Save London Proposition #4: Stay in London
In histories of the arts, design, technology, the figure of the émigré is a well-worn trope: someone working in a country different to their own, producing the most remarkable work in an environment somehow ‘other’ to that in which they grew up in. An artist has their home soaked through their bones and made who they are, and they take this somewhere else, wherein the cultural differences spur creativity. The romance of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Picasso, Stein, working in Paris in the early twentieth century is palpable, despite (or perhaps because of) the realities of working in poverty, or as outcasts of some kind, or with various personal difficulties, and cold winters. This romance is contrasted with that other form of twentieth century émigré who dominates tales of art, design and technology: the refugee, most conspicuously those fleeing oppressive and potentially deadly regimes as the world crashed towards the second world war.
The stories of the designers Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer are a case in point. These men founded and worked at the Bauhaus, and both played a part in the development of modernism in design. They moved to England – some of the few able to escape Nazi persecution. They were welcomed to London by Jack Pritchard and Maxwell Fry, who were also involved at the beginnings of the development of the modern movement in England. Pritchard owned Isokon, the furniture manufacturer and builder, and was a key advocate for modernism in design. He commissioned Gropius to work for him, whilst housing the Gropius’ at the Lawn Road Flats in Hampstead. Rent was paid in kind, rather than in cash, as Gropius had no money; his departure from his homeland had necessarily been sudden, and he left his home and his possessions behind. Both Gropius and Breuer later left England for the US, finding England too conservative (as, no doubt, it was), taking up posts at Harvard. But for a time, England was their home, offering them a life away from Nazi Germany.
Although Gropius was experiencing this great personal upheaval he used his time in England to work on designs for his “existenzminimum” – minimum dwelling – that were to become so influential in architectural theory and practice through the twentieth century. Their stay in England was not without problems, with stretches in the UK frustrating in terms of their lack of regular work, steady income, and general instability that comes with being a refugee, but nonetheless they were able to develop their ideas and designs whilst they lived here. These designers, without access to money, were able to come to England when they needed. The emigre in design and architecture can be referenced alongside those who fled Europe for the US in this period, like those working in science, mathematics and computing at. Princeton – Einstein, von Neummann, Herman Weyl, who whilst at Princeton worked on the development of computing (and also, of course, on nuclear technology…).
The architecture, design, technology that were to shape the twentieth century and beyond were the work of these amazing people who were rejected from one place, and so moved to another, to set up home elsewhere – to a place that directly benefitted from their presence. The US directly benefitted from its role as host to these new immigrants. But it was skills that were brought by the immigrants to their new country – often just skills; no money.
Regardless of the circumstances, whether artistic adventurer seeking inspiration and similar company, or refugees fleeing persecution, the fact remains that being resident in a country that was not ones ‘mother’ country provided something for these people – and they were able to create something, to give something. Their residence in a different country enabled this talent and this invention to have its full effect. In cases like these, there is an acknowledgment that the status of ‘émigré’ was effective, it had meaning, it was a good thing, just as for Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Stein et al working in Paris at that time was good for them and their creative output. But as well, it should be noted that it was also good for Paris – the places these talented people end up become better for the presence of their resident émigrés.
But what of today? And what about London?
Today, I don’t need to wonder if an aspiring, poor, émigré writer would have a place in London – I know – they don’t. A writer from outside the EU can only be here if they are on a course at a university, or are paid a salary over £20,300, are sponsored, and can pass a residency test. They have to be ‘skilled’ in an easily quantifiable manner, or have to be an ‘entrepreneur’ (meaning access to wealth for investing in business opportunities). What this means is, there can be no home for a young Hemingway in London today.
The trope of the émigré may be alive in our history books, and our rose-blinkered views of the past, and of the romance of the artist, but it is far, far, from alive in our current approach to immigration. The current visa regulations betray a systematic attempt to ignore the realities of artistic life, and in doing so actively prevent artists from living in London.
It is difficult to compare any situation we may find ourselves in today to that of the 1930s. The persecution and fear, and the reality of massive scale genocide faced by our ancestors at that time cannot be likened to our situation today. To try to make a comparison would be to risk lessening our appreciation of the extreme nature of their circumstances, when compared to our own. And it was the case that then, like now, immigrants faced racism and related persecution in their new homes, that it was never easy. But the point is not to try and generalise, or to distort a picture. The point is simply to look at instances from the past for understanding – the past as a lesson and select what is right as our guide in determining our own actions, our own future, and learn to avoid repeating the things that were so horribly wrong before.
The point can be made through one question: in the future, when we look back at our actions today, would we rather want our country to be remembered as the place that kicked people out, or the place that let them stay?
The SAVE LONDON project aims to highlight the problem that young designers, artists and creative professionals have in practicing in London if they are from outside the EU. We want to make this City one that is able to house the creativity that it needs to remain a leading centre of design.
To read more about the problem the current visa regulations pose to this aim, please click here to read Save London: Dumb Visas.
To read about what we’re doing about this – and to take part in our project, please click here for our introduction to the ‘Kicked Out!’ project.