On an early autumn day, the wind stirs the leaves of the poplar trees that neatly dot a length of Lawn Road. Otherwise, on this sleepy Hampstead backstreet a thirty-minute stroll from Regent’s Park, everything is silent and gentle.
But long before the wash of leisurely quietness, this street was alive with energy; host to an explosive assembly of thinkers, writers, artists, inventors, architects and even spies.
It all happened between the rose-petal pink walls of 3, Lawn Road, also known as the Isokon flats. Even without its celebrated tenants, the feeling of significance given off by the building’s striking silhouette has not changed.
The clean, towering forms that make up the block of 36 flats cut dramatically through Belsize Park’s rows of stately Victorian terraces; it is a contrast befitting the radical vision for living it once represented.
This was a vision set in motion in the freezing cold March of 1931. In the German town of Dessau, British furniture entrepreneur Jack Pritchard and Canadian expatriate architect Wells Coates stood in the shadow of the Bauhaus.
They had made a pilgrimage to the second site of the influential art school, founded by Walter Gropius in 1919. When they arrived, they discovered the pioneering construction of reinforced concrete and glass lay quiet and abandoned, pressured into such a state by local Nazi authorities.
Despite this, the groundbreaking site left a deep impression on the two men, offering an exciting blueprint for the living and working spaces of the future.
[pullquote align=”right”]“It’s built to a very nice scale, not too big, so most residents know each other.”[/pullquote]A century has passed since the founding of the visionary school, of which the influence can be seen in almost every aspect of life; from levered door handles to the towering office blocks that make up city skylines.
The Bauhaus brought a new way of thinking to how things could be made, blurring the lines between art and industry, whilst taking great care to address the fundamental human needs behind everyday objects and the spaces they inhabit.
The Isokon flats, overwhelmingly shaped by the influence of the Bauhaus, continue to serve as a principal example of the realisation of these ideals in Britain.
This influence was as largely philosophical as it was material. While they were both adamant that the engineering and use of material they had witnessed would fundamentally reform British attitudes to design, it was equally the modernist principals the Bauhaus represented that they sought to bring home with them.
The ‘International Style’ the school championed had begun to spread amongst countries in central Europe throughout the early 20th century, with architects such as Gropius, Le Corbusier and Alvar Aalto utilising the forward-thinking method in industrial and residential commissions.
Coates, in particular, was a firm believer in the Corbusian philosophy that the building is ‘machine for living’. He would be a natural fit to chair a select delegation of architects and critics under the name MARS (Modern Architectural Research Group), intended to represent Britain amongst the highly influential International Congress of Modern Architecture.
With a presentation at a 1933 meeting of the congress in Paris, he established himself amongst the leading proponents of the modernist movement.
Only three years earlier, when he had been selected as architect for an ambitious building project on a plot of land in Hampstead, north London, Coates had never before designed a building.
But the clients had faith in his vision; they were his close friend Jack Pritchard and his wife Molly, a bacteriologist, educator and fellow Cambridge graduate who shared her husband’s attitudes towards modern life.
An initial proposal for a set of two connected homes to house the Pritchards alongside Coates’ family showed the high regard with which they viewed the architect, but the project would prove strenuous on their relationship as it began to evolve into something far beyond a simple residential space for two families.
The visit to the Bauhaus would, in part, be the catalyst; whilst on the trip, stops at modernist residential projects across Europe introduced a new perspective on how the space could be used to accommodate a more modern style of living for a greater number of people.
In addition, Gropius, the school’s founder, had written on the subject of ‘the minimum dwelling’. The focus of the International Congress’ second meeting, it presented a concept for a reduced living space that could accommodate a person’s basic needs whilst still incorporating good design and considering affordable construction.
Molly Pritchard had raised her own concerns as to the ethics of using a plot of land to construct only a single residence at a time when London faced a severe housing shortage.
These three elements were enough to set in motion an entirely new direction for the project. While credit for the idea would go on to become a fiercely divisive matter between the Pritchards and Wells Coates, for now, they were in agreement; the land would be used for a block of flats, prescribed to the minimum style.
Molly Pritchard would conceptualise the layout of the apartments, shaped by her own vision of a modern lifestyle for young professionals; 24 studios and eight one-bedroom flats, as well as facilities for staff. The flats were to be serviced, a popular style of residence in the 1920s, offering shoe-shining and laundry services within the building itself. In addition, a communal kitchen would provide meals each evening, delivered to the flats via dumb waiter, offsetting the small size of each studio’s galley kitchens. Sliding doors concealed a compact dressing room and bathroom.
“You have to be strict with what you bring home,” says Magnus Englund, director of the Isokon Gallery Trust, who has operated a museum from the former garage space showcasing the building’s design legacy since 2014. “Hoarders, collectors and clutterers are not suitable tenants!”
The intended size of a minimum flat, as specified at the 1929 International Congress meeting, was only 25 square metres (m²). “Modern building regulations’ minimum size is 38m² and for good reason; people have a lot more possessions nowadays,” says Englund.
The flats, with their compressed layouts, were praised for their ingenuity. Certainly, they embodied the most advanced interpretation of Le Corbusier’s radical notion of the ‘machine for living’ at the time.
Coates’ design for the building’s exterior was equally forward-thinking, inspired in the simplicity of its form by works such as Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, with additional references to the Gropius-designed student housing he had seen at the Bauhaus site in Dessau in its cantilevered balconies.
The use of concrete reinforced with steel, now commonplace in construction, was then the earliest use of the material in an apartment building in Britain.
Atop the four floors of studios was to be a residence for the Pritchards and their two sons. Bizarrely, the younger Pritchards would inhabit a studio flat of their own alongside a penthouse for Jack and Molly, equipped with a large reception room and roof terrace.
“‘Penthouse’ [is] a very grand title for a 65 metres squared one bed flat, albeit very beautiful,” Englund notes. He would know, having spent several years living in the Pritchard’s former London home having taken up residence in 2013.
His experiences living in the building, which today houses private tenants alongside public sector employees under the Key Worker rent scheme, are a testament to Molly Pritchard’s resourceful and forward-thinking approach to planning.
“They were great believers in things being planned, rational and efficient,” Englund spoke of the Pritchard’s approach, who believes it clear that the couple’s personalities shone through in the building’s design.
Their sociable nature did much to influence the sense of community life in the block of flats so naturally fosters. “It’s built to a very nice scale, not too big, so most residents know each other,” Englund reflects.
Progressives in far more than their views on architecture, Jack and Molly shared something of a radical disposition throughout their lives, having emerged amongst a generation of bohemian and self-indulgent ‘bright young things’ who challenged the pre-World War I attitudes of their parents.
[pullquote align=”right”]“‘Penthouse’ [is] a very grand title for a 65m², one bed flat, albeit very beautiful.”[/pullquote]Their idiosyncrasies were as much sexual as they were social. Jack would unusually approve of an affair between his wife and Coates, noting the usefulness of her ability to relieve the strain of his difficult behaviour during the construction of the Lawn Road Flats.
Molly would go as far as to write to her husband to thank him for his views on sexual freedom, having gracefully endured her husband fathering a child with her colleague, the educator Beatrix Tudor-Hart.
The couple’s circle of friends, a similarly curious bunch of writers, artists, architects and academics, would largely make up the Lawn Road Flats’ earliest tenants after the building’s completion in 1934. Soon this stable of Hampstead intellectuals would be joined by three noteworthy arrivals who unknowingly shared in a great connection to the building.
In Dessau, Walter Gropius was under threat. He was short of architectural work and facing scrutiny from local police, who had accused him of being a communist sympathiser.
The Nazi Party, which was rising to power, was quick to deem the radical design approach of Gropius and his Bauhaus colleagues as ‘degenerate’. Having presented an exhibition of his work in 1934 at the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) in London to a strong reception, Gropius began to consider a move to the UK to avoid persecution.
Faced with deep financial trouble, the promise of work upon his arrival would be a necessity. Ambitious and driven, Jack Pritchard sought to expand the principles championed by the Lawn Road flats through buildings in other parts of the UK.
With relations with Coates now at an all-time low and a new architect a necessity to move the projects forward, who better to take forward his ideals than the very man who had inspired them.
Corresponding with Pritchard and the architect Maxwell Fry, Gropius was offered the opportunity to work on what was proposed as ‘Isokon 2’, a second residential site in Manchester, as well as free lodging in the Lawn Road Flats for the duration of his stay. On October 18 1934, Gropius and his wife arrived in London and moved into Flat 15.
In the subsequent years, Gropius would reach out to his Bauhaus colleagues, the architect and furniture designer Marcel Breuer and the painter and photographer László Moholy-Nagy. The pair had struggled to continue solo practice in Germany under the grip of the Nazis and, testifying to the good nature of his hosts, Gropius encouraged the pair to join him in London.
Moholy-Nagy would join him in 1935, taking up Flat 16 next door to Gropius and his wife. Breuer soon followed later that year; he had renounced his Jewish faith several years prior, but faced intense pressure from growing anti-Semitic sentiment in Germany which hindered his ability to find architectural work.
With three Bauhäuslers under his roof, Jack Pritchard’s trip to the Dessau school and all the ways in which it had influenced his attitude towards modern living could be seen as having come full circle.
All three of the German refugees would find relative success close to the Isokon Building. Gropius and Breuer took up design positions at the newly formed Isokon Furniture Company, established by Jack Pritchard in 1935. Pritchard, who had worked for the plywood importer Venesta, had come to be known as a proponent of the material’s benefits in furniture design and promoted its use through furniture designs for the home.
Breuer’s iconic Long Chair, initially formed in aluminium, would be redesigned in plywood under the Isokon name and is now considered one of the most important modern furniture pieces produced during the wartime period. This, along with later pieces such as Egon Riss’ 1939 Isokon Penguin Donkey, a low storage unit sized perfectly to contain the then recently introduced Penguin paperback books, are recognised for their ingenuity and still produced today under the Isokon Plus label.
Breuer would find further Isokon work in 1937, designing a conversion of the Lawn Road flats’ communal kitchen space into a restaurant known as the Isobar. Functioning also as a social club, the restaurant would become something of a hub for the liberal artists and intelligentsia of 1930s North London, with the likes of Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore noted as regulars.
Phillip Harben, who took over as head chef in 1938, brought charisma as well as adventurous dishes to the building; Harben would later go on to become Britain’s first TV celebrity chef, hosting the BBC programme simply known as Cookery for six years.
While Gropius’ primary desire upon his arrival was to establish an architectural firm, it would be his approach to education that would garner the attention of the British creative community.
“The teachings at the Bauhaus have been widely accepted as a model for art and design education,” Englund explains. “Students can experiment rather than being told to copy [the] old masters’ work.”
But this influence alone would not be enough to satisfy the ambitious Gropius. At a farewell dinner organised by Jack Pritchard, the architect spoke of his regret at an inability to further the modernist movement during his time in Britain.
Plans to develop further Isokon sites in Manchester and Birmingham had fallen through, the Pritchards unable to secure the necessary funding to go forward with such ambitious projects during the wartime.
And so, depressed by the British weather but grateful for the hospitality he had received, Gropius departed for the United States in 1937, marking the end of a brief and frustrating period in his career.
The architect’s inability to establish an architectural practice as he had intended would be offset by the promise the US presented for the pursuit of his ideals, as well as a teaching position at the Harvard Graduate School of Design in Massachusetts.
At his encouragement, Marcel Breuer would join him later that year, unable to resist the prospect of setting up shop with his old friend and colleague. Later in the year, Moholy-Nagy would follow, establishing a new Bauhaus in Chicago that would go on to reshape art and design education in the US, much as the original school had done in Europe.
The flats in Britain would attract the attention of a different kind throughout the late 1930s and early 1940s. As a known hub for socialist thinkers in North London, the building provided an ideal climate in which spies of the Soviet Union could conceal themselves. In particular, recruiter Arnold Deutsch moved in Flat 1 in 1935, working at the University of London whilst recruiting over twenty spies including the notorious double agent Kim Philby and his university colleagues who would go on to be known as the ‘Cambridge Five’.
The building would be faced with heavy surveillance by MI5, with various residents considered worthy of investigation for their political or social alignments. Just as any of the tenants arriving from Europe who took up residence in the flat, they were welcomed as refugees and treated with great hospitality by the Pritchards.
“Original tenants didn’t stay that long,” Englund notes. “Often just a year or two. Many were refugees from Nazi Europe and had arrived with only a suitcase in hand.”
As conflict broke out across the continent, the Lawn Road Flats would continue to offer such refuge to others displaced by the Second World War. Designers and architects such as Egon Riss and Naum Slutzky would flee to London and take up residence in Hampstead, escaping persecution and attempting to continue their creative work.
The wartime years that followed would see London devastated by German bombing that began in late 1940. To avoid serving as a navigation aid to German pilots, the pale pink exterior of the flats were hastily coated in brown paint.
In addition, Riss would work to construct a wall of sandbags around the Isobar, shielding the restaurant’s windows. Whilst damage to glass on the upper floor of the buildings was sustained during the Blitz, the innovative reinforced concrete construction allowed the structure to remain standing throughout the war.
The Isobar would regularly serve as an air-raid shelter for the Pritchards and their friends, as well as residents who would opt to sleep on the restaurant’s floor in safety while bombs rained down from above.
The prospect of living in one of the most structurally sound buildings in the area was irresistible to many and the Pritchards were inundated with interest in the apartments. One notable application came from crime writer Agatha Christie, who, along with her archaeologist husband, would reside in the building for six years and during which produced some of her most acclaimed novels.
[pullquote align=”right”]As a known hub for socialist thinkers in North London, the building provided an ideal climate in which spies of the Soviet Union could conceal themselves.[/pullquote]In the post-war years, the modernists were faced with a great opportunity amidst the rubble of Europe. The rebuilding required would serve as catalyst for the kind of change they had dreamed of seeing in the ways people lived — and the space in which they did so. This period could perhaps be considered to have played host to the greatest effects of the Bauhäuslers stay in London.
“The greatest influence was on the post-war welfare state period,” explains Englund. With the country facing a desperate need for radical change in the living conditions of ordinary Britons, events such as the 1951 Festival of Britain offered a window of opportunity for modernism to be seen as the way forward. “The Labour government adopted modernism as the face of their future ambitions.”
But in a cruel stroke of irony, despite its highly significant role in establishing the movement in Britain, the Lawn Road flats would be faced with a period of disrepair.
By the arrival of the 1960s, Jack and Molly Pritchard were spending more time away from London at a modern Suffolk residence, also named Isokon, designed by Jack’s daughter Jennifer. In 1969, they sold the Hampstead building to the New Statesman magazine, who converted the Isobar into additional flats and would proceed to sell the building on to Camden Council.
Despite being made a Grade II listing in 1974, followed by an upgrade to Grade I in 1999, maintenance was scarce. Throughout the 90s the building was used to re-house alcoholics, homeless people and mentally ill patients.
Living conditions were dire and Camden Council showed little interest in footing the bill for the significant structural repairs required. After three decades of decline, the council decided to sell.
Particular emphasis would be put on finding a buyer dedicated to restoring the building in respect of its historical significance. In 2001, a £1.5 million offer was accepted from the newly formed Isokon Trust, working with the Notting Hill Housing Group and Avanti Architects.
A generous restoration was undertaken, restoring the building’s details down to replicating its subtle pink shade. Great attention was given to Coates’ original design, whilst considerations were taken in reconstructed kitchen and bathroom spaces to accommodate for modern appliances.
In 2005, the building officially reopened. 25 of the 36 flats would be dedicated to housing key workers such as teachers and police, whereas the remaining 11 were made available on the open market.
More recently in 2014, the building’s former garage space was converted by Avanti along with the Isokon Gallery Trust, now hosting a permanent gallery space that explores the stories of Isokon, the Pritchards and many of the building’s intriguing former residents so that future generations can come to understand the significance of the modernist classic.
Some 85 years ago, Jack and Molly Pritchard set out to change the way we live, and to this day, their bold experiment continues; not just on leafy Lawn Road, but in homes across Britain and around the world.
Their work, alongside the architect Wells Coates, showed foresight in portraying to Britain the promise of modernism as a way forward at a time where the concept was utterly alien.
While the couple’s unique ideals may have since been surpassed, critiqued and iterated upon, it can be said that if they impressed not on the world at large, they did upon the many who passed through the flats and experienced their visionary design firsthand.
Each tenant, visitor and friend of the Isokon has played their own small role in the building’s remarkable story.
Featured image by Oliver Jameson
Edited by Mischa Manser & Franziska Eberlein