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Foreign exchange: Bauhaus in Britain

In spite of a desire to appear to embrace foreigners and foreignness, history shows that the UK failed to realise the potential of many of its famed architect immigrants – and little has changed

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Mn crop

Source: ZUMA PRESS, INC / ALAMY

In the 1930s, celebrated Modernists made England their home, like László Moholy-Nagy, pictured here at the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea

Somehow the UK has never properly metabolised its foreign architects. Just as Jan Kaplický and Zaha Hadid found it difficult to get work in their adopted home countries, there still seems a kind of resistance, an ingrained privilege, that favours and filters for middle-class, middle-of-the-road architectural establishment that congratulates itself on its international work while never quite becoming international itself. As Hadid at her fiery best showed, foreigners bring friction – disdaining convention and British manners and self-satisfaction. We might think of Italian Lina Bo Bardi in Brazil, Spanish Félix Candela in Mexico, the German and Italian immigrants who built Buenos Aires and São Paulo, or of how Israel-born Eyal Weizman has comprehensively shaken up ideas about what architecture can be in his adopted home city of London.

‘In the UK, there have been remarkably few foreign-born architects achieving starchitect status. Why can the UK still feel like the 1920s at the Architectural Association – clubby, self-satisfied and exclusive?’

This moment, on the endless brink of Brexit, in which the country is looking into its navel, is arguably similar to that moment between the wars not quite a century ago, when the Bauhaus arrived in a slightly backwards London where, perversely, the RIBA was building itself its pseudo-masonic headquarters in a kind of curious municipal Deco. For a brief time, the greats of continental Modernism dwelt in the Lawn Road Flats in Hampstead (also known as the Isokon Building, designed by another foreigner, the Canadian Wells Coates), a microcosm of intellectual life and a nest of spies and socialists that might, in fact, have confirmed some of the British establishment’s worst fears.

Don't put online walter gropius by the sea during a trip to totnes devon 1933

Don’t put online walter gropius by the sea during a trip to totnes devon 1933

In 1933 Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius holidayed in Totnes, Devon

There has been much discussion recently about exactly how much influence the émigrés from the Bauhaus actually exerted during their brief sojourn in England in the mid-1930s. Certainly Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer and László Moholy-Nagy struggled to get work at the scale they might have expected – but, then again, they were only here for a few years and architecture takes time. Were they rejected by a conservative professional clique, fearful for its own work (in the midst of the worst downturn of the 20th century)? Was it an apprehensiveness about the new Modernism, a seemingly politicised (and therefore very un-English) architecture? Was it a suspicion of foreign intellectuals? Or, in fact, was it that the characters Tom Wolfe refers to as ‘the White Gods’ arrived in a country that was already developing its own brand of Modernism, where they weren’t really required and didn’t quite fit in?

Riba12618

Riba12618

Source: RIBA COLLECTIONS

Gropius’s design for flats for the Isokon Control Company, St Leonard’s Hill, Windsor

The Bauhauslers may have mostly disappeared for a more revered and comfortable existence in the US, but dozens of other Modernist immigrants stayed – a presence that had a profound influence on British architecture. There was Berthold Lubetkin, of course, but also Ernö Goldfinger, Erich Mendelsohn (who later went to Israel but in the meantime built Britain’s great Modernist building in the unlikely setting of Bexhill), Ernst Freud (son of Sigmund, father of Lucian), Bronek Katz, Peter Moro, Michael Rosenauer, Walter Segal, Isi Metzstein, Arthur Korn, Egon Riss and dozens of others. This is not to even begin to mention the historians, from Nikolaus Pevsner (who formalised and catalogued the history of British architecture into a coherent canon) to Joseph Rykwert, who introduced genuine intellectual enquiry and rigour into academia. These figures underpinned and defined Modernism in Britain. There really is no narrative without them – and no real Modernism, bar a few small villas.

Riba2902 26

Riba2902 26

Source: RIBA COLLECTIONS

Berthold Lubetkin at Highpoint Two in London in 1938

The US, for which many Bauhauslers left, was a different story: a country of immigrants. In From Bauhaus to Our House, Wolfe effectively bemoans the deleterious effect of the arrival of the Modernists from Europe on an emerging American tradition. The US establishment fell for the minimalism of Modernism and allowed itself to be bullied into loving it. Wolfe was writing in 1981 but his tone was oddly similar to that of Evelyn Waugh’s portrayal of Professor Silenus in his debut novel Decline and Fall (1928). There is a sneering towards a supposed Germanic perfectionism, a cool, rational, detached view of architecture as a mechanistic, rather than an emotional, endeavour. 

Riba94505

Riba94505

Source: CRISPIN BOYLE / RIBA COLLECTIONS

The László Moholy-Nagy-designed menu for the Walter Gropius dinner at London’s Trocadero, held on 9 March 1937 to mark his departure from England for the US

Modernism may have finally won over but, both in the UK and the US, there was a lingering suspicion, exemplified in everything from Osbert Lancaster to Barratt Homes and Disney’s Celebration (the town in The Truman Show), that Modernism wasn’t really for ordinary folk; there was something suspiciously foreign about it. Hitler had the same idea. That animosity was also often permeated with the scent of antisemitism – even though Gropius himself was not Jewish – that Modernism, like Bolshevism, was often perceived as a Jewish project, designed to purge the West of its traditions. Regardless, American 20th-century architecture is peppered with the work of foreigners: IM Pei, Eero Saarinen, Richard Neutra, César Pelli. Others, from Louis Kahn to Liz Diller, were foreign born and arrived as children.

Heals isokon building opening day

Heals isokon building opening day

Source: EDITH TUDOR-HART

Opening day of Wells Coates’ Isokon Building, 1934

Isokon web

Isokon web

The Isokon logo designed by Moholy-Nagy

In the UK, however, there have been remarkably few foreign-born architects achieving starchitect status, with the notable exception of Zaha Hadid. With the revolutions in Hungary and Czechoslovakia in 1956 and 1968 respectively, more architects came, including Eva Jiřičná and Jan Kaplický, both of whom played significant roles in the development of British High Tech – for which neither have yet been given their full due. And, certainly, there are plenty of small and medium-sized practices led by architects who have adopted London as their home doing outstanding work, but most are still bubbling under the mainstream radar. This, we are told (despite everything), is a tolerant, open, global country. So why, despite offices full of young foreign architects, can the UK still feel like the 1920s at the Architectural Association – clubby, self-satisfied and exclusive?

Gettyimages 916176582

Gettyimages 916176582

Source: DAVID CAIRNS / STRINGER / GETTY IMAGES

Ernő Goldfinger in Poplar, east London, 23 February 1968

In the year that Kenneth Frampton, coiner of the term ‘Critical Regionalism’ is awarded the Soane Medal, you could wonder whether people arriving from outside the region might, in fact, be able to be more critical. It is a different view of architecture, not necessarily as an extension of the genius loci but rather as what it must always be – an amalgam of knowledge and impressions, half-remembered ideas and partially dreamt and interrupted dreams. Architecture can no longer be entirely of its place in a digitised world in which everything is accessible and instantly familiar, reduced to an image. Foreignness seeps in, just as it did with the Romans and the Renaissance.

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Cxar6m

Source: ROBERTHARDING / ALAMY

City Hall, More London and the Shard from the River Thames today

Canaletto, the city of london from the river thames with st. paul's cathedral, ca. 1748, lobkowicz palace (3) (26161463356)

Canaletto, the city of london from the river thames with st. paul’s cathedral, ca. 1748, lobkowicz palace (3) (26161463356)

Canaletto’s The City of London from the River Thames with St Paul’s Cathedral, 1748

The extreme right (in the UK as well as in the US and Germany) is once again beginning to adopt ‘traditional’ architecture as a cipher for racial purity, and Modernism (now a century old) as a Bolshevikcum-capitalist global conspiracy. Social media is rife with nativist, far-right tropes; ‘foreignness’ in architecture is again being brought up as an issue as Britain retreats into a Belgian-style Northern European generic brick streetscape to complement its bleak BarrettHome exurbs. This is not born of deep thought or architectural articulacy but, rather, as a membrane, a rain-screen of acceptable material to clad overscaled towers and disguise them in their now-fragmented contexts.

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Ehl8x7lxyaaxg0g

Source: Tom Wilkinson

A postcard bids farewell to the UK from starchitects of the 1930s

These compete with the commodified products of the starchitects, which are more self-consciously foreign, making a virtue of difference but cloaking it in a veneer of clumsy metaphor (Renzo Piano comparing the Shard to a sail on a Thames barge in a Canaletto painting). Britain can be comfortable with foreigners when they remain eccentric curiosities but it becomes less comfortable with them once they start to build. Think of Ian Fleming’s evil mastermind being christened ‘Goldfinger’ or Hadid’s Cardiff Bay Opera. For all its self-proclaimed tolerance and openness, Britain has not opened itself up to the foreign in architecture as it has opened itself to overseas capital and finance.

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189718219 90cf50da15 b

De La Warr Pavilion flies the flag for international Modernism in Britain but conversely finds itself in a decidedly Brexit-leaning constituency turning its back on Europe

The next wave will be emigration rather than immigration as the Europeans who for so long have made Britain their home move back to other parts of the continent in the wake of Brexit. Foreigners, it seems, are about as welcome as they were in 1935. Some of us will miss them.

This piece is featured in the AR November issue on the Foreign + Emerging Architecture – click here to purchase your copy today