Modernist Housing In England
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Modernist Housing In England

The 20th century was transformed by industrialisation and rapid technological progress. Society was changed to such an extent that people were conscious of living in a ‘modern age.’ For this reason artists and designers began to feel that a more forward-looking style was needed.

The 20th century was transformed by industrialisation and rapid technological progress. Society was changed to such an extent that people were conscious of living in a ‘modern age.’ For this reason artists and designers began to feel that a more forward-looking style was needed. Their work was radical and came to be known as 'Modernism'. Modernism became the dominant style of the 20th century. The key principles were functionalism, structural honesty and the use of anaesthetic derived from machines.

Modernism emerged in Europe. The new approach was formulated by the Bauhaus, an academy of art and design that was founded by Walter Gropius in Germany in 1919. The Bauhaus building was designed by Gropius himself. It was a perfect statement of intent. It is based on a pure grid of horizontal and vertical lines. Long ribbon windows give it a simple elegance and repose. There is no extraneous ornament and the design is extremely functional.

The Bauhaus, Walter Gropius

The Furniture department of the Bauhaus experimented with materials and techniques. This is perhaps where the machine aesthetic was most successful. Marcel Breuer was a Bauhaus student experimenting with tubular steel. He designed this chair from 1928. It’s absolutely minimalist: just a folded loop of tubular steel that formed the legs, seat and back.

Tubular Steel Chair, Marcel Breuer

In France, the leading Modernist was a Swiss-born architect called Le Corbusier. Perhaps his most famous design is the Villa Savoye (1929-1931), a private house just outside of Paris. This was very radical for a house. It is an unadorned clean, white edifice with horizontal windows. It is raised from the ground on pilotti or stilts as if Le Corbusier wanted it to be separated from nature and from common life and elevated to a higher intellectual plane. The aesthetic is clean, white and pristine.

Modernism swept through Europe, but it was never fully accepted in Britain. The general public and the design establishment found it too radical and too foreign. This was just after the First World War and there were still strong anti-German prejudices. Britain still favoured Arts and Crafts or Neo-Tudor styles, as the following satirical cartoon suggests.

The British mainstream was suspicious of Modernism, but it was appreciated by a cultivated elite. One of the pioneers of Modernism in Britain was Wells Coates (1895-1958), who was actually Canadian. He co-founded a company named Isokon, which aimed to create designs suitable for the modern age. Wells Coats developed innovative housing designs, including Lawn Road Flats (1933-4) in Hampstead, London. This was one of Britain’s most influential modern apartment blocks. The flats were made of reinforced concrete with dramatically cantilevered sculptural stairways and access galleries. The flats were aimed at a professional elite, rather than the average house buyer.

Lawn Road Flats, Wells Coates

The Bauhaus was one of the nerve-centres of Modernism, but when the Nazis seized power of Germany in 1933 they closed the Bauhaus down. Bauhaus designers were forced to flee Germany for fear of persecution. Many of them came to Britain and this is how the style spread. Some of the first tenants of Lawn Road flats were Modernist designers escaping from Nazi Germany, including Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer and Lázló Maholy-Nagy, all of whom had worked at the Bauhaus. The crime novelist Agatha Christie also lived here.

A number of private individuals embraced Modernism. This is a Modernist house called High and Over (1929) at Amersham in Buckinghamshire. It’s a pure Modernist composition, very similar to contemporary houses by Le Corbusier. The house was built for Bernard Ashmole, who was Professor of Classical Archaeology at the University of London. He specialized in Ancient Greek sculpture, but admired Modernist architecture and he commissioned Amyas Connell (1901-80) to design the house. It was designed for a private client, so Connell was able to use this radical Modernist style. All the same, it was controversial because the locals felt it was a monstrosity. It actually reveals the influence of the Arts and Crafts movement – it has a butterfly plan derived from Edward Prior’s Arts and Crafts house, The Barn.

High and Over, Amyas Connell

The Barn, Edward Prior

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Comments (6)

Interesting and informative presentation

Ranked #1 in Architecture

Thank you, Sir Abdel. You know I value your expert opinion.

Quite the design with simplicity being a focal point. Well done compostion from which I learned and enjoyed!

Ranked #1 in Architecture

Thanks for your comment, Roberta.

Modernism is good,but so is the more historic architectural structures. For example, the house that I live in here in Colorado Springs is on the Historic Buildings Registry. It was built in 1890 and was once the residence of Frank Waters, a famous Colorado Springs artist and writer. My house may not be as pretty as newer homes, but it has a warmth that newer, more modern homes cannot touch.

Ranked #1 in Architecture

Thanks for the information about your house Jerry - very interesting. I also prefer earlier periods, particularly the Arts and Crafts movement.