Founded in 1933 by a group of architects and critics including Wells Coates, Maxwell Fry and Morton Shand as a ‘think tank’ for British modernism, the MARS GROUP (Modern Architectural Research Group) produced visionary plans and exhibitions before disbanding in 1957.
Among the seven thousand people who crowded into the New Burlington Galleries in January 1938 to see an exhibition of “the practical advantages” of modern architecture and “the enjoyment that is to be derived from them”, was the eminent architect Le Corbusier who had flown in from Paris especially. “I dropped out of an airplane into the midst of a charming display of youth,” he wrote in a review of the show published in the following month’s Architectural Review. His lasting memory, he continued, was “the lyrical appeal of those poems in steel, glass and concrete. The New Architecture can no longer be reproached with being mere insensitive and soulless technics.”
Praise indeed for the beleaguered band of British modernists who, five years before, had formed the group which organised that exhibition. The Modern Architectural Research Group or MARS Group was then the latest in series of so-far unsuccessful attempts to create a support structure for the motley assortment of British-based architects, engineers and theorists, who shared the ideals of the European modern movement. Painfully isolated in conservative 1930s Britain, these modernist pioneers – many of whom had fled to exile from Nazi oppression – sought support by banding together.
Past attempts at forming British equivalents to European networks such as the Union des Artistes Modernes in France, like 1930’s Twentieth Century Group and Unit One, also founded in 1933, had failed. The MARS Group came into being when Sigfried Giedion, the Swiss secretary of the Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM), invited Morton Shand, a leading architecture critic, to assemble a group to represent Britain at future CIAM events. Helped by the Canadian-born architect Wells Coates (1895-1958) who agreed to act as chairman, Shand founded the MARS Group with fellow architects Maxwell Fry (1899-1987) as vice chairman and Francis Yorke (1906-1962) as secretary. Founding members included members of Tecton, the progressive architectural group formed by the Russian emigré Berthold Lubetkin (1901-1990) the previous year and John Betjeman, the poet who then, like Shand, was a contributor to Architectural Review.
The broad aims of the MARS Group smacked of British liberal defeatism: to identity the problems facing modern architecture and to try to devise solutions. The group had neither the financial resources nor the infrastructure to do so in a methodical manner. Instead it formed committees to create forums for debate on subjects such as Schools, Propaganda, Housing and Building Costs. On a practical level, this enabled members to tip each other off on difficulties they had experienced individually with local planners or building authorities and to discuss possible ways of overcoming such problems.
The MARS Group also had the chutzpah to ensure that its members’ views were heard on what they considered to be important issues of the day. Even Lubetkin, who was initially sceptical about joining the group – explaining in a 1933 letter to Wells Coates that “I can not agree with this ‘Come into my parlour’ policy” – invested time and energy on propaganda projects such as a programme of slum clearance outlined in a study of the Bethnal Green area presented at the 1934 Building Trades Exhibition held at London’s Olympia.
When Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace was destroyed in a 1936 fire, the group initiated a debate on the loss of what it called Britain’s “most important claim to have made an original contribution to modern architecture”. Pilkington, the glass manufacturer, responded by launching a competition to show how the reconstruction of Crystal Palace could showcase modern glass.
By then, the group had grown to 58 members from its original core of 28. This larger MARS Group felt ready to undertake a more ambitious project by organising an exhibition – initially intended to open the following summer– at the New Burlington Galleries to show off the benefits of modern architecture to the public. “Now that the experimental stage is over there are enough examples to show the practical examples of such buildings,” ran the manifesto.
The Hungarian-born Bauhaus emigré László Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946) was charged with organising the exhibition, but handed over to Misha Black (1910-1977) when he left Britain for the US. Godfrey Samuel, one of the Tecton architects, decided to divide the exhibition into the three “conditions of well-building” defined by Sir Henry Wootton in 1624: “commoditie, firmeness and delight”. MARS Group members designed different sections including Ern? Goldfinger, who was responsible for the Mother and Child section. The introductory essay to the catalogue was written by George Bernard Shaw.
Despite opening six months later than planned, the show was a resounding success with the public. More than 7,000 people trooped into the New Burlington Galleries to see it between 11 and 29 January 1938. Financially it was a disaster leaving the members of the MARS executive committee with a hefty deficit to pay off.
After the triumph of the 1938 exhibition, the MARS Group caused a furore with its Plan for London, a radical scheme advocating the demolition of much of the existing city and its replacement by a collection of ‘hubs’ combining housing with workplaces and leisure facilities encircled by a ring-road.
By then the group was fragmenting. Not only were there wide political divisions between individual members – Lubetkin, who was far further to the left of Coates and Shand, left in late 1938 after dismissing MARS as “a ‘flat roofs club’ based on a gentleman’s agreement” – but younger architects considered it too conservative. The MARS Group survived until the late 1950s, but the ‘flat roofs’ club’ never recovered the momentum it had enjoyed during what Le Corbusier described as its “charming display of youth”.
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