Exile and excellence

The emigre architects of the 1930s brought fresh ideas and perspectives to Britain. They were given the cold shoulder.
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The Independent Culture
Prophets are famously without honour in their own countries and none more so than Walter Gropius and Erich Mendelsohn in Nazi Germany. Gropius (1883-1969) was founder and director of the world-famous Bauhaus and Mendelsohn (1887-1953) the most successful pioneering architect of the Weimar years before Hitler's accession to power.

Gropius left Germany for England in 1934 because the new Nazi establishment made it all but impossible for him to carry on working in a Modern idiom. Mendelsohn, who had read and absorbed Mein Kampf at the time of its publication packed his family's bags for England as early as June 1933.

England profited to an extent from the visitation of these brilliant men, but not to the extent it might have. For, as an exhibition at the Royal Institute of British Architects Heinz Gallery ("A Different World: Emigre architects in Britain, 1928-58"), curated by Charlotte Benton, shows, the British establishment did not exactly encourage displaced European architects, no matter how great their talent.

Gropius sailed to the United States in 1937 where he became a professor at Harvard and established a successful international practice. He did design one building in post-war England - the Playboy Club (1969) in London's Park Lane, a surprisingly frivolous commission for the earnest Berliner. In the States, however, the prophet was decidedly profitable. As was Gropius's successor as director of the Bauhaus, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. When Mies finally left Hitler's Nazi Germany for Roosevelt's New Deal USA in 1937, his designs for Modern Movement office and apartment blocks became hugely fashionable and extremely lucrative. "Mies means Money" the developers boasted.

Back in England, Mendelsohn went into partnership with the Russian-Jewish architect and ballroom dancer Serge Chermayeff (born 1901) and, along with a number of distinguished private houses, won the competition to design the new municipal seaside pavilion at Bexhill-on-Sea, Sussex.

This resulted in a radical and rather lovely building (currently being restored by the architects Troughton McAslan) that, nevertheless, drew poisonous criticism from British architects who felt that foreigners should not be allowed to take work from indigenous architects, particularly at a time of economic crisis. One architect used the occasion to write a vicious piece in Fascist Week railing against Jewish "aliens" and attacking the RIBA for "lavishing on these aliens... encouragement which they conspicuously withhold from the younger architects of their own race..."

In fact, save for the kindness of Edward Carter, the RIBA's influential librarian, officialdom gave little help to European architects on the run from Nazi repression. Typically, the British establishment seemed entirely oblivious to the qualities and capabilities of talents like those of Gropius and Mendelsohn. Like Gropius and Mies, Mendelsohn found working in England both tricky and dispiriting. Despite his age, he tried to join the British Army in 1939 and, having been rejected, went on to do great things in Palestine and the United States.

Immigration laws, the attitude of the Home Office, anti-semitism, ignorance and hostility to Modern architecture meant that very few emigre architects settled successfully in Britain. Very few architectural patrons had any understanding of the new European architecture. Among the few exceptions were the furniture manufacturer Jack Pritchard (who commissioned Gropius among others) and Frank Pick, legendary chief executive of the London Passenger Transport Board. Pick had travelled extensively through northern Europe at the beginning of the Thirties with Charles Holden, his favourite architect, exploring the best of the new buildings there. This resulted in a flourish of brilliant modern Underground stations by Holden and others. One of those others might have been Gropius; Pick was ready to commission Gropius to design an Underground station, but the architect's transatlantic departure and Hitler's invasion of Poland put a stop to Pick's courageous New Works programme of 1935-40.

Those emigres who succeeded did so because they found, by accident and not design, clients who saw the relevance of the radical quality of their work. The two most successful emigres working in Britain were Berthold Lubetkin (1901-1990), a Georgian from Tiflis, and Erno Goldfinger (1902- 87), a Hungarian from Budapest.

Both men steered themselves across Europe in the Twenties, studying where possible and engaging with the greatest and most radical architects, engineers and artists of the period. Both have added immeasurably to Britain's 20th- century architectural heritage. Glamorous, hugely cultured and forceful characters, both men made good marriages to affluent English women and charmed their way into prestigious commissions.

Lubetkin gave us (with a little help from Ove Arup, the emigre Danish engineer) the exquisite High Point I flats (1933-35) at Highgate, "an achievement of the first rank" said Le Corbusier at the building's inauguration. Lubetkin also designed the Penguin Pool at London Zoo (how to make Modernism popular), the Finsbury Health Centre for the "People's Republic of Finsbury", housing for the same London borough and a monument to Lenin near Sadler's Wells theatre.

Goldfinger built on a heroic scale, his career gathering momentum throughout the Fifties and Sixties. His most famous (and controversial) buildings include the Brutalist DHSS complex at Elephant & Castle, London and Trellick Tower, highpoint of the Edenham Street housing estate in north Kensington, London. The latter is now a fashionable address among young artists, designers and architects, while Goldfinger's own artistic house (Hampstead, London) was bought last year by the National Trust. This was the first Modern Movement house acquired by the Trust, a sign that the British public, 50 years on, was finally ready to enjoy modern architecture. It is significant that the architect was one of Fascist Week's "aliens" robbing the English of their Neo-Georgian and Joke-Oak heritage. The work of Goldfinger and Lubetkin is now an officially recognised part of our national heritage. Better than that, however, their work still has the power to inspire, delight and even to shock.

The architects who touched base or settled in Britain from continental Europe in the Thirties enriched British architecture to an immeasurable degree. Today, students from around the globe compete for places in British schools of architecture so enriched; they are the new emigres and whether they try to settle in Britain (as hard today as it was when Gropius tried to 60 years ago) or take their expertise home, they will profit their profession honourably.

n 'A Different World: Emigre Architects in Britain 1928-58' RIBA, Heinz Gallery, 21 Portman Square, London W1 Mon-Fri 11am-5pm, Sat 10am-1pm (info: 0171-580 5533), to 20 Jan 1996