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Strangers in the house

Jewish emigres could have galvanised British architecture between the wars, but prejudice meant that the opportunities were mostly lost. The recent V&A commission suggests things may be changing, but can newly enlightened attitudes be sustained? By Jonathan Glancey
Last week the V&A announced that "the Polish architect Daniel Libeskind has been selected to design a major new landmark building [for the museum]". Some landmark. Some building. The new Boilerhouse gallery at the V&A is one of the most remarkable, exciting and controversial buildings proposed in this country this century.

Such was the impact of the eye-boggling design that even the London Evening Standard stood back to give it serious consideration in a thoughtful full- length feature rather than indulging in its usual knee-jerk "Prince appalled by V&A horror - looks like pile of crushed cardboard boxes, he says - I simply didn't know where to look, commented 21-year old Kensington art student India Trust-ffunde".

The week before, the broadsheets carried obituaries of Serge Chermayeff, the immensely stylish Russian-born architect and designer who, for better or worse, helped to bring the Modern Movement and crisp, white, streamlined International Style to tweedy, home-spun, TB-ridden Britain.

Libeskind's V&A commission and Chermayeff's death are not unconnected events. Chermayeff was the last of the great Jewish European emigres who injected modern vitality and intellectual sophistication into British architectural and cultural circles in the Twenties and Thirties. Erich Mendelsohn, Berthold Lubetkin, Erno Goldfinger and Chermayeff gave us not just something to think about, but a bright galaxy of buildings that, though they were shocking when built, we have recently - very recently and not completely - learnt to come to terms with and even admire.

Daniel Libeskind is a Polish-born Jew whose family perished in the Holocaust and who has been a United States citizen since 1965. He is currently building the extraordinary and beautiful Jewish Museum in Germany, an annexe, in the guise of a three-dimensional bolt of lightning, to the Berlin Museum. Over the past 40 years, Britain has maintained a steadfast, if unwritten, policy of banning foreign architects from designing major buildings. Yes, we have employed talented young designers from the former Eastern Bloc in recent years, but more as cheap labour rather than as up-and-coming stars who might put their names to millennial museums and opera houses.

As we wilfully lost the talents of Chermayeff and Mendelsohn to the United States at the outbreak of the Second World War, and Lubetkin to pig-farming in Gloucestershire, so we have denied brilliant foreign architects a turn to enliven our dull and steady architectural landscape over many decades. Of course there have been exceptions, but these have been as rare as good modern building in Wales.

A gifted storyteller, Serge Chermayeff once told me at a party in London that he had danced with wealthy ladies for 7s 6d a spin in the smartest London ballrooms when he was on his uppers in the early Twenties. At the same time this spirited architect, designer and teacher denied that, 70 years before, he had once been a boy called Issakovitch, which Gavin Stamp, the architectural historian, had insisted was the case.

One knew instinctively that this tall, dashing, hawk-like octogenarian had a colourful past. And in fact, Chermayeff was every bit as exotic as mainstream British architects of the Twenties and Thirties wanted him to be. Not so that they could applaud him, but so they could write vicious letters about him and his type in an attempt to stifle the brilliant careers of talented emigres fleeing pogroms and revolution abroad.

Chermayeff's type was the natural enemy of the solid, tweedy, upper-middle class British architect who, with glorious exceptions - Lutyens, Scott, Holden, Hill - endowed these islands with sanctimoniously dull Neo-Georgian and half-hearted Arts & Crafts banks, town halls and houses between the wars. How British architects breathed a sigh of relief when, frustrated through lack of work and concerned about the anti-semitism of the British upper classes, they shipped their talents across the Atlantic.

Those who stayed, we labelled "aliens", as if they had little green horns sprouting from their heads and many were locked up for the duration of the Second World War. To have lost one inspired Modern architect to the Americans in 1940 may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose several looked like carelessness.

Chermayeff, born Sergei Ivanovitch Issakovitch in 1900, was the son of a Jewish Caucasian father who made his money from an oil well discovered on his land. Sergei was sent to England before the Revolution, cared for by the Chermayeff family, whose name he adopted, and educated at Harrow. He was to have to gone up to Cambridge, but the October Revolution put a cap on the modest Issakovitch oil fortune.

Dashing but penniless, he made his own way, working his passage to Buenos Aires to run a dance club and later working the London ballroom floors as a gigolo, charming his way into the confidences of upper-crust ladies married to the sort of chaps they were born to mother.

Galling for the British architecture establishment, then, that this smooth Jewish operator should, at the age of 33, team up with Erich Mendelsohn, one of the modern world's greatest architects, and win the much fought- over commission to design the De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea (1934- 35). And at a time when British architects were desperate for work.

Mendelsohn (1887-1953), who had left Germany when Hitler came to power, was famous on the continent for his Expressionist masterpiece, the Einstein Tower, Potsdam and the streamlined Shocken department store, Chemnitz (on which, in a watered-down way, Peter Jones in Sloane Square was modelled). Letters written to the local Sussex press over the choice of Mendelsohn and Chermayeff for the Bexhill Pavilion would have made Josef Goebbels proud of the country his Fuhrer thought was his natural ally.

Greatly respected in the States, Chermayeff took up successive professorships at Harvard and Yale (where he taught, among many well-known future talents, Richard Rogers of Lloyd's and Pompidou fame).

Ironically, though, most of the commissions Chermayeff, Mendelsohn, Berthold Lubetkin (another Russian Jew) and Erno Goldfinger (from Hungary) had won in Britain before Hitler invaded Poland, were not the social buildings they championed but private houses for the wealthy (or, if not, penguin pools and gorilla houses for London Zoo). The Cohen House opposite the Chelsea Arts Club is a prime example; this glamorous white villa includes "servants' rooms" in its idealised Modern plan.

One of the very best of these early Modern Movement buildings was the famous block of flats, Highpoint One, admired by Le Corbusier, that shoots into the London sky at Highgate. Designed by Lubetkin with a helping hand from Ove Arup, the Danish engineer who had emigrated to London, Highpoint was the first truly Modern structure in Britain as well as a bold symbol of the new Enlightenment that Hitler and Stalin were doing their best to destroy.

Highpoint, however, was for the well-off (and still is, as fashionable as ever, 60 years on). Lubetkin did get several opportunities to build for working class families (notably the Spa Green Estate opposite Sadlers Wells, London), but was to abandon architecture altogether in the early Fifties following deep-seated rows over the shape and form of Peterlee New Town. Lubetkin's workers' paradise was not to be realised. In protest, he took up pig-farming in Gloucestershire. In the Eighties he was chivvied out from his lair, not altogether unwillingly, awarded the Royal Gold Medal for Architecture and befriended by a much younger generation of architects and historians for whom he remained a constant source of inspiration and fabulous storytelling.

Erno Goldfinger (a friend of Ian Fleming, creator of 007 and author of Goldfinger) did make it big in Britain. Pugnacious, arrogant, vastly entertaining, he built the massive DHSS complex, Alexander Fleming House, at the Elephant & Castle in later years as well as Trellick Tower, the hugely distinctive concrete tower block that casts its shadow over Portobello Road market and is now a fashionable address for young architects, designers and artists.

We desperately needed the talents of those who settled here so briefly from Germany and Russia when Britain was rebuilding itself in the Fifties and Sixties. We could have had glamorous new working class housing by Chermayeff and Mendelsohn rather than the like-it and lump-it concrete misery we chose instead. This was the very junk, built in the name of Modernism, that gave the conservation and Neo-Georgian lobby such powerful ammunition with which to blast the whole Modern Movement experiment in Britain.

We retain a lingering mistrust of foreign architects. They receive virtually no commissions (the new Tate Gallery of Modern Art at Bankside, designed by the Swiss firm Hertzog & de Meuron, is one shining exception). As for the way Zaha Hadid has been treated over the Cardiff Bay Opera House competition, we should hang our collective head in shame. Whether or not one likes Hadid's adventurous design (full of operatic energy and three-dimensional drama), she should not have been treated with contempt.

There is no doubt that her hawkish looks, direct manner, her sex and Iraqi Muslim background made her a figure of narrow-minded suspicion in starless and bible-black Cardiff. It is significant that the talented Hadid employs architects in her London office who have had to flee the former Yugoslavia with nothing but talent to sustain them. There are about 100 Yugoslavian refugees working in London today; they offer talent, the will to succeed and tiny wage bills.

It is significant, too, that while British contempt for foreign architects spills over into downright nastiness in times of economic depression, they are no more likely to be employed when the going is supposed to be good. Last week's news that Libeskind, a Polish Jew and a brilliant architect, has been commissioned to design a major extension to the V&A is a sign that we can change our tune if we really want to. But, it has yet to be proved that we have come to terms with foreign architects. Secretly, perhaps, we think them more suited to ballroom dancing and the odd provocation than being entrusted to lift the face of our weary towns and cities.