Review of exhibition 'Beyond Bauhaus: Modernism in Britain 1933–66' at RIBA, Oct. 2019
The hard lines and sharp corners of the architectural evangelists were too much for 1930s Britain – which Walter Gropius called a ‘land of fog and emotional nightmares’.
The show casts a necessarily broad net, given our introverted island wasn’t particularly receptive to the radical cocktail of machine-made functionalism, abstraction and socialism. Gropius was joined in London by artist László Moholy-Nagy and designer Marcel Breuer for just three years, taking refuge from Nazi Germany in the first (and only) Isokon apartment building in Hampstead, before they all moved on in 1937. It is painfully symbolic that the first items in the exhibition are the menu cards from their farewell dinners, and a photograph of them happily leaving Britain for the US.
The Guardian’s own contemporary coverage is also telling. In a 1930 interview1 with Gropius (spelt with a lower-case “g” throughout the article, because “various modern architects and artists do not use capital letters”), he remarks that “only in England and Spain has this architectural style few adherents”. The newspaper’s scientific correspondent reported: “He thinks the Americans will develop this style of modern architecture most successfully. They are not so individualistically conservative as Western Europeans.” Gropius was being diplomatic. Later, he would write of Britain as a “land of fog and emotional nightmares”.
- 1. But, in the main, the exhibition gives the impression that we didn’t get a grip on what the Bauhaus evangelists were preaching until long after they’d left. Gropius’s Impington College in Cambridgeshire, built in 1939, by which time he was ensconced at Harvard, is perhaps the most important single work in this regard. Separating out the various components of the building in the landscape, with classrooms arranged to maximise daylight, it would go on to inspire the nature of most British state schools of the postwar era.