Design: Outside edge

While much of Europe embraced Modernism, Britain stagnated in nostalgia. But, as a new exhibition on inter-war design reveals, a wave of talented emigres changed all that - and set the agenda for postwar British architecture. Charles Darwent reports
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The Independent Culture
WHEN ARTHUR LING went up to university, he found his professor a model of Georgian gentlemanliness: given to taking good snuff, wearing linen jabots and driving a four-in-hand. There was nothing particularly unusual about any of this, except that Ling was an architectural student in the late 1920s. But then his professor was merely dressing the part. Neo-Georgian was the latest thing in British architecture at the time, and snuff and jabots were hardly more eccentric than the corbels and pediments breaking out like a well-mannered rash on facades up and down the country. As to all that new-fangled Modernism business taking place on the Continent - some Swiss feller called Corbusier, a beastly Hun called Gropius - Ling's professor was having none of it. "He looked with disfavour on the Modern movement," recalled an understated Ling, himself later a professor of architecture and co-author of the architectural masterplan for postwar London.

Ling's jabot-wearing academic was not alone. Gilbert Jenkins, then principal of the Architectural Association - now Britain's trendiest school of architecture and alma mater to, among others, Zaha Hadid - sniffed that Le Corbusier's houses were useless for anyone to live in "save a vegetarian bacteriologist". Meanwhile, Sir Reginald Blomfield, president of the Royal Institute of British Architects, observed that the Modernists were setting out to turn their backs on "every recognised standard of beauty". They were clearly, hissed an ominous Blomfield, "cosmopolitan".

As devotees of Evelyn Waugh will know, "cosmopolitan" was in fact a Thirties euphemism for "Jewish", and Blomfield was, to that extent at least, largely right. A new exhibition of inter- war design at London's Design Museum called Modern Britain 1929-1939 is interesting, not least for the partial inaccuracy of its title. A quick glance at the stars on the show's cast list - names like Lubetkin, Behrens, Goldfinger, Mendelsohn, Korn and Chermayeff - suggests that, however Modern they may have been, the architects who shaped tastes in British building during the Thirties can hardly be described as British.

For this, as for so much else, we have to thank that enthusiastic amateur architect Adolf Hitler. Although young tyros like Arthur Ling could moon over the banded windows, flat roofs and clean white walls of the Bauhaus in the pages of the Architects' Journal, finding patrons who actually wanted to commission Modernist buildings in Britain during the Twenties was a thankless affair. The few patrons who did have a taste for Modernism - London Underground's Frank Pick was a rare and honourable exception - were regarded as odd. When, in 1926, the obviously eccentric WJ Bassett-Lowke dropped Charles Rennie Mackintosh as his builder of choice and commissioned the German Deutsche Werkbund architect Peter Behrens to design him a Modernist house (brazenly called New Ways) in Northamptonshire instead, people simply assumed that Bassett-Lowke had gone mad. A year later, Waugh lampooned Behrens in Decline and Fall as the crazed German architect Professor Otto Friedrich Silenus who tears down a flawless Tudor man- sion to replace it with a piece of rubber-floored Corbusianism. The book sold like hot cakes.

The Nazis' rise to power in Germany in early 1933 changed all this, however. If the cosmopolitanism of Modernists like Behrens and Lubetkin seemed to threaten the Voysey-Woysey British taste for half-timbering and horse- brasses five years before, it was clearly altogether more benign than the pumped-up neoclassicism of Hitler's favourite, Albert Speer, which replaced it. At one stroke, Modernism came to be viewed as synonymous with anti-Nazism.

Its refugee practitioners - most of them forced to flee Germany for being Jewish or Socialist or both - were welcomed with open arms by British architectural practices, eager at last to see what Modernism might look like in the flesh. For their part, the emigre architects regarded their transplantation with grim gratitude rather than any absolute enthusiasm.

"Individually, some of them [ie, British architects] were quite good, but most were not that serious," recalled an unimpressed Erno Goldfinger. "They were full of loose ideas about people, and about how they acted."

Nonetheless, Hitler had given the British Modern Movement the inadvertent shot in the arm it had needed for a decade. Think of almost any of the iconic buildings of the Thirties and you will find a foreign name behind it: Berthold Lubetkin's at High Point or the Penguin Pool at London Zoo; Eric Mendelsohn's at the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea; Goldfinger's at his famous flats in Willow Road, Hampstead; Chermayeff's at Lord Reith's Broadcasting House.

Quite apart from their creators' funny foreign names, one reason for the fame which these buildings quickly acquired was, of course, that there were so few of them. For this we have also to thank Hitler. If Nazism pepped up British Modernism from 1933 on, it also stopped British building dead in its tracks in September 1939, the last year covered by the Design Museum's show. By the time the smoke from the Second World War had cleared, Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer - the latter already the co-creator of Britain's first theoretical Concrete City - had left for America, Lubetkin had changed architectural styles and various others had either moved on or died, or both.

That was hardly the end of the story, though. By 1939, and thanks almost entirely to the influence of Lubetkin et al, the British Modern Movement was no longer the underground trend it had been a decade before. The emigres may have found themselves lampooned in British novels and cartoons, but they had bequeathed their British colleagues both a higher professional profile and the courage to follow their convictions.

The direct and salutary influence of Gropius on his architectural employer, Maxwell Fry, can still be seen in the latter's stunning 1935 block of council flats, Kensal House on Ladbroke Grove. Other echt British masterpieces from the British Modern Movement of the late 1930s - Owen Williams' Peckham Health Centre, say, or H Goodhart-Rendel's St Olaf House - also show a confidence that had, by and large, been missing from the sparse repertoire of Modernist building in Britain pre-1933. By 1939, too, the Architectural Association and architectural departments at universities such as Liverpool were openly boasting of their Modernist leanings.

The students there - including Denys Lasdun (who went on to work for Lubetkin), later architect of the National Theatre, and Arthur Ling, so bemused by his fossilised Georgian professor - were soon to emerge to begin the process of rebuilding British cities (also thoughtfully razed by that inadvertent Moderniser, A Hitler) in a Modernist form. Perhaps most important, though, was the fact that British architecture, pedimented and carriage-lamped a mere decade before, had finally become part of an international movement.

Modern Britain 1929-1939: Architecture and Exhibitions is at the Design Museum, Shad Thames, London SE1 from 20 January to 6 June (0171 378 6055)