Bauhaus and Britain

1919 marks the centenary of the founding of the Bauhaus in Weimar by Walter Gropius. The story of his time in London in the 1930s – along with other members of the school – is well worth telling, as it has been in the recent biography by Fiona Macarthy . It is a story about Jack Pritchard and Isokon, of Maxwell Fry and MARS, of the impact of Gropius’s design for Impington Village College on postwar schools. It is part of a wider story of modernist architecture in Britain, such as Berthold Lubetkin’s work for Finsbury – both housing and the health centre. It is a story of hostility but also of postwar influence through Leslie Martin and Eric Lyon’s Span housing. It is a wonderful theme for an exhibition at RIBA, drawing on its own archives and other collections. Sadly, the exhibition fails as a result of the self-indulgent design of Pezo von Ellrichshausen. Plans and documents are hidden in pillars stretching down the exhibition space, glimpsed through circles and triangles at heights that are too high for people who are short and too low for people who are tall, and impossible for anyone in a wheelchair. Reading any of the documents is difficut as a result of shadows and distance. Sofia von Ellrichshausen and Mauricio Pezo are architects based in Chile who are known in Britain for their installation of sixteen steel towers outside Hull Minister, commissioned by RIBA as part of the City of Culture in 2017 which I visited and enjoyed as a witty and playful intervention in what was otherwise a dead space; and for the Sensing Spaces exhibition at the Royal Academy in 2014. They have designed some striking houses. The idiom of their buildings reappears in the exhibition – tower-like structures with irrregular openings – as well as their excellent work in spatial structures that blur the boundary between art and architecture. But they and RIBA have done a disservice to their predecessors, obscuring rather than illuminating the work of Gropius, his fellow exiles and collaborators. They have chosen to make it a self-indulgent exhibition about their own design rather than working in the service of the material or the viewer.