Dezeen Magazine

Impington Village College by Maxwell Fry and Walter Gropius

"Bauhaus just wasn't British"

There's a reason why Bauhaus architects and designers struggled to forge careers in the UK, says Owen Hatherley in the latest instalment of our Bauhaus 100 series.

"My only criticism of Mr Moholy-Nagy is that he is a gentleman with a modernistic tendency who produces pastiches of photographs of a surrealist type, and I am not at all clear that we should fall for this."

This is Frank Pick, the famous design director of London Transport, outlining his views of the Bauhaus designer in a letter to the architect Oliver Hill, designer of the British Pavilion at the Paris Expo of 1937.

This great exhibition, at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, became notorious for the juxtaposition of three pavilions. Two neoclassical monoliths, the Nazi and the Soviet, were placed opposite, while cowering, crushed beneath them was the lightweight, modernist Spanish Republic Pavilion, which contained within it Picasso's Guernica – a portent of the catastrophe just around the corner.

Pick insisted that the British Pavilion be an island of British conservatism and common sense

In this maelstrom, Pick insisted that the British Pavilion be an island of British conservatism and common sense. Because of this, Hill's suggestion that the Bauhaus teacher Moholy-Nagy, then resident in London, work on photomontages to decorate the building was sharply rejected.

"Let us leave the continent to pursue their own tricks and go our own way traditionally", he brusquely concluded. Bauhaus just wasn't British.

This is worth remembering, especially because Pick was, by the standards of British clients, considered progressive. In fact, through the tube stations and posters and typefaces he commissioned, he made London Transport into the nearest thing Britain had to the Bauhaus, a total modernist artwork.

Compared with the real establishment – like the RIBA's president, Reginald Blomfield, whose book Modernismus bridges the gap between Nazi race theory and good old-fashioned British bigotry – Pick would at least let the likes of Moholy-Nagy design the odd poster (two, showcasing escalators and the automatic doors of tube trains, respectively).

There was enormous hostility in Britain to the Bauhaus and what it stood for

There was enormous hostility in Britain to the Bauhaus and what it stood for: abstraction, theory, unashamed modernity and a very alien version of socialism. That's why the most famous Bauhaus teachers to flee here – Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer and Moholy-Nagy – got out as soon as they could, for prestigious positions in American universities, who were much more enthusiastic for their ideas than Oxford and Cambridge. Then, another tale starts, about what happened to Bauhaus ideas under American influence.

But does this tell the whole story, or did a distinctively British Bauhaus really exist?

That's what an increasingly popular revisionist trend in British art history would contend. Alexandra Harris' widely read Romantic Moderns aimed to challenge the narrative of Britain as an anti-modernist backwater, and replaced it with one where Breuer designed whimsical donkey-shaped bookcases, Moholy-Nagy documented rag and bone men in Petticoat Lane, and Gropius designed village schools in Cambridgeshire.

All these things did indeed happen. Although it's worth noting the emigres all lived in a gleaming constructivist house-commune in Belsize Park, designed by the Canadian architect Wells Coates – a showcase for the Isokon company, for whom Breuer designed some delightful and now deeply retro-chic furniture.

It's arguable that the entire "Cambridge school" of British modernist architecture can be dated to Walter Gropius' Impington Village College – a mild, gently curved stock brick school set in lovely, tree-filled grounds. But that impression that Britain tamed the Bauhaus might come from the fact that Impington is the only easily visited Bauhaus building in Britain. Gropius also managed to build a hard-to-find private wooden house in the Kent countryside and an unrecognisably altered house in Chelsea, next door to a much better preserved villa by the more commercial modernist Erich Mendelsohn. And it's best to leave the partly Gropius-designed 1960s Playboy Club on Park Lane well alone.

Similarly, Breuer's only permanent building in Britain is a private house in Angmering, Sussex, in private grounds by the sea. Good luck finding these, unless you know the lucky person who lives in one of them.

Emigres really did transform British architecture after 1945, but most of those who did were not Bauhaus-trained

Emigres really did transform British architecture after 1945, but most of those who did – Goldfinger, Lubetkin, Moro – were not Bauhaus-trained, and became accomplished designers only after they settled in London.

The story is stranger, though, when you branch out from the famous names. London became home to a few lesser known Bauhausler, like the painter Ludwig Hirschfeld Mack, the photographer Grete Stern (soon to depart to Australia and Argentina, respectively), and Bruno Adler, the art historian and broadcaster on the BBC's German Service.

Others were unable to settle there, and faced the consequences. The textile artist Otti Berger, for instance, failed to find work in Britain, and returned to her native Croatia; during the war she was deported to Auschwitz, where she was killed. These people did not move to Britain on a whim – they were escaping the Third Reich, and very few in Britain in the 1930s had much of an idea of what that really meant.

Then, as now, there was little eagerness to take in refugees, and a pervasive sense that Britain was somehow not part of Europe. When the war forcibly made it so, many of the escapees from fascism were dumped in an internment camp in the Isle of Man, with the British authorities seemingly unable to understand why German Jews would not be eager to spy for the Nazis.

There was only one Bauhausler who really was everything British conservatives were afraid of. After marrying Communist doctor Alexander Tudor-Hart in 1933, Austrian photographer Edith Suschitzky used her time in Britain to use the 'new vision' she'd learned at the Bauhaus Dessau to document not the cute eccentricity of the English, but the brutality and poverty of its class society, convulsed by the Great Depression. She was also recruiting spies for the NKVD, having found a major role in the formation of the Cambridge Spy Ring.

Photo of Impington Village College is by Wikimedia Commons user Justinc.