The émigrés who built modernism

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Glasgow School of Art (Charles Rennie Mackintosh) Credit – John Peter Photography/Alamy

Finsbury Health Centre in London, De La Warr Pavilion at Bexhill-on-Sea, and the Royal Festival Hall on the Southbank were important urban developments during inter-war 20th century Britain. Now rightly categorised as landmarks, each of them has a commonality worth pondering in the context of the social narrative dominating political discourse in modern-day Britain and Ireland (England, especially). Each building was designed, wholly or in part, by refugees or émigrés.

Reading Alan Powers’ excellent 100 Years of Architecture, which begins in 1914, it is striking to see the positive role played by immigrants in their new communities in an age defined by upheaval and mass movement of people. The book traces the path modernism beat through the 20th century; it is well written, smartly defined and put together, and a pleasure to leaf through (Powers disputes categorising all the building selections under the modernism label, but that’s a moot point).

The residual positivity and original thinking one finds in early- to mid-century modernism is remarkable, and its legacy remains in the buildings that are still relevant and used today. This era saw an England that welcomed Erich Mendelsohn as a refugee in 1933, when he began working with the Russian-born Serge Chermayeff.

A year later they had won the competition to build De La Warr Pavilion in East Sussex, which created a space for the public to enjoy a seaside setting; a simple, but nourishing pleasure. The sweeping, cantilevered, glazed staircase inside is a modernist icon and thankfully the pavilion remains a concert and arts space, or simply somewhere you can rest your limbs in an Aalto chair.

Polish-born Mendelsohn served in the first World War and soon made his name in designing what became known as the Einstein Tower – a 1924 commission for an observatory to prove the scientist’s theory that gravity changed the colour of light. Mendelsohn also designed an exemplary shop style with the Schocken Department Store in Chemnitz five years later and after his time in England, he worked in Palestine (under British Mandate) where he produced the impressive Hadassah Hospital and Medical School at Mount Scopus in 1939, before eventually settling in the United States.

Work on Finsbury Health Centre began the same year De La Warr Pavilion opened in 1935, and was based on plans by Berthold Lubetkin. An émigré from Georgia, Lubetkin arrived in England in 1932 and was soon creating waves in architecture with his newly-established partnership Tecton.

The health centre was ambitious for its time: doctors’ consultation rooms, a dental surgery, lecture hall, solarium and antenatal facilities were some of the features inside a markedly modern-looking building.

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Quarr Abbey, Isle of Wight, England, Dom. Paul Bellot (1876–1944) Credit – John Henshall/Alamy

German-born Peter Moro was also an émigré, and a former assistant to Lubetkin. As interior designer, Moro became one of the visionaries behind the Royal Festival Hall (alongside Robert Matthews and Leslie Martin as part of the London County Council). The opening of the new festival hall coincided with the Festival of Britain in 1951. As Powers notes, it came from the “pent-up ideas of 15 years of wartime austerity and its aftermath burst forth in a collaborative team effort”.

The building helped transform the Southbank area on the Thames into one of the main public arteries in the heart of London. Here, in one space, we find the openness and internationalism the city embraced, and which defines it today; the place pulses with energy.

The bestowal of buildings built by ‘foreigners’ is acknowledged long after the fact, although it can be lost in a present climate dominated by thoughts of getting rid of émigrés; preventing them coming in to our countries; building walls to keep them out.

A dominant right-wing political establishment and media in both Britain and Ireland has forced this shameful agenda. The debate on the Brexit referendum, for example, became a debate on immigration after it was hijacked and distorted with misinformation from the Leave campaign.

In Ireland a similar agenda was set during the boom and bust years, when the arbiters of power initially attempted to deflect blame towards foreigners for the country’s economic woes.

Context is everything. The ruling elites and hypocritical media moguls tell us that ‘Johnny Foreigner’ is to blame for problems in society or any strains on infrastructure.

In the context of the last century we can say the left has won the argument. Gone are the slums, diseases, and impoverishment of the working classes; gained are universal education and healthcare, workers’ rights and a standard of living that means we are all living longer than any generation before. But the left has been shouted down by the bullying, contemptible, vested-interests of the rich and privileged.

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AN866F Leicester University Faculty of Engineering, England, 1959 – 1963. Exterior of workshops and office and laboratory tower.

Going back to Finsbury Health Centre, there is a pertinent poster designed by the talented Abram Games in 1942 that features in Powers’ book. The image shows a sleek new health centre being positioned in a grim bombed-out site that has a headstone and the word ‘disease’ scrawled on a wall. Above the building it says ‘Your Britain’ and beside it ‘Fight For It Now’. In the shadows lurks a child suffering from rickets. The poster was withdrawn though, after Winston Churchill deemed it would be bad for public morale during wartime. Context is everything.

Modernist architecture was winning the argument of the last century (on points at least), until it was stiffed by the moneyed classes. As Powers notes, it ‘converges through this 100-year period towards a greater sameness in line with globalisation’.

Years of property speculation, government deference to neo-liberal capitalism, and a dulling of public engagement by the infliction upon us of mass consumption means we no longer look to architecture for the betterment of society. We no longer think of architecture as something for us. Many new buildings have little impact on our communities; do not create spaces for public enjoyment. Instead we have cloistered office blocks, silly garden bridges, or hubristic high rises that offer little but a blot on the skyline, or ostentatious symbols of corporate greed.

Powers remains impartial and admirably restrained throughout his book; it is certainly not polemical. One has no sense that he feels deflated by modernism, or that the movement is defeated, despite being tarnished by all the -isms of the 20th century. There is no inkling that he has a pining for a return to classical forms either.

It is telling that the buildings selected in the last quarter century of the book are mainly cultural centres: galleries, opera houses, museums etc. All worthy ventures of course, but again they are buildings that are usually monetised – enjoyment of them is linked to cash – and it’s unlikely they will draw in people outside of the middle- or upper-classes.

Modernism now means that for every conscientious project such as the Student Centre Building at Cork Institute of Technology or FAT’s New Islington Houses in Manchester, we must suffer a Shard or Cheesegrater (The Leadenhall Building) in London. This is the pay-off. We know which of these types of buildings shouts the loudest. We also know, and must not forget, which buildings give people a say.

100 Years of Architecture by Alan Powers (Laurence King Publishing) is out now

  • Article first appeared in The Times Literary Supplement http://www.the-tls.co.uk/