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A guest post by London Historians member Martin Thompson. 

Lying slightly behind the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead lies a remarkable block of flats. Remarkable for two reasons. The first being for the architecture which was ahead of its time and secondly for the people who lived there and those who visited it.

isokon flats

The Lawn Road flats in Hampstead opened in July 1934 and were the product of Molly and Jack Pritchard, who put up the money, and their architect Wells Coates. The three had similar views on the problems of city living and wanted to apply Modernist principles in solving them. This meant that the flats would follow Le Corbusier’s mantra that the home was ‘a machine for living in’. It was the first block ever to be built mainly using reinforced concrete. Intended to be the last word in contemporary modernist living, the block of flats was minimalist with built in furniture and communal facilities such as a laundry. They were aimed at the market of new young professionals of the 1930s. They contained 22 single flats, four double flats, three studio flats, staff quarters, kitchens and a large garage. In 1937 a club, ‘The Isobar’ was added to the complex.

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Walter Gropius

The first ‘Controller of Design’ was the internationally-renowned architect Walter Gropius who was appointed in 1934. With the rise of Hitler and National Socialism in 1933, Gropius, then the Director of the internationally renowned Bauhaus School, believed that there was little future for him or the institution. In this he was proved correct as Hitler closed the Bauhaus shortly after coming to power. Gropius and his second wife, Ise Frank, whom he had married in 1923, secretly fled Germany and arrived in England on 18 October 1934. However, in March 1937, Gropius left for the USA to become professor of Architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. A month before he left, Gropius recommended Marcel Breuer, as his replacement for Controller of Design.

Marcel Breuer, otherwise known as Lajkó, was a Hungarian born designer who became world famous for his furniture designs in the early part of the 20th Century. After Gropius had left the Bauhaus, Breuer followed suit. He initially moved to Switzerland where he concentrated on furniture design. The tubular steel and aluminium pieces which he produced won universal praise but still left him with little or no money. By the time he left in 1935 to join Gropius in the pioneering modernist Lawn Road Isokon Flats in Hampstead, Breuer was one of the best-known designers in Europe. During the two years he spent in Hampstead, Breuer was employed by Jack Pritchard at the Isokon Company, which became one of the earliest proponents of modern design in the United Kingdom. The innovative furniture Breuer designed whilst at Isokon in Hampstead were highly influential pieces of modern design and included chairs, tables and the famous ‘Long Chair’. He not only designed furniture, however, as between the years 1935 and 1937 he worked in practice with the English architect F. R. S. Yorke with whom he designed a number of houses in and around Hampstead and further afield.

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Marcel Breuer in one of his trade mark chairs.

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Agatha Christie

The flats – and particularly the bar – became famous as a centre for intellectual life in North London. Notable residents included Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, the authors Nicholas Monsarrat, Agatha Christie and her husband Max Mallowan as well as Gropius and Breuer. Agatha Christie lived at 22 Isokon, throughout the Second World War, from 1940 until 1946, suffering all the fears and privations of the bombing. She did voluntary war work at the University College Hospital as a hospital dispenser as she had done in the First World War. Sometimes she walked home to Belsize Park when the Tube trains were not running properly, and her evenings were spent writing. She was at the height of her powers and fame as an author, and her war-time years at Lawn Road were extremely productive. Not only did she write several of her well known crime novels but she was also very involved in writing for the stage, which she loved. When her daily life became too stressful she would take refuge in her flat and in her own words, “lie back in that funny chair here which looks so peculiar and is really very comfortable”. An original 1930s Isokon ‘funny chair’ can be found in the Hampstead Museum at Burgh House. She left Lawn Road in 1946 when she was able to reclaim her home in Devon which had been requisitioned by the navy.

Regulars at the Isobar included Henry Moore, who made a series of remarkable sketches of people sheltering from the German bombing in the nearby Belsize Park underground station. Others included the artists Piet Mondrian, Paul Nash, Roland Penrose and his wife the war photographer Lee Miller, Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson, all of whom were at one time resident in Hampstead. The chef at the Isokon building later became the first British celebrity TV Chef – Philip Harben.

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Henry Moore sketch of Londoners sheltering from the Blitz.

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Henry Moore in the Underground, by Lee Miller.

The building fell into disrepair in later years but in 2003 it was sympathetically refurbished. During the restoration the services were completely renewed and a later overcoat of render removed from the exterior The Isokon is now occupied by key workers under a shared ownership scheme whilst the larger flats were sold outright on leases.

As part of the refurbishment, an exhibition space was created in the former garage. Run since 2014 and staffed wholly by volunteers, it tells the story of the building, as well as the social and artistic life of the residents. It is usually open on weekends from March to October from 11:00 to 16:00.

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