Bauhaus Style Buildings in Britain
2019 is the 100th anniversary of the foundation of the great Bauhaus school of art in Weimar, Germany. We wanted to mark the occasion by touring Britain for examples of Bauhaus work but got stimied before we could start. As far as we could discover, there are only two: 66 Old Church Street designed by Walter Gropius, which has changed out of all recognition, and Sea Lane House designed by Marcel Breuer, which is very small.
Gropius, who founded the Bauhaus, moved to Britain in 1934 when Hitler came to power. His former colleagues Marcel Breuer and László Moholy-Nagy arrived a year or two later (they were all Jewish). They hoped to start a Bauhaus in Britain and to get design commissions. Times were tough. Their Bauhaus colleague Ludwig Mies went straight to the United States. Within a few years, these others had left Britain to join him. No other Bauhaus masters worked here.
The best we can do is to tour Britain for buildings that were influenced by the Bauhaus. Even this is easier said than done. There were other modernist influences, most notably Swiss-Frenchman Le Corbusier and American Frank Lloyd Wright. British modernist architects absorbed aspects of all three into what we now know as 'International Style'.
International Style buildings will have to do. But few of them are pure. Modernist architecture arrived here at roughly the same time as cubism and the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb. Then came the 1925 Paris Exhibition which showcased Aztec fashions. The four influences tended to get jumbled together into what we think of as Art Deco. Consequently, there are relatively few modernist buildings in Britain that do not have ancient Egyptian, cubist or Aztec features.
Moreover, International Style evolved over the pre-War years, gradually moving away from its Bauhaus/Corbusier roots. Most of the surviving modernist buildings in Britain are later; either utilitarian public spaces with modernist tweaks, like Charles Holden's London Underground stations, or 'Streamline Moderne', like the Daily Express building in Manchester and Embassy Court in Brighton. We will avoid both these derivative types for the time being. Perhaps we will visit them in the future.
We need some rules to exclude buildings that have strayed too far from the Bauhaus model. In our (lay) view, this means we will only visit buildings that are unadorned concrete construction and either: 1) Sinuous, with curvy external walls and flat roofs; or 2) Boxlike, with sharp angular walls and flat roofs, often with thin protruding floors or big windows; or 3) Part and part. The two reference examples we will use are the curvy Reisfeld House in Tel Aviv and the angular Bauhaus school building in Dessau (below and at the top), which has big windows in the teaching section and thin protruding walkways in the dormitories. There are only a handful of publicly accessible buildings in Britain that fit our criteria, none of which are the sinuous type.
Richard Coltman maintains a marvellous reference for modernist buildings in Britain on his website www.modernistbritain.co.uk. He writes authoritatively about 100 or so of the best known modernist building in the country. We particularly like his illustrations, B&W photography and the website's use of Futura, a font designed on modernist principles - built from sharp triangles, rectangles and circles - and closely associated with modernism. He is still adding to his list, so presumably he will cover them all eventually. We hope so, because we were only able to crib his thoughts on half the buildings listed below.
Arc Deco architecture, including modernist, is synonymous, in Britain at least, with the LWT/ITV production of Poirot starring David Suchet. Some of the places listed below appear in one or more episodes. We will mention the episodes in which the building below appear. At some time in the future we intend to visit Poirot's other buildings.
Sea Lane House
We have to start with Sea Lane House, because it is the only surviving actual Bauhaus building in Britain, having been designed by Marcel Breuer in 1936. It is not classic Bauhaus, despite being built on a reinforced concrete base and supported by reinforced concrete stilts, because the walls are brick. Someone has subsequently rendered over the bricks to make them look more like concrete.
Turkish emigre Richard Papalian, best known for having introduced windscreen wipers and car radios to Britain, owned Sea Lane House from 1943 until his death in 1986. He said he loved it because of its "technical excellence". Perhaps he was referring to the inside. We come from a long line of architects. We doubt our forebears would have thought the outside was technically excellent. Flat roofs are always a pain in somewhere as wet as Britain and it makes inefficient use of space. And some combination of seagull effluent, cheap roofing materials and a lack of gutters leaves the walls covered in unsightly stains. Yuck.
According to the original marketing document, the idea of having the bedrooms on stilts was to allow the lawn to grow underneath. Germans might be great engineers, but they clearly do not know much about grass.
Sea Lane House is in a millionaire's row at the junction of two private estates, just 50m or so from the sea. When it was first built, the locals complained that it was ugly and incongruous. It is an amazing thing to see and clearly a unique and valuable piece of British history - justifying its Grade II listing - but we don't like it either. From Sea Lane it looks a bit like a shipping container. From Coastal Road you can see that it has a lovely sun patio, but it is in the shade all morning. It could do with being rotated 90º anticlockwise.
Sea Lane House is on Sea Lane in East Preston, near Littlehampton. If you want to visit, we should explain that there are at least three Sea Lanes in East Preston and several Sea Lane Houses. This is not the one that Google maps takes you to. It is in Kingston Gorse, 250m south of the East Kingston War Memorial. It is at the junction of two private roads. We walked on the public footpath from East Kingston to the sea.
Cohen House is next door to Gropius's 66 Old Church Street in Chelsea. It opened in 1936 on a design by Erich Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff, who would go on to design the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexley-on-Sea. The ivy covered conservatory at the northern end of Cohen House is not original (although it was designed by Norman Foster before he became famous). The rest is Bauhaus like, with a white concrete construction, small windows, flat roof, and no gutters or downpipes. It might look uninspiring, but it is one of only two geninuely modernist residential buildings in London. It is private residential accommodation these days. They do not encourage sightseers. Unlike the Chelsea Arts Club (below) over the road. They are altogether far more fun.
Isokon is the only purpose-built modernist residential block in Britain. It is fitting then that Gropius, Breuer and Moholy-Nagy all lived in it for most of their time in Britain. An English Heritage blue plaque outside gives the details. It was the brainchild of Jack Pritchard and his wife Molly, who owned the Isokon company and hoped to use the building to promote their modernist furniture and lifestyle products. It was designed by Canadian Wells Coates who was trying to emulate Le Corbusier's 'machines for living' ethic. Inside the apartments were tiny, with shared cooking facilities and dumb waiters to save space.
As with Sea Lane House, it took a long time for the locals to accept the incongruity of the building. It opened in 1934. As late as 1946, it came second in the 'Ugliest building in Britain competition'. We think it is striking. We love the cantilevered stairways and balconies, which look as if they might have been taken from a cruise ship. Walking from Belsize Park tube station, it is difficult to believe that the locals had to nerve to complain about it. It is an oasis of light in a sea of architectrural blandness. Even though it is not far short of 100 years old, we think it still looks smart and modern, not unlike an 'iPhone for living', to paraphrase Le Corbusier.
Isokon is on Lawn Road in Belsize Park, north London. The northern end of the building has been converted into the public Isokon Gallery, which showcases the design along with modernist furniture. Agatha Christie once had one of her many homes in the building, although there is no indication of which apartment she owned.
De La Warr Pavilion
De La Warr Pavilion is our favourite modernist building in Britain. We visit it whenever we are in Sussex. It never fails to thrill. It is the only modernist building in Britain that is designed for the public to enjoy. The only one with toilets and disabled facilities, for instance. They encourage visitors to explore the lovely stairwells, sun lounges, balconies and verandas. It has a good, if rather expensive, restaurant. The western end of the building is an auditorium, which has concerts or theatre most days. The rest is a display space for art work exhibitions. There is nearly always something interesting to see and do.
Architecturally, it is not strict Bauhaus style, but then nowhere in Britain is. The main architects were Serge Chermayeff and Eric Mendelsohn. Mendelsohn was German, but did not study at Bauhaus. The design is the International Style, a mix of the boxlike and the curvy modernist with thin protruding floors and big windows. We love it. Early viewers were less keen. As with all the early modernist buildings in Britain, it looked incongruous, foreign and inappropriate for our weather (and our seagulls). Spike Milligan, who was stationed in the building during the War, reckoned it had "absolutely no architectural merit at all" and that the German plane that nearly bombed it had been chartered by the Royal Institute of British Architects.
The construction of De La Warr Pavilion was as innovative as its design. It was the first building in Britain to have a welded, steel-framed structure. The technique became standard practice for offices, industrial buildings and tower blocks. Amazingly, considering the pioneering design and engineering, the construction was complete on schedule and on budget within a year.
We are lucky the building is still here. It had been neglected for decades and close to collapse when it was given a Grade I listing in 1986. This eventually allowed it to attract Lottery funding for a complete refurbishment as an arts centre. Its future now looks secure.
'The Homewood' in Esher was designed by Patrick Gwynne for his family in the late 1930s. His concept was heavily influenced by his employers Wells Coates, who designed the Isokon building (see earlier). Gwynne eventually inherited The Homewood. He continued to acquire period and more modern modernist furniture and fittings for the rest of his life.
Gwynne died in 2003. The property was bequeathed to the National Trust. In principle, this means it should be open to the public. In practice, they rent it out most of the time, so it is only open two days a week, and then only for half the year and only by pre-booked groups. Still, in our opinion, it is worth the inconvenience.
The building fulfils our modernist criteria of being built of concrete on stilts, with big windows, flat roof, no gutters and no downpipes. Interesting though the building might be, it is the interior and grounds that make it a wonderful experience. Every room has been superbly fitted out with classic modernist decor and modernist furniture and fittings. In our opinion, it is the best modernist interior of any building in Britain, including Eltham Palace. It might not be a Bauhaus design, but it does have some Bauhaus items, including a Marcel Breuer desk chair. We especially loved the maple living room floor that was secretly sprung for dancing.
The grounds are almost as wonderful as the interior. It is mostly shrubs and trees, but so colourful when we were there that they might be mistaken for flowers.
Surprisingly to us, The Homewood was not used as a filming location for Poirot, as far as we know, but it did appear in the 'Endless Night' episode of Miss Marple and the 'Rocket' episode of Endeavour.
Royal Birkdale clubhouse
Royal Birkdale is one of the most prestigious golf clubs in the country. In the mid-1930s they decided they needed a suitably prestigious clubhouse. The design was commissioned to architect George E Tongue. His concept was that the clubhouse should look like an ocean liner forging through the dunes. As one member said, it looks more like a container ship these days. For one thing, the promenades and railings have been removed from the first floor and roof through safety concerns. For another, it has had a bunch of boxlike extensions plugged on the back. It is still a lovely building when viewed from the course.
We go to Open Championship every year. Royal Birkdale is our favourite venue. It is the Birkdale clubhouse in the background on our About Us page. The course is laid out between the dunes, which means that there are natural vantage points on every hole. It is near Liverpool. True to Tongue's design concept, it does seem to emerge over the dunes while you walk up 18.
Like most prestigious gold clubs, Royal Birkdale does not encourage sightseers. The only legitimate way to look around is during a competition. The men's and women's Open Championships come around once every ten years or so, but they are busy and restricted. Other competitions offer better exploration opportunities. Royal Birkdale appears frequently as a venue for English and British amateur championships. Indeed the men's Amateur Championship is due there in 2020. The club has its own men's, women's and boy's championships every year, when visitors are welcome. Otherwise, it is pot luck. If you have more nerve than us, you can probably blag your way in. The last time we went, we phoned the Pro Shop pretending we wanted to play, then asked which days to avoid because the course was closed. Those are typcially the days when competitions are being played and visitors are welcome.
'the matchworks' - note the use of Bauhaus lower case letters - is a converted factory in Liverpool. It will come as no surprise that it was built for a match-making company; Maguire, Paterson and Palmer. It is better known as the home of Bryant & May who acquired them in 1923. It opened in 1921, before the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb or the Paris Aztec Exhibition. Without those influences, perhaps it is the purest modernist building in Britain.
Matchworks was designed by the architects Mewès and Davis. The circumstances seem a little odd. Mewès had died in 1914 and Arthur Davis was vehemently opposed to modernism. Yet 'the matchworks' is clearly a modernist building, made of unadorned (apart from patriotic Lancashire roses) white concrete, with a flat roof, no downpipes, thin floors and huge windows. Davis had several mental breakdowns, so we wonder whether it was actually designed by one of his minions while he was ill.
Even though Davis argued against modernism, he was not against using modern materials and techniques. Matchworks was the first building in Britain to be built from reinforced concrete slabs. This technique became the most common way to construct large buildings in the second half of the 20th century. For this reason alone, it has an important place in British architectual history which warrants its Grade II listing.
Matchworks has recently been modernised by Urban Splash, who specialise in urban regeneration. It was they that adopted the lower case lettering. They have turned it into a lovely vibrant modern place to work. If our experience is anything to go by, visitors can only get to look around the inside by pretending that they want to rent offices. Not that there is anything pre-War to see. The inside is a typically modern office environment.
If you like modernist architecture, chances are that you like the more decorative styles of Art Deco too. Liverpool must have the greatest concentration of Art Deco buildings in Britain, outside London. Our particular favourite is Leaf on Bold Street, which is now a restaurant that can be explored at leisure.
We used to pass the Hoover Building in Perivale on our way to work. It was always a thrill to see. It opened in 1932 on a design by modernist architects Wallis, Gilbert and Partners. We know it is more elaborate than the Bauhaus model: There is a huge sunburst above the main entrance, Aztec patterns on the doors and wrought-iron Greek key patterns on the stair railings and gates. But it is basically a modernist reinforced concrete structure with flat roof and no downpipes. The architects added the decorative features deliberately, arguing that they paid for themselves by improving the working environment.
Hoover closed their manufacturing plant in the 1980s, leaving the building empty. Every time we passed, it seemed shabbier than the last, but it was saved by its Grade II listing. Recently, like so many venerable buildings in Britain, it has been converted into apartments. It is no longer easy to look around, but at least it will be well looked after. It appeared in two episodes of Poirot: as a movie studio in 'King of Clubs' and as a pie factory in 'The Dream'.
Immediately next door to the factory is the wonderful Hoover Building Number 7, which used to be the Hoover factory canteen. Hoover must have been incredibly profitable to be so generous to their staff. It opened in 1938, just six years after the factory building next door. It is fascinating to contrast the styles. The factory is modernist with Art Deco tweaks. Building Number 7 is early Streamline Moderne, looking for all the world like a converted cinema. It is a wonderful example of building evolution, like an architectural archaeopteryx.
If you do visit the Hoover factory, don't miss out on the the most beautiful supermarket in Britain, if not the world (a Tesco of all things). It is just around the back of the factory. It not only has a wonderful Art Deco entrance, but it has its own Art Deco petrol station.
Shrubs Wood, High and Over, Joldwynds, St Anne's Court
There are 30 or more other International Style modernist residential buildings in Britain. Most of them are residential, inaccessible and hidden from sightseers. We couldn't get close enough to take photos and, as far as we know, images are only available from estate agents and TV shows. We will just mention five, for no reason other than that they appear in at least one episode of Poirot.
'High and Over' in Amersham was the first modernist residential property in Britain, built in 1931. It was designed by London based New Zealander Amyas Connell, a follower of Le Corbusier. High and Over appeared in the 'King of Clubs' episide of Poirot.
'Joldwynds' in Holmbury St Mary was the second modernist residential property in Britain, built in 1932. It was designed by Oliver Hill, who went on to design the famous modernist Midlands Hotel in Morecambe in 1933. It appeared in the Poirot episodes 'The Theft of the Royal Ruby' and 'The Disappearance of Mr. Davenheim'.
'Shrubs Wood' in Chalfont St Giles was designed and built by Mendelsohn and Chermayeff in 1934. It was the only residential building they designed in Britain apart from Cohen House. For nearly 50 years it was the home of Dame Bridget D’Oyly Carte, doyene of the Savoy Hotels Group, which owned the Savoy, Claridges and the Berkeley at the time. It is a popular filming location. Not only does it appear in two episodes of Poirot - 'One Two Buckle My Shoe' and 'The Double Clue' - but also Miss Marple, Midsumer Murders and Endeavour.
'St Anne's Court' in Chertsey was designed by Sir Raymond McGrath in 1936. It is different from the others in being circular. It appeared in the 'Three Act Tragedy' and 'Mrs McGinty's Dead' episodes of Poirot.
'Kit's Close' in Fawley was built in 1937. It is named after its architect Christopher 'Kit' Nicholson. It appeared in 'The Murder of Roger Ackroyd'.