the Isokon Gallery

NB: this is a very link-heavy post, but all the links are about interesting people and places, so they’re worth a bit of your time.

Over the past few months I’ve spent quite a lot of time just walking around the area I live in (I’m still trying to work out where the neighbourhood ends), and I keep coming across reminders and new discoveries about the interesting and often influential people who have also lived around here. It’s mind-boggling when you stop to think of how much interesting history has happened (and probably is happening) behind the walls of some buildings, if only they could tell their story.

the Isokon, London NW3

One building near me with a particularly fascinating history is the iconic modernist building the Isokon. Built 80 years ago by the architect Wells Coates in 1934, it was the first residential building in this country to be made out of reinforced concrete, and went on to house many influential and interesting residents (a number of whom I’ve listed at the bottom). It was originally called the Lawn Road Flats, so some people still use that name, but since that implies it’s the only block of flats in Lawn Road, and there are actually several others, I find it pretentious. It’s like calling a pub by its original name, even though you only started drinking there after it got a trendy new refit and a new name to match: you just wouldn’t. In any case, it’s been called the Isokon since 1972, so it’s actually been the Isokon for four years longer than it was ever Lawn Road Flats.

Originally privately owned by its creators, it was sold to New Statesman magazine, who later sold it to Camden council, who left it to rot. The building was eventually passed on to a housing association who renovated it about 10 years ago, and is now mostly filled with key workers.

Ever since being reminded that it had a history of interesting residents, I’ve been intending to write about some of them (as well as some of the other interesting people and events from around the area), a plan which has been made so much easier by the fact that there’s a gallery about the Isokon open at weekends, which is full of information and names to follow up on (at some point).

the Isokon, London NW3

The Isokon Gallery was put together with help from Magnus Englund (managing director of lovely homewares store Skandium), run with assistance from the National Trust. (He currently resides in the penthouse, which you can snoop around here.)

Although it’s only a small gallery, it’s surprisingly crammed full of information considering its small size. The list of former residents alone is really interesting, including as it does influential architects, artists, novelists, archaeologists, physicists, poets, photographers and spies. That’s not even counting all the other interesting people who would visit the in-house bar, the Isobar, some of whom lived close by (and who I also want to blog about at some point). You can only imagine some of the conversations that must have taken place there!

the Isokon, London NW3

It’s amazing how many fascinating and influential people made their home in this one single building (although obviously not all at the same time), including:

the building’s originators, Jack and Molly Pritchard

refugees from the Bauhaus, and associates:
Walter Gropius, former head of the Bauhaus
Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, artist and designer
Marcel Breuer, architect and industrial designer
Arthur Korn, architect
Naum Slutsky, goldsmith and industrial designer
Egon Riss, architect and industrial designer

other artists, architects and art critics:
Marshall Sisson, modernist architect
James Stirling, architect
Alan Colquhoun, architect and professor at Princeton
Kenneth Rowntree, painter
Diana Rowntree, architect and critic (the Guardian’s first architecture critic)
Rolf A Brandt, artist (brother of photographer Bill Brandt)
Jacqueline Groag, textile designer, and her husband Jaques, an architect
Adrian Stokes, art critic

spies and suspected spies:
Arnold Deutsch (the man who recruited Kim Philby and Guy Burgess)
Edith Tudor-Hart, photographer
Jurgen and Brigitte Kuczynski (their sister Ursula, aka Ruth was a highly decorated Soviet spy)
Charles Fenn (who recruited Ho Chi Minh into US intelligence)

writers, poets, historians and others:
Charles Madge, poet and co-founder of Mass-Observation
Agatha Christie, novelist
Max Mallowan, archaeologist (and Agatha Christie’s husband)
Stephen Glanville, archaeologist (who provided Christie with information about Egypt for her books)
Vere Gordon Childe, archaeologist
Nicholas Monsarrat, writer and sailor
Philip Harben, the world’s first TV celebrity chef
Montgomery Belgion, writer
Philip Sargant Florence, economist (whose other residence, Highfield in Birmingham seems to have been a cultural equivelent to the Isokon building)

All of those, just in the one building, and that’s not even all of them, but I hope to blog about some of them, and more about the building, in the future. (Also, in finding all these links to attach to the names, I just discovered that Wells Coates’ grandson is Matt Black from Coldcut. I did not know that.)

The Isokon Gallery is open every Saturday and Sunday until the end of October (although they hope to keep it open for longer), and it’s well worth a visit. You can tie it in with a visit to Erno Goldfinger‘s house at 2 Willow Road and make it a proper afternoon of modernist appreciation (I haven’t actually been to Willow Road for years, but I do recommend it).

More on the Isokon, and other buildings in the area, hopefully to come at some point. For more on similar buildings of the era, check out my post on Bexhill’s De La Warr Pavilion and Marine Court in Hastings, which I wrote about here.

9 Comments to “the Isokon Gallery”

  1. Goodness me, how wonderful are these flats? I love that the original residents were offered a full domestic service including shoe cleaning. How the other half lived! I wonder how they’d feel about key workers occupying the building now?
    I’m appalled (but not at all surprised) that the local authority left them to rot. This frequently happens here only for a mysterious arsonist to burn the derelict building down a few years later. x

    • The original idea was that living an ultra-modern lifestyle would mean an end to domestic worries — I don’t think they aimed specifically at the wealthy who were used to having everything done by other people, so I think the idea of key workers would have appealed, actually. I don’t think all the early residents were idependently wealthy (especially if they’d spent all their money fleeing from abroad), I don’t think writing poems or archeology articles paid that well! :)

      To be fair, although they left these to rot, Camden did a good job of building social housing, as well. Some of which is also very iconic and I hope to blog about! You can see a bit about one of the estates here (probably the most iconic)

  2. The flats are extremely stylish, quite beautiful actually. I am ashamed to admit it, but apart from Agatha Christie, I don’t know a single name on that long list! How terribly up cultured am I?! Xxx

  3. Wow, what an amazing building. I wonder what the individual flats look like inside. Although I had heard of one or two of the Bauhaus people, I also felt on much safer ground once Agatha Christie put in an appearance! Xxx

  4. Good to see you posting again. The Isokon has been on my list of places to trek out to forever – I must finally get round to it one weekend when I’m in London, particularly now I’ve discovered there’s a gallery you can look round too.