Bauhaus comes to blighty

23rd April 2019

The influence of the Bauhaus art school, founded 100 years ago in Weimar, Germany, can be seen the world over – those cool, modernist lines even made it to the Sussex coast.

Words by Stephen Bayley 

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Professor Otto Silenus made his first appearance in this country in 1928 on the pages of Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall. To Waugh, he was a ridiculous figure of fun: a dementedly serious and humourless German architect, commissioned by socialite Margot Beste-Chetwynde to design “something clean and square”. He had attracted her attention when his designs for a chewing-gum factory in Hungary, never built, had been reproduced in a progressive quarterly. Waugh facetiously explains Silenus’ design philosophy: “The problem of architecture as I see it is the problem of all art – the elimination of the human element from consideration of form.” Soon after her house was built, a horrified Mrs Beste-Chetwynde promptly demolished it.

The second appearance of Professor Silenus was on 18 October 1934 when Walter Gropius, escaping Nazi Germany, arrived at Victoria Station. For Gropius was almost certainly Waugh’s model. He was the director of the Bauhaus, an art school, founded in Weimar in 1919, which then moved to a remarkable building Gropius designed in Dessau, a small town in Saxony-Anhalt. Shut down there by restive authorities concerned about its “bolshevism”, the Bauhaus then moved briefly to a disused factory in Berlin before the Gauleiters finally put the jackboot in. That was 1933.

The Bauhaus was not just a school, it was an idea. And that idea was, largely, based on a reverence for the machine in the same way Renaissance architects had revered God. Gropius was an officer-class Prussian who came from a family line of architects. His Bauhaus was intended to make “art and technology a new unity”. It was to realise contemporary possibilities to the full – at least as they were understood in the 1920s. To suggest something of Gropius’ austere swagger, unusual vision and mighty confidence, Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky were members of his staff.

Earl De La Warr was a socialist with a taste for statement staircases, industrial lighting, optimism and white render

In London, Gropius had an extraordinary welcoming committee. Philip Morton Shand translated his first lecture at RIBA (the Royal Institute of British Architecture). Shand was a booster of modernism and a much-married oenophile. And with a nice irony – since her husband is so virulently anti-modern – he was Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall’s grandfather. Nikolaus Pevsner was in the audience. The year after his 1934 lecture, Gropius published The New Architecture and the Bauhaus. The introduction was by Frank Pick, the inspired public administrator who had made London Transport an international exemplar of modernism. Fair to say he was a Gropius fanboy.

Jack Pritchard was in the audience too. He was the plywood entrepreneur whose Isokon Flats in Hampstead became Gropius’ London home. The Isokon building was designed by a buccaneering expatriate Canadian architect called Wells Coates. It was the first significant Bauhaus inspired building in Britain: a social laboratory, undeniably elitist but communal at the same time. Agatha Christie was another resident and Gropius was soon accustomed to meeting the likes of Henry Moore, Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth at the Isokon’s bar, the Isobar.

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For the three years he was in London, Gropius was homesick and restless, building little – this hiatus before his eventual move to America is described in Alan Powers’ Bauhaus Goes West, which was published in February of this year, the centenary of Bauhaus’ founding. He did have a hand in two houses built during this time: one in Shipbourne, Kent, for Jack Donaldson, a wealthy socialist who later became prominent in Callaghan’s government, and another at 66 Old Church Street, Chelsea (recently on sale for £45m) for Benn Levy, a Hitchcock scriptwriter and Labour MP. The latter is still there but was controversially “restored” in 1969.

The spy Anthony Blunt complained in The Spectator that Gropius’ domestic architecture was not “homey”, but John Betjeman, flirting briefly with modernism, defended it, saying Britain needed a Bauhaus all of its own. It never got one, but Gropius did design Impington Village College in Cambridgeshire, open in 1939, a utopian initiative to raise the school-leaving age to 19.

Chelsea’s Peter Jones department store does not have Gropius’ name in the credits, but it is certain he influenced its design since he became close to its architect, the affable head of Liverpool School of Architecture, Sir Charles Reilly. Otherwise, the immediate evidence of Bauhaus building in Britain is surprisingly small, although its esoteric influence was eventually enormous.

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If all my friends of the present and past would get together in a little fiesta – à la Bauhaus – drinking, laughing, loving. Then I shall surely join in, more than in life.

At East Preston in West Sussex, Marcel Breuer built Sea Lane House in 1936. Breuer was the Bauhausmeister who designed the famous tubular steel “Bauhaus chair”, popularised by Habitat. A hymn to contemporary living, one wing was raised on pilotis and the entire property was dedicated to the therapeutic effects of sun worship.

Also in Sussex was the De La Warr Pavilion in the town of Bexhill-on-sea, designed by Erich Mendelsohn, who also designed a house next to Gropius’ in Chelsea. Earl De La Warr was a committed socialist with a taste for heliotherapy – as well as Vitrolite opaque glass, statement staircases, industrial lighting, optimism and white render.

In 1937 Silenus/Gropius left for America. His greatest monument in New York was the bullying Pan Am (now MetLife) Building of 1963, a dark presence straddling Park Avenue. A more successful testament to the Bauhaus aesthetic is the nearby Seagram Building by his colleague, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Indeed, the big irony of the socialist Bauhaus was that its greatest monument was in capitalist America. Similarly, Gropius’ last building in London was the Playboy Club on Park Lane of 1969.

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Waugh was not the only writer to satirise Gropius. In 1981 Tom Wolfe published From Bauhaus to Our House – a funny, but supercilious, account of Bauhaus influence. Taking his cue, perhaps, from that Hungarian chewing-gum factory, Wolfe writes that because of the Bauhaus, “Every child goes to school in a building that looks like a duplicating-machine replacement-parts wholesale distribution centre.” Gropius himself wrote his own Testament in 1933, a full 36 years before he died: “It would be beautiful,” he said, “if all my friends of the present and past would get together in a little fiesta – à la Bauhaus – drinking, laughing, loving. Then I shall surely join in, more than in life.” Perhaps in this anniversary year, this great, austere, disciplined, visionary man will get the celebration he always wanted.

 

This article was taken from the Spring 2019 edition of the Goodwood Magazine.

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