1935 they were given the opportunity to build a house in Kent on the estate of the Cazalet family – socialites rather than socialists, part of the circle of the Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII who became Duke of Windsor) – they chose Gropius and Fry as their architects. Completed in 1937, the house was built of timber, with an oak frame and cedar cladding, reverting to the natural material chosen by Gropius for the Sommerfeld House in Berlin, his first major work after the First World War. The young German émigré Walter Segal, already experienced in timber building, was invited by Gropius to help him. By this time, Gropius had recruited Albrecht Proskauer, who also worked on the house. A similarly skilled German, Proskauer had been working with Wells Coates, who encouraged him to make the transfer.
Located in the Kent village of Shipbourne, the Wood House, as it was christened, is very different from the symmetrical and highly-wrought Sommerfeld design. Forming an L-shape, with a two-storey main block under a monopitch roof with deep eaves to the front (an innovation favoured in Sweden) and a lower entrance and service wing extending back from it, the house has simple horizontal boarding in a dark colour, with a two-storey open balcony at the far end, canted out slightly towards the view. The slight exaggeration of form here, belying the strict grids associated with Gropius, suggests that he might recently have learnt something from Hans Scharoun or Hugo Häring, two of his former associates in Der Ring. The other signifiant external feature is the sloped canopy over the main entrance, just slightly larger than one might expect, adding further character to this side of the house. The remainder is relatively conventional, but it hangs together well and without effort, similar in this respect to 66 Old Church Street.
Hunstanton School, Norfolk, Alison and Peter Smithson, 1950-54
In 1959 Mies received the RIBA Royal Gold Medal for architecture in London, where a small group of younger architects who had worked for him or SOM remained faithful disciples, among them Peter Carter, Adrian Gale and John Winter. Some years earlier, inspired only by drawings and photographs of the initial IIT buildings torn from the pages of the Architects’ Journal, a young Alison and Peter Smithson had designed Miesian student projects; later, with a similar-looking scheme, they had won the competition in 1949 for a secondary school at Hunstanton in Norfolk, a building whose formalism seemed counter-revolutionary in the context of the national norms set by the ‘progressive’ Hertfordshire schools, and which was slow to build owing to steel shortages during the Korean War. The Smithsons, who claimed in any case that Japan was the greater in uence on the design, were never to build in such a directly Miesian way again. Peter once remarked, in his cryptic way, ‘Mies is great but Corb communicates’, but he and Alison remained enthusiastic about the unaccented regularity of Mies’s elevations – picked up as a theme in the pattern of vertical concrete fins at their Robin Hood Gardens in London (1972) – as well as the quality of what they called ‘the spaces between’ at Mies’s Lafayette Park, Detroit.
Bauhaus Goes West is a timely re-evaluation of the Bauhaus’s relationship with modern art and design in Britain and the USA, published to mark the centenary of the school’s founding.