The Modernist Movement: Arrival (1928 - 1939)

Updated Monday 26th November 2001

During the 1930s, modernism moved from being a middle-class dream to a direct influence on working people's lives.

Highpoint Two Creative commons image Icon tpholland under CC-BY licence under Creative-Commons license

A Foreign Ideology

The Modern Movement in Britain was less visible in the decade or so after the First World War than in other western European countries. Whereas Le Corbusier, Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe and others were already established architects on the continent, by the start of the 1930s, Britain could boast few modernist projects of its own.

The early modernist achievements in this country were often the work of émigré architects (for example, Germany's Erich Mendelsohn and the Russian born Serge Chermayeff, who collaborated on the De La Warr Pavilion (1933-1935) in Bexhill). This perhaps explains British suspicions that the Modern Movement was a foreign invention, and therefore not to be entirely trusted. However, the founding of CIAM in 1928 not only gave modernists across Europe confidence that their brave new world could be realised, it also coincided with the arrival of modernist buildings in Britain.

A Future Which Must Be Planned

High and Over, a luxurious private house by New Zealander Amyas Connell, was completed in 1931, and, in 1933 the Canadian Wells Coates and others established the Modern Architectural Research Group (MARS). MARS became was the British wing of CIAM, and Coates was determined to bring to Britain the same missionary zeal which was driving Modernism on the continent. In 1933 he wrote; "As young men, we are concerned with a Future which must be planned rather than a Past which must be patched up, at all costs… As architects of the ultimate human and material scenes of the new order, we are not so much concerned with the formal problems of style as with an architectural solution of the social and economic problems of today."

Wells Coates himself tried to put his ideas into practice with his famous Lawn Road Flats in Hampstead, London. Also known as the "Isokon" Building (after the furniture-making firm of Jack and Molly Pritchard, two modernist enthusiasts who commissioned its construction), the Lawn Road Flats were a bold experiment in communal living. Opened in 1934, each flat was fitted out with basic cooking and washing facilities, and a restaurant (the Isobar) was designed to be a focal point for the tenants. The idea was that these modern flats would cater for the new breed of modern man who liked to live and travel light.

Lawn Road was superseded as the epitome of modern living by Highpoint One, completed in 1935. Designed by Russian émigré Berthold Lubetkin, whose Tecton group of architects (which included Denys Lasdun) became famous for their advocacy of modern architecture and design throughout the 1930s, Highpoint One offered luxury living as well as providing tenants with spectacular views across London from the residential rooftop garden.

Nothing Is Too Good For Ordinary People

But these projects catered for the middle classes. It took a progressive aristocrat, the ninth Earl De La Warr, to introduce the benefits of Modern architecture to the wider community. He held a competition to build a 'modern' pavilion in the south coast resort of Bexhill-on-Sea.

The competition was won by the German Erich Mendelsohn and Russian Serge Chermayeff, whose De La Warr Pavilion opened in 1935. Shortly afterwards, in 1937, Maxwell Fry's Kensal House - the first modernist social housing project in Britain- opened its doors for the first time.

And in 1938, Berthold Lubetkin designed the Finsbury Health Centre. His famous words "Nothing is too good for ordinary people" betrayed his communist sympathies and emphasised the growing acceptance of Modernist architecture in Britain. Sited in one of the country's poorest boroughs, the Health Centre was at the forefront of advances in the delivery of public health services.

Opened only one year before the outbreak of World War Two, Finsbury Health Centre hinted not just at the coming post-war consensus on social policy, but also confirmed the arrival of Modernist architecture in Britain.

 

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