21 August 2009

Bauhaus in Britain; Chermayeff and Bexhill-On-Sea

I was very interested in Bauhaus architectural students who moved to Britain, as soon as the Bauhaus was closed down (in 1933). Serge Ivan Chermayeff (1900–96) was exactly the same age and nationality as many of the Bauhaus architectural students, but he in fact moved from Grozny in Russia directly to London. Thus we know that he did not spend any years studying at The Bauhaus in Germany.

However we do know that in 1931, Chermayeff and two other English architects (Wells Coates and Jack Pritchard)  made a journey together through Germany, and included Bauhaus in Dessau in their itinerary. They spent time talking with English undergraduates who were studying there.

In the 1920s, professional organisations of young architects were al­ready emerging in Berlin and other German cities. Zehnerring/Ring of Ten was an org­anis­at­ion of Berlin architects set up in 1923 to prom­ote the Bauhaus notion of modernism architecture. Erich Mendelsohn (1887–1953) was one of these German architects who was thrilled to join Zehnerring, but within a few years he fled Germany while getting out was still a possibility.

Chermayeff went into private architectural practice is 1930 and a couple of years later, he welcomed Erich Mendelsohn into the practice. Of these two Jewish architects safely working in Britain, Mendel­sohn was older and more famous, but Chermayeff spoke English better and had citizenship. Their combined goal was to design significant archit­ect­ural works in the British modernist movement, a la Bauhaus.

Looking to the beach from the Bexhill-On-Sea pavilion

Bexhill, a small beach resort town between Eastbourne and Hastings, already had a high-class entertainment venue: the Kursaal in De La Warr Parade. The mayor of Bexhill in 1932, who happened to be 9th Earl De La Warr, suggested the town needed a more modern, more invit­ing pavilion. What he wanted was an enclosed structure or winter garden, behind the existing colonnade. The town largely supported this project, as long as the new building maintained the existing character of the town.

Bexhill Borough Council set up an architectural competition in 1933 and prepared a brief that indicated that a modern building was required. 230 architectural designs were submitted, exhibited and assessed, and the winning entry was declared to be that submitted by Erich Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff.

Bexhill social life in summer evenings

Building work began in Jan 1935, using perhaps the first welded steel frame building in Britain. The aesthetics taught at The Bauhaus were well suited to the Bexhill Pavilion, focusing on long, low concrete surfaces, industrial designs, with expansive metal-framed windows and concrete-steel materials. The glass-encircled staircase towers above the headland on which it stands.

If the streamline extended verandas, glass tower and deckchairs reminded the viewer of a ship, it was not coincidental. Firstly Bexhill On Sea was a beach resort town. Secondly 1930s modernist architecture, especially Deco, was besotted with ships (as well as trains and fast cars), as shown by Art Deco Buildings.

When the money ran out, the plan to redevelop the Colonnade, a swimming pool and modernist statue was abandoned. Nonetheless the completed project was opened in Dec 1935, in the presence of royalty.

In the 1930s the modern style of the building was probably something of a shock to the good (staid?) burghers of Bexhill. And there was also some resentment over the cost of the project. However in the end it became much loved. graveney marsh blog has an enticing image of the sea, taken from inside the pavilion.

I hadn't discovered why this coastal resort fell out of love with its treasure, then The Knowledge Emporium blog showed how the pavilion was damaged when a nearby hotel was bombed during the war. Afterwards, in the tough postwar era, the pavilion was simply neglected.

By the 1980s, the De La Warr Pavilion was granted a Grade I listed Building status and plans were formulated to restore the building. In 2005, after an extensive programme of restoration and regeneration, the De La Warr Pavilion reopened as a large, cont­emporary arts centre. 70 years after the building was designed by Chermayeff and Mendelsohn, the De La Warr Pavilion is the most famous spot in Bexhill. And much to my pleasure, it is one of the best early examples of the Bauhaus style of architectural modernism in Britain.

What do bloggers think of the pavilion now? 60 going on 16 blog examined the architecture, loved it, then headed for the cafe, opting for tea, cake and sea views out on the first floor balcony. Despite not spending much time with the art as expected, it was an excellent experience.

Bexhill Pavilion and art centre, in 2005

For scholars of The Bauhaus, it is interesting to know that Laszlo Moholy Nagy's successor at the head of the Ins­t­itute of Design in Chicago was the very same Serge Chermayeff who had moved to the USA during WW2. Chermayeff, the man who had never studied at the Bauhaus, remained true to the Institute’s orig­in­al Bauhaus goals. Some of materials related to the De La Warr Pavilion were archived in the Serge Chermayeff Papers in Columbia University New York.


Nicjor79 said...

Very interesting post. I had no idea that the Bauhaus movement ever made it out of Germany to this degree.

60GoingOn16 said...

Fascinating post and thank you for the link to my recent post but I hope you won't mind if take very slight and polite issue with the statement: "60 going on 16 didn't bother too much with the art or the architecture"! It was precisely for the architecture that we went to the De La Warr Pavilion, architecture being a lifelong passion of mine. It was the Joseph Beuys exhibition that we didn't spend quite as much time in as we had intended. But we had been driving on and off all day and by the time we had toured the pavilion and viewed and photographed it from every angle, we were in need of a little sustenance . . . !

Hels said...

Apologies Ms 60.. you are quite correct. There aren't too many places that both display early modernist architecture (in renovated condition) AND offer the visitor refreshment and relaxion in a gorgeous spot.

My real question was not in my post so I will ask it now in Comments. The architectural prize was awarded to Chermayeff and Mendelsohn jointly, yet the project seems to be mainly the work of Chermayeff. Was Mendelsohn merely a consultant and mentor to the younger partner?

John hopper said...

Thanks for a really interesting post.

It's nice to see some emphasis placed on the contribution of refugees from the Bauhaus, and Bauhaus affiliated members, on Britain during the 1930s. We are often led to believe that the Bauhaus decamped and emigrated enmasse to the US.

The 1930s was a fascinating period in the UK, as there seemed, mostly because of Hitler and Stalin, a genuine hotbed of Modernism in Britain, for a few brief years at least.

Christopher said...

Great Post. I just moved into a house Chermayeff built in Northern California and it's interesting to discover some of his earler work.

LondonGirl said...

A lovely post. I don't really associate Bauhaus with the UK, and it's fascinating to read about it. Apart from Germany, it makes me think of Israel - especially Tel Aviv.

Hels said...

For all those who didn't know much about Bauhaus in Britain, Gropius and his wife arrived in Britain in 1934, followed by Breuer the next year; together they formed the nucleus of a Bauhaus community in exile at Lawn Road Flats in Hampstead.

There are many sites to examine, as suggested by Fiona MacCarthy in The Guardian, Saturday 17th Nov 2007.

Hels said...

John hopper

I just found the book called "Sussex: East, with Brighton and Hove", by Nicholas Antram who revised Nikolaus Pevsner. Of all the 20th century buildings to concentrate on, the De La Warr Pavilion at Bexhill was one of the stars.

FW said...

This note came by email:

Dear Helen,
I was just reading your post about the Bexhill Pavilion and was wondering how you knew that Serge Chermayeff did travel through the Bauhaus in Dessau as I can’t find any evidence. Your response would be of great help to me as I am writing an essay on the influence of the Bauhaus in the UK, but I do realise this is a bit of a stretch as you wrote this almost 10 years ago.
Kind Regards,

Hels said...


Thanks for your note. I went through my old notes and found 2 brief references to Serge Chermayeff in Dessau. The first was the book: The Lawn Road Flats: Spies, Writers and Artists by David Burke. The second was in a journal article by Alan Powers: “Britain and the Bauhaus” in Apollo, May 2006: In 1931, Serge Chermayeff, Wells Coates and Jack Pritchard made a journey together through Germany, and included the Bauhaus in their itinerary. There may have been four British students enrolled in the school etc.

I will add the Apollo reference to the post.

John T said...

Dear Helen

I want images of Bauhaus architecture and I came across the interesting article on your blog about Bexhill Pavilion. I know very little about architecture but I note that Wikipedia (and other sites) describe the pavilion as Art Deco. I guess there are architectural overlaps in modernism but my client doesn't want Art Deco buildings per se, so I wonder if you can clarify for me where you think the pavilion stands on the modernist spectrum. You do say that Chermayeff was influenced by his visit to Germany and keen to create work 'a la Bauhaus' - but how Bauhaus is it?

Hels said...


Since Bauhaus and Deco architecture emerged at the same time (1920s and 30s) and in the same part of the world (Germany and France), I imagine that there were many times when the two styles were very similar. So the difference lay in the underlying principles, not the aesthetic outcome.

Bauhaus stressed that Form Follows Function - the design of the building primarily related to its intended function. It had to be affordable, using modern technologies, no applied decoration and socially progressive i.e solving social problems through planning and design.

Art Deco liked traditional skilled handcraft, designs for wealthy and sophisticated clients, high-quality materials, and decoration in geometric forms and bold colours.

So what did the traditionally-minded city councillors of Bexhill think of their Bauhaus masterpiece? I hope they loved it.