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David Brady Explores ‘The New Architecture and the Bauhaus’ by Walter Gropius

The New Architecture and the Bauhaus

Walter Gropius

Faber & Faber, 1935

new architecture and the bauhausJULY IS A quiet time of year for the appearance of that fragile commodity, a new book. Titles launched in the summer may be liable to being appraised by second string reviewers; the book-buying public is apt to be on holiday. Nevertheless, in July 1935 Faber issued The new architecture and the Bauhaus by Walter Gropius, who was then living in London as a refugee from Nazi Germany. This modestly priced small octavo summed up Gropius’s view of his architectural and educational work in Germany and revealed his vision of der neue architektur. What may be of interest now, in relation to the appearance of this book, is the rôle of the publisher–usually responsible for literature, especially poetry, then having a flirtation with architecture–and the reception given by critics and interested members of the public to Gropius’s ideas. Thanks to Erica Somers, former archivist at Faber, I was granted access to their archival material about the book. Unless otherwise indicated, quotations come from this source.

            In 1919 Gropius was appointed director of the Grossherzogliche Sächsische Kunstgewerbeschule and the Grossherzogliche Sächsische Hochschule für Bildende Kunst. Shorn of their Grand Ducal titles, united, and renamed the Staatliche Bauhaus, the school gradually moved away from the arts and crafts æsthetic that had been fostered by the former head, Henry van de Velde, towards modernism. Bauhaus, a portmanteau word invented by Gropius when he took over, expressed the belief, ultimately traceable to John Ruskin, that all the arts should be directed towards building. It moved physically to new quarters at Dessau, in Saxony-Anhalt, designed by Gropius in 1925.[i] This was the short heyday of the institution, during which time the celebrated Bauhausbucher were published, several by Gropius himself.[ii]

            After the Nazis came to power in 1933, Gropius left Germany for England, where Max Fry formed a short-lived partnership with him.[iii] They produced some buildings together, the most significant among them being the Village College at Impington, a little north of Cambridge. “One of the best buildings of its date in England, if not the best.”[iv] The genesis of The new architecture and the Bauhaus lies in a party in March 1934 at the London flat of the housing reformer Elizabeth Denby[v]. A director of Faber, Richard de la Mare,[vi] was introduced to Gropius during the party, contacting him again a few days later to pursue the idea of a book, which seems to have been instigated by Herbert Read.[vii] De la Mare, along with another director at Faber, the American Frank Vigor Morley, saw the project through.

            The new architecture and the bauhaus is an extended exercise in modernist solidarity. Morley openly mentions “a form suitable for propaganda” in one of his letters about the book. He attempted to “get Mr Prichard involved to help with the costs”.[viii] Translation of Gropius’s manuscript was effected by Philip Morton Shand, polyglot apple-fancier and œnologist, and frequent contributor to the Architectural Review. Frank Pick, director of London Transport, contributed a preface, at the instigation of Herbert Read.[ix] In his major book on Gropius Isaacs mentions the publication and Gropius’s sensitivity over Frank Pick’s introduction.[x] The pictorial dustwrapper, rarely found with first editions these days, was designed by the Hungarian Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, another refugee modernist teacher from the Bauhaus. Moholy, who apparently devised the wrapper “at the drop of a hat”, was also living in England then. Like Gropius, he also went on to live in America.

director's office bauhaus weimar 1923            The book remains readable, as Shand was a considerable prose stylist and took care to clarify Gropius’s rather mystical German text. One particularly metaphysical passage defeated him entirely, so he simply omitted it. The narrative of Gropius’s career may be incomplete—his account of the founding and later vicissitudes of the Bauhaus has been much elaborated since—but the clarity and attack of his text is undiminished. He recognizes the flaws and traps threatening modern architecture, sometimes sounding Trotskyite: “The movement must be purged from within if its original alms are to be saved from the strait-jacket of materialism or mis-conception.” Gropius goes on to make a cogent plea for standardization and pre-fabrication. Perhaps we now forget the utterly abject housing conditions that then prevailed in the slums of many European cities. The state of affairs here was hardly better, at least in the places categorized as “distressed areas” by Wal Hannington in his book of that title.[xi]

            Some sentiments expressed by Gropius in this book may have seemed rather dated to the more radical members of the modern movement in England, such as it was, by 1935. However, the wider British public was not in the least attuned to modernism; almost no building of note had commenced between about 1931 and 1934, due to the after-effects of the Wall Street Crash; commercial buildings were still overwhelmingly classical in design. The office block for Crawfords advertising agency in Holborn was lone example of modern design among London buildings. The new architecture ends with a short apologia invoking and yoking together those Anglo-Saxon neo-classical contemporaries K F Schinkel and Sir John Soane, chosen perhaps to demonstrate Gropius’s respect for tradition.[xii]

            The reader may anticipate that critics in the architectural magazines gave the book a uniformly generous welcome. It was Myles Wright’s “book of the year” in the Architect’s Journal. Jim Richards liked it so much he reviewed it twice; once in the Architectural Review and again in the Burlington magazine. Gropius’s book was reviewed in publications as diverse as John O’Londons’ Weekly and The Christian Science Monitor. Would it be made the “book of the week” in today’s Evening Standard as it was in 1935? The now defunct BBC magazine, The Listener, was then enthusiastically modernist; the Irish architect Raymond McGrath reviewed Gropius’s book in reverent terms, treating him almost as a guru. Professor C H Reilly, head of the school of architecture in Liverpool, wrote a rave review in the Manchester Guardian. Anthony Blunt–remember him?–was earnestly enthusiastic in the Spectator.[xiii] Gropius himself used the book as a lever to further his career in America, which he talks about in Peter John’s book.[xiv]

            The particular copy under consideration was a student prize from The Builder magazine, presented to Arthur Montague Foyle in January 1937. “Monty” Foyle was elected an associate of the RIBA in December 1939. A distant relative of the celebrated bookselling family, Monty was a staunch Methodist and a conscientious objector 1939-45. He studied, and later taught, at the Bartlett School of Architecture, writing a PhD on ‘The development of architecture in west Africa’ in 1959. As a student, Foyle worked for Albert Richardson and Patrick Abercrombie, then went into private practice after WW2; building flats in Willesden and restoring rural churches in Suffolk. Monty’s sister Marjory kindly supplied me with some information about her brother. We may wonder if Monty was inspired by the final sentence in his prize book. Gropius invokes a moral imperative with these stirring words:

The ethical necessity of the New Architecture can no longer be called in doubt.

And the proof of this is that in all countries Youth has been fired with its inspiration.

 


 

[i] Illustrated in Walter Müller-Wulckow, Deutsche baukunst der Gegenwart, Konigstein im Taunis & Leipzig, 1929

[ii] eg. Walter Gropius, & Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Neue Arbeiten der Bauhauswerkstätten, Munich, 1925; Walter Gropius, Internationale architektur, Dessau, 1927

[iii] This is well covered in David Elliott’s contribution to Charlotte Benton, A different world: emigré architects in Britain 1928-1958, London, 1995, pp 107-123

[iv] Nikolaus Pevsner, The buildings of England, Cambridgeshire, Harmondsworth, 1970, p.412-413

[v] Elizabeth Denby [1894-1965] “England’s Jane Jacobs” according to David Medd, was the author of Europe re-housed, London, 1938

[vi] Richard [1902-1986] was the son of Walter de la Mare the poet

[vii] Herbert Read [1893-1968] was ubiquitous in modernist circles in England after the First World War

[viii] Jack Pritchard [1899-1992] was an entrepreneur and manufacturer; he built the Isokon Flats in Hampstead, designed by the Canadian engineer-turned-architect Wells Coates

[ix] Frank Pick [1878-1941] determinedly modernist in outlook, was able to make London Underground Limited a beacon of modernism

[x] Isaacs, Reginald, Gropius, Boston: Little, Brown, 1991, pp 194-195

[xi] Wal Hannington, The problem of the distressed areas, London, 1937

[xii] This kind of thinking was in the air at the time; Emil Kaufmann published his Von Ledoux bis Le Corbusier in 1933

[xiii] Just in case you do not remember Blunt, he was a Poussin scholar and surveyor of the Queen’s pictures. He was unmasked as a Soviet spy in 1979

[xiv] Peter, John, The oral history of modern architecture, New York: Abrams, 1994 sv “Walter Gropius”

© David Brady

About David Brady

David Brady
David Brady studied architecture and art history at Cambridge and has been working for many years as a historian of art, architecture and design. He was Deputy Curator of the Iconographic Collection at the Wellcome Institute where he was responsible for several exhibitions and semi-permanent displays. He was later appointed Associate Professor at New York University in London and then Associate Professor of Fine and Applied art at Regents College. He has also taught courses at Birkbeck College, City University, Queen Mary, University of London, Samford University and Marymount College as well as the Victoria & Albert Museum. He has lectured nationally and internationally on 19th and 20th century art, architecture, design and related matters. A trustee of the Twentieth Century Society for over a decade, he has published extensively on subjects related to 20th century buildings, architects, art and design. He has also contributed reviews and other articles to Building Design, Crafts Magazine, The Independent and Museums Journal, among many other publications.

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