I’ve borrowed part of this week’s title from the book by Tom Wolfe which is probably a little unfair as on the whole Wolfe is against “modern” architecture as practiced by the Bauhaus school. I’m looking at two houses that were distinctly modern in 1936 but are now regarded as elegant features in the varied architecture of one of the oldest streets in Chelsea. Strictly speaking only one of them is a product of the Bauhaus, the Levy house as it was known in 1936, designed by Walter Gropius and Maxwell Fry. The other, the Cohen house was designed by Eric Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff.
Although they are two distinct houses they were designed to fit together. Here they are in 1936, the Mendelsohn/Chermayeff house in the foreground, the Gropius/Fry house further up the street.
I’ve walked past these houses hundreds of times, and always liked them. I used to think the Mendelsoh/Chermayeff house with its long street frontage looked more like a factory or an academic building, (or the location for a Kraftwerk video), than a house.
But inside they were definitely ultra modern living spaces:
As you can see the Mendelsohn/Chermayeff house was equipped with its own sunken squash court and library.
And next door there was space for some traditional functions with rooms for the butler, the secretary and on the roof floor for three maid’s rooms. There was a viewing platform looking down on the garden. The 30s was one of the first decades of sun worship.
The plot of land the two houses were built on had once been the grounds of a single house. This was divided into two with a pair of more conventional houses on the Chelsea Square side. The two sets of architects on the Old Church Street side and their clients agreed to create one spacious garden they could share.
The Gropius/Fry house had its long axis at a right angle to the Mendelsohn/Chermayeff house which made the garden space larger. It also means the house is mostly hidden from the street so it looks a little insignificant next to the long facade of the other house. The view above from the garden shows it best. You can see the large windows, the terrace and the covered space which links the two properties. Below is the garden terrace of the second house:
On the left you can see a side door and window on the southern wall of the house. The view below is from 1982.
You can almost (probably not quite) make out the glass conservatory that was built on this side in the 1970s. There have been two of those. I remember the first one from when I first lived in Chelsea. It had a rounded top like a traditional glass house and seemed to be full of thick vegetation almost to bursting point. This was replaced by a slightly more spacious square-topped conservatory. This version has now also filled out with plants.
The interiors of the houses are arguably more striking than the exteriors.
An austere hall and staircase in 1936.
The picture below is from a magazine feature. The original owners of the Gropius/Fry house the playwright Ben Levy and actress Constance Cummings had lived there for many years and had filled the house with conventional furniture.
By contrast in 1982 minimalism was back, as you can see in this interior view of the Mendelsohn / Chermayeff house.
The white 1980s decor suits the house quite well.
The view below shows the garden terrace of the Levy house after extensive changes to the exterior.
Some grey cladding has been added, and that viewing platform has been filled in, no doubt for a sensible reason although it does detract from the sweep of white along the street view.
You might prefer to think of it in those bright summer days of the mid-1930s, looking like a pavilion at the beach in a fictional resort like Vermillion Sands or like part of an ocean liner. This photograph seems to catch the essential optimism of these houses. (This optimism is all the more remarkable when you consider that both Mendelsohn and Gropius were in London after recently fleeing from Nazi Germany. Both of them subsequently moved on to the USA. )
The 1936 pictures are from the Architectural Review (Volume 80). The 1982 pictures are from the Connoisseur magazine. The other pictures are from a cutting in our collection, undated and unattributed, but possibly Good Housekeeping, and possibly from the 1950s.
Thanks to David Le Lay for his thoughts on the buildings and an explanation of the grounds. Obviously any misconceptions or errors are my own.
Finally here is a picture I took late this afternoon as the sun was going down showing the Mendelsohn / Chermayeff house with its second conservatory. The now dark grey Gropius / Fry house is just visible in the distance.
Another postscript (June 2016)
One of the comments below leads to this excellent article about Chermayeff: https://misfitsarchitecture.com/2016/06/30/career-case-study-7-serge-chermayeff