Notes on architecture

Superficially poles part, the Arts & Crafts and Bauhaus movements had common roots and shared objectives. A hundred years later, their influence remains pervasive.

Scanning images of new houses regarded as ‘modern’, echoes of the Bauhaus School in general and of Mies van der Rohe’s 1929 Barcelona Pavilion in particular, are striking. Amongst traditional house styles, the influence of the Arts & Crafts movement and its Edwardian successors, is similarly clear. Does this represent a failure of contemporary architects to ‘move on’? Arguably not: amongst architectural responses to the challenges of industrial scale house building, these principles have endured because they are valued.

With the first railway networks came suburbs and volume house building. New approaches were needed and, in combining practical proportions with homely aesthetics, the Arts & Crafts Movement created a style based around strong rooflines and the use of bricks with clay tiles, which appeals to this day.

Like the Arts & Crafts standard-bearer William Morris, Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius felt there was “an arrogant barrier” between the craftsman and the artist. Removing that barrier would help to make good design available to the masses. Gropius though, held that Arts & Crafts design was too backward-looking, too Gothic. The future lay in using the structural qualities of steel, glass and concrete, to start anew. That attitude is embodied in the Barcelona Pavilion.

Unfortunately, interpreters of van der Rohe’s design too often failed to see that its simplicity served to highlight its high quality materials. An “affordable” pavilion could highlight only inadequacies. Worse, all that glass, flat roofing and hard floors were fine for Barcelona, but not cold, rainy northern Europe, where most of the houses were being built. Even as Modernism flourished in post-WWII commercial property construction, so it fell from domestic favour.

Today, super-insulating glass, underfloor heating and improved building techniques have created a Bauhaus-inspired revival, especially in high end homes where top quality materials are viable. Our taste for Arts & Crafts inspired homes, never went away. Bauhaus is back for the simple reason that now, it works.