To mark the centenary of the founding of the Bauhaus, we are running of day of sessions at the Festival of the Future City and linking to other related events. This blog tells the little-known story of Bristol’s connection to the innovative school.
Founded by Walter Gropius in 1919, the Bauhaus school of architecture and design profoundly changed the look and feel of cityscapes – and the homes within them – the world over. In the course of its lifetime, the school operated in three different German cities as it sought to avoid various political pressures (including the growing influence of the Nazi party), and as city mayors worked to bring the benefits of the arts school to their wider populations.
Fritz Hesse, Mayor of Dessau, fought to secure town council funding for the building of the striking Dessau campus, believing the Bauhaus architects could be instrumental in helping to solve the city’s housing problems. Soon the campus itself was part of what caught most visitors’ imaginations as they arrived at Dessau railway station:
I arrived in Dessau at dawn. Fog had descended over the town. Here and there hesitant gleams of light penetrated the damp air. But my gaze was drawn to a shining beam some distance away. It was a huge shining cube: the Bauhaus’s new building. […] I’d never seen such a reflector of light.
– Nelly Schwalacher, 1927 (Bauhaus Dessau: Das Gebäude)
The school also established productive links with city industry, both in the creation of the building and in some of the Bauhaus’ most celebrated furniture designs. Especially important, in Dessau, was Hugo Junkers’ Flugzeug- und Motorenwerke AG, a car and aircraft manufacturing company that would eventually be coerced into producing dive bombers for the Luftwaffe. In an earlier, more peaceful life, however, the factory served as the ‘research lab’ for the development of Marcel Breuer’s iconic tubular-steel-frame chairs in an ideal example of avant-garde design work and local craft knowledge.
Indeed, Bauhaus’ links to industrial producers were an early threshold into one of its lesser-known city-connections with – who else? – Bristol. In 1947, the sixth conference of the Congrès internationaux d’architecture moderne (CIAM), or International Congresses of Modern Architecture, was relocated from New York to the somewhat more surprising location of Bridgwater, where delegates, including Walter Gropius, were hosted by local residents. The choice of location was inspired partly by the great prefabrication factories outside of Bristol, including the Bristol Airplane company, which the delegates visited on Thursday 11 September 1947.
Bristol-Bauhaus encounters were at their most intense though in the relationship of Marcel Breuer and Crofton Gane, a Bristolian furniture-maker for whom Breuer designed the now-vanished Gane Pavilion in Long Ashton, which he regarded as his favourite work, alongside the Paris UNESCO headquarters. Gane’s friendship with and patronage of Breuer may have helped to shape what Ken Stradling Collection director, Chris Yeo, calls the ‘soft modernism’ version of Bauhaus design that proved popular in Britain – as in the plywood rather than chrome frames of the furniture Breuer created for the Pavilion, and in the distinctive merging of Bauhaus with traditional Wedgwood ceramic techniques.
It also helped to cement Bristol’s links to a movement that, as far as it is associated with Britain, is usually linked to London and the renowned furniture company Isokon, which both Gropius and Breuer joined in 1934, in exile from Nazi Germany. As Owen Hatherley suggests, these odd pockets aside, British cities could be extremely hostile towards the Bauhaus’ modern style: Frank Pick, design director of London Transport, complained about plans to commission Bauhaus artist László Moholy-Nagy to decorate the British Pavilion at the 1937 Paris Expo, writing ‘I am not at all clear that we should fall for this’. (Hatherley, 2019)
In light of these attitudes, it’s a shame that Crofton Gane’s ‘vox pop’ testimony has now been lost: in an intriguing move Gane at one point hired a professional sociologist to canvas customers’ impressions of Breuer’s furniture upon leaving the shop. Their responses would certainly make a fascinating Bristolian counterpoint to Pick’s assessment of Bauhaus worth, but unfortunately they are now mostly forgotten – with the exception perhaps of one especially enthusiastic resident. For them? ‘I’ve seen the future!’
Erfurth, Helmut, et al. The Dessau Bauhaus : The Building, Architecture and History of the Modern Era. Mitteldeutscher Verlag, 1998.
Hatherley, Owen. “Bauhaus Just Wasn’t British.” Dezeen, Jan. 2019.
Bauhaus and Women
Wednesday 16 October 2019, 6.30 – 8.00pm, £3.77 / £5.89, Spike Island
The Bauhaus declared equality between the sexes and accepted both male and female students into its programmes. More women applied than men to join the school when it first opened. But it’s the men who are better known, despite the many women involved with the movement. Over the past decade – most recently in the case of Anni Albers – the women of the Bauhaus have been getting more attention through major exhibitions and books devoted to their work. What was the impact of the women of the Bauhaus? And what can we learn today from their lives and work?
100 years on from the founding of the original, can we reimagine the Bauhaus for 2019? This interactive, provocative day of dialogue and stimulation will bring together diverse expertise from art to architecture, psychiatry to economics and will ask; had the Bauhaus not been closed down by the Nazis, what would it be doing now for cities and their citizens?
The Bauhaus in Bristol
This exhibition commemorates the little-known but highly significant partnership between one of the Bauhaus’ most celebrated figures, the architect and designer Marcel Breuer, and Bristol entrepreneur and furniture retailer Crofton Gane. It includes rare archive material and images, Breuer-designed and Gane-manufactured furniture, and artefacts.