Blue plaque unveiled for ‘adventurous’ Isokon designers
'If Gropius came back today, he’d not only recognise it, he’d be no doubt be pleasantly surprised'
13 July, 2018 — By Dan Carrier
THEY were, as English Heritage historian Howard Spencer says, designed for the “adventurous professional” – and now a blue plaque from the conservation body marks three people for whom such a description is fitting.
The Isokon building, in Lawn Road, South End Green, has long been admired as a landmark in the history of British Modernist design. The block was the brainchild of architect Wells Coates and commissioned by furniture designers-turned-developers Jack and Molly Pritchard.
The blue plaque, unveiled this week, celebrates how three of the leading proponents of the Bauhaus modernist design movement lived in the block at the same time in the 1930s. Walter Gropius (1883-1969), Marcel Breuer (1902-1981) and László Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946) – who all taught at the German art school known as the Bauhaus – found a safe haven at the flats having fled Nazi Germany.
Mr Spencer said: “It was the only place we could honour all three of them at the same time. They all lived here in the 1930s and it was a building designed for the adventurous professional. Wells Coates’ vision went well beyond the usual domestic tastes of the 1930s. It was a very compact way of living, with most units small studio flats.”
The block also attracted others, such as the novelist Agatha Christie, Soviet spy Arnold Deutsch, textile designers Jacques and Jacqueline Groag.
Mr Spencer added; “They all went on to live in the US. But this is where they came to and it provided them with their first homes when they had to leave Germany.”
Mr Spencer praised the way the flats had been faithfully restored and managed and added: “If Gropius came back today, he’d not only recognise it, he’d be no doubt be pleasantly surprised. It is exactly how it was and it is a fine example of Wells Coates’ work.”
The building enjoys Grade I-listed status and was originally called the Lawn Road Flats – and, as Mr Spencer points out, it was fitting that Gropius moved there. Gropius founded the “Staatliches Bauhaus” art school in 1919, an institute that combined design, crafts and fine arts and was renowned for its links to political radicalism.
It championed the use of new techniques and materials, looking at fresh ways of designing living spaces. But its attraction to left-wingers and revolutionary thought made it unpopular with the Nazi regime, and many of its key proponents went to London.
This included Breuer, who had been a Bauhaus student before becoming its director of furniture workshops and Moholy-Nagy, who edited the schools in house magazine.
Wells Coates had visited the school and seen their own designs for flats and homes before he was commissioned to build the Isokon, which was completed in 1934. In 1936, its communal kitchen was converted into the Isobar restaurant and was frequented by some of Hampstead’s artistic set, including Henry Moore, Roland Penrose and Barbara Hepworth, who lived in neighbouring streets.
Architect John Allan worked on the restoration – and as an undergraduate in the 1960s had met and interviewed the Pritchards, along with other leading Modernists such as Erno Goldfinger and Daniel Lubetkin.
He said: “It had suffered for quite a period and was uninhabited. There were documents about its construction but the building itself provided a valuable archive.”
The architects saw that the Isokon had been built with four-inch concrete walls and a thin cork insulation which they had to repair and make fit 21st-century standards.
Mr Allan added: “As the building was empty we could survey it very thoroughly and while it was an ambitious construction for the time, it was also fairly primitive. Now there are established techniques for repairing concrete and so we could really upgrade the building.”
The building was for a time owned by Camden Council and has since been taken over by the Notting Hill Genesis housing association.