Relationships that laid the foundations for post-war British architecture are explored in RIBA’s Bauhaus exhibition, writes co-curator Pete Collard
‘Beyond Bauhaus: Modernism in Britain 1933-66’
RIBA, London W1
Until 1 February 2020
As many readers will know, this year marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Bauhaus, and the lasting influence of the school meant that it was an important moment to celebrate at RIBA. We knew it would be tackled in depth by other institutions across Europe and the United States, however, so our challenge was to offer a narrative that could not be told elsewhere.
The arrival in London in 1934 of three key Bauhaus figures – Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy – offered us just such a narrative, one that was both original and uniquely British and that could be curated almost entirely using works drawn from the RIBA Collections. Our exhibition would show ‘what happened next’ to the Bauhaus masters in the immediate aftermath of the school’s closure in 1933, but also consider their impact on British architecture during the period and beyond.
Top: Design for a house (1935), by Leslie Martin and Sadie Speight (ph: RIBA Collections)
Above: Village College, Impington (1939), by Maxwell Fry and Walter Gropius (ph: Dell & Wainwright, RIBA Collections)
To tell this story in detail we would need to examine both the architectural materials held in the RIBA Collections as well as the correspondence, documentation and ephemera in the files of those involved. We wanted to have better understanding of the buildings Gropius and Breuer designed while in Britain but also to examine the wider culture of architecture at that time and learn more about the personal and professional connections among the champions of the modernist cause – a small but vocal group.
So our archival survey began with the Bauhaus émigrés and the working partnerships they entered into with British architects, Maxwell Fry and FRS Yorke. While the complete archives of Gropius and Breuer are held in institutions in the US, enough material remained at the offices of Fry and Yorke to illustrate the projects they undertook during their three-year stay in Britain. Among the drawings we have included are of Impington College, a beautiful but sadly unrealised scheme for Isokon in Windsor from the hand of Gropius, an early version of the Sea Lane House and furniture designs from Breuer.
As is often the case, it was personal correspondence that revealed most about society and architectural practice of the time”
Alongside the direct interpretation of the curatorial brief we wanted to explore the 1930s as a specific moment in British history, to show the context in which Gropius and Breuer lived and worked. As is often the case, it was personal correspondence that revealed most about society and architectural practice of the time. From the chance encounter on a skiing holiday in Austria that led to one of FRS Yorke’s first private commissions to Berthold Lubetkin’s letter of resignation from the influential Modern Architectural Research (MARS) Group, the letters yielded fascinating glimpses of the decade.
Bristol Royal Show PE Gane pavilion, by FRS Yorke and Marcel Breuer (ph: Dell & Wainwright, RIBA Collections)
However, we soon realised that this research was taking us beyond our original Bauhaus brief to examine other forms of architectural influence. A recurring theme was of young architects visiting the continent, hoping to see first-hand buildings previously only read about in periodicals. Denys Lasdun’s pilgrimage to Paris to see the works of Le Corbusier, and the research undertaken in Sweden by Elizabeth Denby and Mary Crowley, demonstrated that modernism had arrived in Britain in various guises. We therefore felt it appropriate to widen our narrative and bring these other influences into the exhibition to create a more nuanced study of modernism in Britain.
The result is, we hope, an engaging look at the architecture of the 1930s but also of the years that followed. The decade concluded with the horrors of war, but in the ensuing peace came opportunities to rebuild and plan for a new Britain. The generation of architects who graduated, travelled and began their careers before the war now had their chance to build at scale on programmes of new schools and social housing, interpreting finally the ideals they had followed in their youth.