Exhibition Review: Beyond Bauhaus: Modernism in Britain 1933 – 66

‘Beyond Bauhaus: Modernism in Britain, 1933 – 66’, the exhibition at the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) offers a glimpse into the 1930s, focusing on the work and influence of Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius, artist László Moholy-Nagy and designer Marcel Breuer.

‘Beyond Bauhaus’ offers a peek into what the exhibition pamphlet proclaims as ‘the moment Britain became modern’. It looks at a time at which the three Bauhaus émigré architects lives and worked in the UK between 1934 – 1937, before these ‘birds of passage’ (as they were referred to by Architectural Review editor J. M. Richards) left. It then tracks the evolution of Bauhaus’s lasting influence on British architecture. From the 1937 menu card designed by Moholy-Nagy for the leaving dinner in honour of Gropius, to original drawings by a number of modernist architects, photographs of buildings, letters from members of their network, to Moholy-Nagy’s films for the architectural press, this collection presents an interesting array of archival fragments from the ‘30s to the ‘60s. Whether or not this is the exact ‘moment’ that Britain was modernised or not (it’s a very big claim to point to The One Moment that changed British culture), ‘Beyond Bauhaus’ carefully considers how modernist approaches shaped buildings and thought in the UK after these ‘birds of passage’ took flight.

The artistic experimentation and innovation within the space of the domestic speaks to Bauhaus’s relationship with functionality, a sense of home, modernity, domesticity, space and interiority. The smooth white concrete curve of the roof terrace on Breuer and F. R. S. Yorke’s ‘Sea Lane House’ in Sussex shows the departure from inherited Victorian architectural notions. The ribbon windows in ‘Sun House’ by Maxwell Fry show how modernist experimentation allowed for sunlight to stream through into the house’s interior. The steel frames and standardised grid systems that architects Mary Crowley and Stirrat Johnson-Marshall used in their designs for council-built schools shows us how Gropius’s Bauhaus philosophy of ‘total architecture’ was implemented to build 100 schools in Hertfordshire in the ‘40s and ‘50s.

Starting off with a brief pinpointed snapshot between ’34 and ’37, and by looking at the few Bauhaus buildings built in Britain at this time, ‘Beyond Bauhaus’ gradually expands its vision and scope to include the ripples of influence and connections that the Bauhaus stance of curios experimentation had across the UK and throughout the 20th century. The unique form of the exhibition itself mirrors this expansive, rippling process. It offers all of the designs, archival materials, films and photographs encased within 16 columns. These columns form a compact maze within this small, dark room. They have cut out peepholes, shapes, squares and sections that are illuminated, which reveal the designs within. Depending on your position around the column and which of the multiple slivers that you might peer through, the materials can be telescoped or re-centred. Designed by Pezo von Ellrichshausen, the exhibition encourages multiple and varied encounters with the materials. Von Ellrichshausen reflects on their intentions: ‘Beyond Bauhaus, in our view, should be understood as a form of ubiquitous transparency, a regulated yet universal space that promotes a degree of curiosity with an endless variety of informal human encounters’.

Although the premise is mapped around a rather male legacy of the founding group of Gropius, Moholy-Nagy and Breuer, RIBA’s exhibition highlights the architectural and design work that was inspired and informed by Bauhaus and presented rarely discussed or displayed works by pioneering women. Beyond Bauhaus presented contributions from urban planner and reformer Elizabeth Denby; architects Norah Aiton and her partner Betty Scott who set up their modernist firm Aiton & Scott in the ‘30s; Crowley, who helped design schools in Herefordshire in post-war Britain; Sadie Speight, an architect and designer who was a leading figure in the Modern movement of art, favouring functionalism and minimalism; and Scottish architect Margaret Blanco-White, which illuminated the importance of female architects in propelling, unpacking and developing the “modernist moment” in British architecture, presenting their legacies of work alongside more well-known figures in a rich and expansive archival exhibition. This is an open archive that exists within those closed columns, demonstrating the impact that modern Bauhaus thought had on the buildings of Britain.

Beyond Bauhaus is a free exhibition at the RIBA Architecture Gallery, 66 Portland Place, London. It runs until 1st February 2020.

Words: Polly Hember