Beyond Bauhaus - Chapter Two Designing the Modern Home

On the centenary of the opening of Germany's most famous art school, RIBA's exhibition 'Beyond Bauhaus' revisited the origin of the modern home in Britain.

By Royal Institute of British Architects

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

Designs for a house for M. P. Horsley Esq. (1935) by Architects: Sir Martin Leslie (1908-2000), Sadie Speight (1906-1992)Royal Institute of British Architects

Upon the arrival of three Bauhaus émigrés – architect and Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius, designer Marcel Breuer and artist László Moholy-Nagy – the first appearances of a modern architectural language in Britain were already found in private houses.  

Commissioned by wealthy clients with a desire to display their contemporary cultural sensibilities, these pioneering homes were not confined to London clients but were built across the British countryside.     

A period from mid-1920s to mid-1930s saw modern homes influenced by many international sources but, most significantly, the principles of Le Corbusier. Coinciding with the arrival of the Bauhaus émigrés, the second half of the 1930s saw a departure from the ‘white box’ aesthetic to employ more traditional materials in a modern context.

Le Chateau, 65 Boars Tye Road, Silver End, Braintree, Essex (1928) by Architect: Thomas Smith Tait (1882-1954)Royal Institute of British Architects

Early Modern Experiments

Early experiments with modern domestic architecture often employed an eclectic approach, fusing the pared-back modernist style with Art Deco features. One such example is ‘Le Château’ by Scottish architect Thomas Tait, with its asymmetrical composition. 'Le Château' was part of the progressive Silver End Model Village, established for factory workers in rural Essex, East England.

New Ways, 508 Wellingborough Road, Northampton (1926) by Architect: Peter Behrens (1868-1940)Royal Institute of British Architects

Another example is ‘New Ways’ in the town Northampton in England’s East Midlands region by pioneering German architect Peter Behrens in 1925. They were followed by a number of uncompromisingly modern houses in the early 1930s, built in reinforced concrete and displaying influences from different strands of Modernism. 

Sun House, Hampstead (1935) by Photographer: Dell & WainwrightRoyal Institute of British Architects

With its ribbon windows, roof terrace and slender supports to the balconies, the ‘Sun House’ by Maxwell Fry declares its designer’s admiration for Le Corbusier. 

Torilla, Nast Hyde, Hatfield, Hertfordshire (1935) by Photographer: Dell & WainwrightRoyal Institute of British Architects

By contrast, ‘Torilla’ shows both the youthful enthusiasm and confidence with which F. R. S. Yorke employed a Czech-influenced modernist language. The cubic massing of the house, solidly anchored on the ground, is punctuated with wide openings.

High Cross House, Dartington Hall School, Devon (1932) by Photographer: Alfred Edward HensonRoyal Institute of British Architects

Demonstrating the closest affinity to the Bauhaus, both in function and style, is ‘High Cross House’ by Swiss-American architect William Lescaze. A part of the progressive educational institution Dartington in Devon, South West England, the head teacher’s house was the first modern home to use colour extensively both inside and outside.

Isokon Flat, Lawn Road, London (1934) by Architect: Wells Wintemute Coates (1895-1958)Royal Institute of British Architects

New international partnerships

During their three-year stay in Britain, the three Bauhaus émigrés lived rent-free in the avant-garde community of 'Lawn Road Flats' in London, forming new friendships and intellectual circles across a range of artforms and scientific fields.

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

Commissioned by businessman Jack Pritchard, 'Lawn Road Flats'   embodied the philosophy of the Bauhaus. Along with its sleek, modern style, its design presented a new way of living with communal amenities and dining. 

Edwin Maxwell Fry, Architect: Edwin Maxwell Fry (1899-1987), 1964, From the collection of: Royal Institute of British Architects
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Walter Gropius, Architect: Walter Gropius (1883-1969), 1937, From the collection of: Royal Institute of British Architects
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Francis Reginald Stevens Yorke, Photographer: Sam Lambert, Architect: F.R.S Yorke (1906-1962), 1952, From the collection of: Royal Institute of British Architects
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Marcel Breuer, Architect: Marcel Breuer (1902-1981), 1958, From the collection of: Royal Institute of British Architects
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Merging the best of Bauhaus and British architecture, two fleeting architectural partnerships were set up: Gropius & Fry and Yorke & Breuer. The international reputation of Gropius and Breuer, aided by the local knowledge of their partner architects, Maxwell Fry and F. R. S. Yorke, helped secure commissions from wealthy private clients soon after their arrival in Britain. The partnerships had a lasting influence on modern British housing. In turn, these designs were to inform the future practice of ex-Bauhaus architects. 

Working drawings for 66 Old Church Street, Chelsea, London: west and east elevations (1936) by Architects: Edwin Maxwell Fry (1899-1987), Walter Gropius (1883-1969)Royal Institute of British Architects

For the émigré playwright Levy Benn, Gropius & Fry inserted a modern response to the neighbouring Regency terrace on Old Church Street in West London. 

66 Old Church Street, London (1936) by Photographer: Dell & WainwrightRoyal Institute of British Architects

A narrow façade featuring a curved angle, an original feature in Gropius’ work, leads to the main body of the house running south perpendicular to the street, with sliding glass doors and balconies to maximise daylight. 

Sea Lane House, Angmering-on-Sea, West Sussex (1937) by Photographer: Dell & WainwrightRoyal Institute of British Architects

In Sussex, South England, unlike Yorke’s previous work, the extended T-shape of ‘Sea Lane House’ by Yorke & Breuer features a reinforced concrete structure with load-bearing brick walls. Conversely, the prominent curvature of the first-floor terrace was seen rarely in Breuer’s previous works but was used throughout his time in Britain.

Design for Sea Lane House, Angmering-on-Sea, West Sussex: axonometric projection (1937) by Architects: Yorke & BreuerRoyal Institute of British Architects

As this drawing shows, the original plan was for a three-storey building. However, local planning rejected this design, leading to the dramatic extrusion on the second floor. 

66 Frognal, Hampstead, London (1938) by Architects: Connell Ward & LucasRoyal Institute of British Architects

Experiments with materials

Modernist architecture applied new principles of composition and layout, but also adopted new building materials and techniques. Reinforced concrete frames allowed the free distribution of space according to functional principles, a favourite material on the European mainland. But other materials were tested in the UK, fusing modernism with more local traditions.   

Design for the exterior of 1-3 Willow Road, Hampstead, London (1939) by Architect: Ernö Goldfinger (1902-1987)Royal Institute of British Architects

The 1930s saw a departure from the ‘white box’ aesthetic towards the use of brick, wood and natural stone, creating a uniquely British flavour of Modernism. Like Hungarian architect Ernö Goldfinger's three-house terrace at Willow Road in London, where the red bricks hide the modern concrete structure within the façade.

102-106 Orchard Road, Tewin, Hertfordshire (1936) by Photographer: Leo Herbert FeltonRoyal Institute of British Architects

A previous employee of Goldfinger, architect Mary Crowley (later Medd) would make similar use of yellow stone for this house designed for herself and her parents in 1936. Here, the back elevation is shown with larger windows...

...compared to the smaller windows facing the street, ensuring a greater level of privacy.

The Wood House, Upper Green Road, Shipbourne, Kent: close-up of the entrance facade (1937) by Photographer: Millar & HarrisRoyal Institute of British Architects

Gropius & Fry’s cedar-clad, oak-framed ‘Wood House’ in Kent, South East England, was an early example of British timber modernism. Gropius would later reuse the oversized cantilevered canopy seen in the ‘Wood House’ for his own residence in North America. 

The Gropius House in Lincoln, Massachusetts, United States, is now a historic house museum. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2000.

Shawms, Conduit Head Road, Cambridge: the south garden front (1938) by Photographer: John MaltbyRoyal Institute of British Architects

Another wood-cladded house is ‘Shawms’ in Cambridge, designed by Margaret Justin Blanco White, who, by putting interrupted first floor windows on its very open south front, reveals her proficiency in modernist architectural language.

Pavilion for the furniture manufacturer P. E. Gane Ltd (1936) by Photographer: Dell & WainwrightRoyal Institute of British Architects

Marcel Breuer used local Cotswold stone for his temporary pavilion for P. E. Gane Ltd. The solidity of the stone structure contrasted with the large plate-glass windows created a direct relationship between the interior and exterior. The ‘Gane Pavilion’ foreshadows much of Breuer’s later work in the United States.

Shangri-la, Milvil Road, Lee-on-Solent (1936) by Photographer: Dell & WainwrightRoyal Institute of British Architects

The modern interior

Interdisciplinarity was one of the key tenets of the Bauhaus and architects moved effortlessly from designing buildings to furniture. The era led the development of a new type of interior, where simplicity and efficiency were paramount, with furniture that encapsulated the same design ideals.

Furniture display for Messrs W. Rowntree & Sons Ltd, Scarborough (1938) by Architects: Sir Martin Leslie (1908-2000), Sadie Speight (1906-1992)Royal Institute of British Architects

Furniture was often designed as ‘built-in’ to maximise space, leading to the introduction of ‘unit-furniture’, first specified by Sadie Speight and Leslie Martin. 

The living room, Highpoint One, Highgate (1937) by Photographer: Dell & WainwrightRoyal Institute of British Architects

Marcel Breuer’s reputation as a furniture designer had arrived before him, but during his time in Britain he moved from tubular steel to bent plywood, a material already gaining popularity through the work of Alvar Aalto and considered a warmer, less austere material better suited to British tastes.

Find out more about the Bauhaus teachers who influenced the modernist movement within the UK, in Chapter One.

Credits: Story

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

All installation shots of the exhibition at 66 Portland Place (except the Google360 shots) are photographed by Edmund Sumner 
Image: Sun House, Hampstead, London. Rights: Dell & Wainwright / RIBA Collections 
Image: Torilla, Hatfield, Herts. Rights: Architectural Press Archive / RIBA Collections 
Image: Isokon Flats, Lawn Road, Hampstead, London: dining area of the Isobar. Rights: Architectural Press Archive / RIBA Collections 
Image: Sea Lane House, Angmering-on-Sea, West Sussex. Rights: Dell & Wainwright / RIBA Collections 
Image: 102-106 Orchard Road, Tewin, Hertfordshire. Rights: Architectural Press Archive / RIBA Collections 
Image: The Wood House, Upper Green Road, Shipbourne, Kent. Rights: Architectural Press Archive / RIBA Collections 
Image: Shawms, Conduit Head Road, Cambridge. Rights: John Maltby / RIBA Collections 
Image: Pavilion for the furniture manufacturer P. E. Gane Lt. Rights: Architectural Press Archive / RIBA Collections 
Image: Shangri-la, Milvil Road, Lee-on-Solent Rights: Dell & Wainwright / RIBA Collections
Image: The living room, Highpoint One, Highgate. Rights: Architectural Press Archive / RIBA Collections


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. 

With special thanks to British Pathé

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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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