Beyond Bauhaus - Chapter One When Britain became Modern

On the centenary of the opening of Germany’s most famous art school, RIBA’s exhibition 'Beyond Bauhaus' looked afresh at the influence of three notable Bauhaus teachers on the modern movement in Britain.

By Royal Institute of British Architects

This story is based on the exhibition Beyond Bauhaus: Modernism in Britain 1933-66, displayed at the RIBA Architecture Gallery, 2019.

Installation shot: Beyond Bauhaus (2019) by Photographer: Edmund SumnerRoyal Institute of British Architects

Bauhaus Britain

The 1930s were a pivotal decade for British architecture. Despite few modernist buildings being commissioned, the country became, for a brief moment, the centre of progressive contemporary architecture with the arrival of Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius and former tutors – artist László Moholy-Nagy and designer Marcel Breuer in 1934.

A year earlier the Bauhaus school had been forced to close. It was regarded by the Nazi party as representing values too far left of their permitted political spectrum. Drawing upon RIBA’s Collection, this first chapter is anchored around the three-year period when the Bauhaus émigrés lived and worked in the UK. It explores how their ideas were disseminated with long-lasting impact on a group of young but enthusiastic British architects.  

Party at the MARS Group Exhibition, New Burlington Galleries, London, (1938)Royal Institute of British Architects

The rise of Modernism in Britain

The origins of modernism in Britain were more conspicuous in dialogue than in physical architecture. With few opportunities to build, progressive young architects instead formed societies to share ideas and research with pioneering modernist architects from mainland Europe. From left to right: Godfrey Samuel, Le Corbusier, Wells Coates, J. M. Richards, Serge Chermayeff and Maxwell Fry

A Garden City of the Future (1936) by Photographer: Dell & WainwrightRoyal Institute of British Architects

Although modernist thought in Britain was influenced by many different perspectives, through travel and literature, a more direct inspiration came from the Bauhaus émigré architects, channelled through conferences, lectures and exhibitions showing utopian modernist cityscapes. The Bauhaus philosophy of changing society through the creation of the complete modern environment resonated with the British architects.

C.I.A.M Conference, Bridgwater, Somerset (1947) by Architects: Wells Wintemute Coates (1895-1958), Dame Jane Drew (1911-1996), Edwin Maxwell Fry (1899-1987), Ernö Goldfinger (1902-1987), Le Corbusier (1887-1965)Royal Institute of British Architects

CIAM - Congrès Internationaux d'Architecture Moderne

CIAM – the think tank of the modern movement – became an important source of inspiration. Founded in Switzerland in 1928, the organisation counted Swiss architect Le Corbusier, Dutch designer Gerrit Rietveld and Walter Gropius as founding members.

With ‘chapters’ located in several European countries, annual congresses and publications, the group advanced architectural theory and influenced the ideas of modernist architects and urban planners both within and beyond Europe. 

Group photo at Temple of Poseidon, Cape Sounion (1933)Royal Institute of British Architects

Under the title ‘The Functional City’, the fourth CIAM congress took place on board the French ocean liner S.S. Paris as it sailed from Marseilles to Athens in 1933, with participation of the first British delegates: Wells Coates, F. R. S. Yorke and Godfrey Samuel. 

Back cover of the catalogue of New architecture (1938) by Designer: Ashley Eldred HavindenRoyal Institute of British Architects

MARS – Modern Architecture Research Group

At the invitation of the CIAM, a like-minded group of British architects founded the UK ‘chapter’ MARS, seeking to share knowledge and ideas and to promote modernism to the British public.

Le Corbusier and Jane Drew lying on a rug, relaxing in a garden (1946) by Architects: Le Corbusier (1887-1965), Dame Jane Drew (1911-1996)Royal Institute of British Architects

Membership grew quickly and by 1937 the chapter included more than 60 members including Ernö Goldfinger, Elizbeth Denby, Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew, the latter sunbathing here with Le Corbusier.

Siemensstadt housing estate, Berlin (1930) by Architect: Walter Gropius (1883-1969)Royal Institute of British Architects

To celebrate its new connections with European modernists and further the modernist cause, the MARS Group began plans for an exhibition of the work of Walter Gropius. Opening at RIBA in May 1934, it displayed over 150 photographs and drawings, many previously unseen in the UK like the 1929 housing development Berlin-Siemensstadt.

Royal Gold Medal presentation to Walter Gropius at the RIBA, London (1956) by Photographer: Sam LambertRoyal Institute of British Architects

Gropius attended the opening and travelled to other regional venues to give public lectures, disseminating his belief in ‘total architecture’, the moral duty to find architectural solutions to social problems and to liberate architecture from the ‘mass of ornament’. This photograph, however, is taken 25 years later, when Gropius returned to RIBA to deliver his Royal Gold Medal lecture. 

Menu card (1937) by Photographer: László Moholy-NagyRoyal Institute of British Architects

The critical success made Gropius consider Britain as a potential new home following the closure of the Bauhaus school; and with the new connections established in London, Gropius, Marcel Breuer and László Maholy-Nagy decided that Britain offered the best prospects for work.

Designs for the Isokon Flats (1928) by Architect: Wells Wintemute Coates (1895-1958)Royal Institute of British Architects

Lawn Road Flats – a new home for the Bauhaus émigrés

Upon the arrival of the émigrés, the influence of the Bauhaus was already visible in London. Businessman Jack Pritchard offered his newly built ‘Lawn Road Flats’ in Hampstead (later known as the ‘Isokon Flats’) as a temporary, rent-free residence for Maholy-Nagy, Breuer and Gropius and his wife Ise.

Isokon Flats, Lawn Road, Hampstead, London: the Isobar (1937) by Photographer: Dell & WainwrightRoyal Institute of British Architects

Built to a radical design based on the ‘minimum’ flat concept with communal facilities, the ‘Lawn Road Flats’ rapidly became an oasis for European refugees. Alongside CIAM meetings, this building block with its ‘Isobar’, furnished with Marcel Breuer's plywood lounge chair, became a melting pot for left-leaning thinkers and intellectuals.

MARS Group Exhibition (1938) by Photographer: Alfred CracknellRoyal Institute of British Architects

Exhibition for the broader public

Up until 1937, the MARS Group’s primary activities centred on research and engagement with the construction industry to advance innovations in building techniques. It was therefore agreed that an exhibition on modern British architecture would be a positive way of educating the public in the field of Modernism. 

Sketch for the garden landscape section of the Mars Group Exhibition (1937) by Architect: Christopher David George Nicholson (1904-1948)Royal Institute of British Architects

On the strength of his experience as exhibition designer, Moholy-Nagy was given responsibility for the display layout, assisted by Maxwell Fry. 

MARS Group Exhibition, New Burlington Galleries, London (1938) by Photographer: Alfred CracknellRoyal Institute of British Architects

The dynamic layout included radical display techniques – photomontage, murals, display boxes and several changes in scale and materials – to create a stimulating visitor experience.

The dynamic layout included radical display techniques – photomontage, murals, display boxes and several changes in scale and materials – to create a stimulating visitor experience.

MARS Group Exhibition (1938) by Photographer: Sydney W NewberyRoyal Institute of British Architects

Held at the New Burlington Galleries in January 1938, the show received critical acclaim from guest of honour, Le Corbusier, who in Architectural Review wrote: ‘On January 19 I dropped out of an airplane into the midst of a charming demonstration of youth, which revealed the architecture of tomorrow to be as smiling as it is self-reliant’.

Installation shot: Beyond Bauhaus (2019) by Photographer: Edmund SumnerRoyal Institute of British Architects

Beyond Bauhaus exhibition installation

The Bauhaus was instrumental in rethinking exhibition design, staging seminal shows of their own work. This radical and cross-disciplinary approach informed the installation design of Beyond Bauhaus at the RIBA and the choice of designers: Chilean studio Pezo von Ellrichshausen.

Proposal maquette of layout of exhibition, Beyond Bauhaus (2019) by Designers: Pezo von EllrichshausenRoyal Institute of British Architects

Practising both as artists and architects, they transformed the gallery into a dense, colonnaded room featuring a bold palette of secondary colours – as opposed to the classic Bauhaus red, yellow, and blue – alluding to the assimilation of the school’s ideals in a new cultural context and of our relative distance to the Bauhaus.

Painting representing colour palette and proposal for installation, Beyond Bauhaus (2019) by Designers: Pezo von EllrichshausenRoyal Institute of British Architects

The columns act as individual ‘archives’, each containing works from the RIBA Collections, revealing the narrative to visitors as they explore the labyrinth-like installation.

The RIBA Collections, most of which are black and white, is positioned inside the vividly coloured ‘archive’ columns. They are viewed solely through holes in the shapes of the circle, the triangle and the square, retaining a sense of intimacy and surprise in the dimly lit room. 

Continue the story by looking at how the teachers from the Bauhaus influenced Britain and the modern home.

Credits: Story

Explore more from RIBA Collections here.
All images are from RIBA Collections unless listed.    

All installation shots of the exhibition at The Architecture Gallery, 66 Portland Place (except the Google 360 shots) are photographed by Edmund Sumner
Image: Aerial view of the Model of 'A Garden City of the Future'. Rights: Dell & Wainwright / RIBA Collections
Image: Royal Gold Medal presentation to Walter Gropius at the RIBA, London. Rights: Architectural Press Archive
Image: Isokon Flats, Lawn Road, Hampstead, London: the Isobar. Rights: Dell & Wainwright / RIBA Collections
Image: Installation shots of the MARS Group Exhibition, New Burlington Galleries, London. Rights: Architectural Press Archive / RIBA Collections
Image: Maquette and Painting of exhibition design. Rights: Pezo von Ellrichshausen


Curation and Interpretation by RIBA Public Programmes.

Exhibition design by Pezo von Ellrichshausen, a Chile-based practice set up in 2002 by Sofia von Ellrichshausen and Mauricio Pezo.

Beyond Bauhaus - Modernism in Britain 1933-66 was shown at the RIBA Architecture Gallery from 1 October 2019 to 1 February 2020.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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