Casual visitors to Lawn Road last Monday might have been surprised to see our Grade 1 listed building, the Lawn Road Flats, surrounded by a sizeable group, sipping prosecco and munching on cupcakes while obviously waiting for something to happen. And something was indeed about to happen. Our very own blue plaque was about to be revealed….
Briefly, for those who have never wandered down Lawn Road or heard of the Isokon Lawn Road flats….
The flats are a small development, designed in the early 1930s by the Canadian architect Wells Coates (who has his own blue plaque outside his studios in Knightsbridge) for Jack and Molly Pritchard. Although neither designers nor architects (Molly was actually a psychiatrist) the Pritchards were very interested in ‘modern’ architecture as exemplified by the Bauhaus movement in Germany – and especially in the potential of modern architecture for social interaction. So the building that they finally created (there were several false starts) was very much a ‘progressive experiment in new ways of urban living’. However, this was not urban living for the workers but for middle class professionals – ‘streamlined, anti-bourgeois, non-domestic, untrammelled by superfluous possessions.’
The Lawn Road Flats, revolutionary not only in their design but in their construction in using pre-stressed concrete, consisted mainly of ‘minimum’flats. These were tiny bedsitters with even smaller kitchens, bathrooms and dressings rooms, connected by long walkways with a staircase at either end – giving the whole building a strong resemblance to an ocean liner sailing down Lawn Road.
As designed there was a kitchen and staff quarters at the end of the building so that you could order food to be delivered to your flat, and full services could be offered in terms of laundry, shoe cleaning etc. In fact, the kitchen was never a success and within a couple of years it had been converted into a restaurant club, the Isobar, where residents could, and did, gather to eat – rather well… At one point they had Britain’s first telly chef, Philip Harben, cooking for them in the restaurant and André Simon (wine writer, wine connoisseur and founder of the Wine and Food Society) stocking their cellar.
Jack Pritchard, as an admirer of the movement, already had connections with many of the Bauhaus architects and designers. So, when, it the early 1930s, it became clear that they could no longer remain safely in Germany, he offered them accommodation in his new, Bauhaus-inspired flats in Lawn Road. Walter Gropius, the movement’s leader, came in 1934 very soon after the flats were completed, followed by designers Marcel Breuer and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy from Hungary. In due course, Gropius and Breuer were to take up teaching positions in the US, but for three years they remained in Lawn Road where they became heavily involved with Jack Pritchard’s Isokon furniture company pioneering the use of plywood in furniture construction. (This is a fascinating subject in itself and you can learn more either by visiting our gallery – or by checking in to the Isokon + furniture website.)
But it was not only architects and designers who lived in the flats. Agatha Christie and her archaeologist husband Sir Max Malloween lived in two of the minimum flats for six years – she wrote her only ‘spy’ novel ‘N or M?’ while she was there. Other refugees from Nazi Germany had also arrived including Arnold Deutsch and Simon Kremer. As true believers in Stalin’s somewhat idealised vision of the proletariat state they used the flats as their headquarters for recruiting spies for the Soviet Union. Indeed it was Arnold Deutsch who was to recruit over 20 British spies including the notorious Kim Philby and the Cambridge Five.
Meanwhile, five minutes away in Parkhill Road the artists had gathered – Henry and Irina Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Paul Nash, Piet Mondrian. Very close were poet Stephen Spender and literary editor Geoffrey Grigson, and yet more architects – Erno Goldfinger in Willow Road and Berthold Lubetkin in Highgate. It is hard to believe that the Isobar did not host some entertaining evenings!
(If you want to know more, and without doing too heavy a sell, I really recommend that you visit our little Isokon Gallery – open 11-4pm, Saturdays and Sundays from March to the end of October…. Entrance FREE!!)
However, back to our blue plaque…..
The Pritchards continued to live at the Isokon until the early 1970s when they moved to Suffolk, but in 1969 they sold it to the New Statesman. The New Statesman sold it on to Camden Council who used it for social housing. However, by now the building was 40 years old and starting to show its age. Little was done to maintain it and by the late 1990s it was all but derelict – many flats boarded up, others squatted. Camden would dearly have loved to knock it down and start again and it was only saved by the combined efforts of English Heritage, the Twentieth Century Society, Docomomo and the often lone voice of Gerry Harrison, a local councillor, who lobbied for years against his fellow Labour politicians in Camden Council. Finally they managed to get its Grade 2 listing ‘up-graded’ to a Grade 1 – which meant that it had to be preserved.
At this point a deal was done between Camden, Notting Hill Genesis, who took it on, and English Heritage. Camden just wanted to offload it; English Heritage wanted to preserve it. Notting Hill’s interest in the project was to recreate the social vision of the Pritchards, by turning the minimum flats into affordable/shared ownership accommodation for local key workers. A major refurbishment was set in motion under the guidance of John Allan at Avanti Architects, and the building reopened ‘for business’ in January 2005.
Nearly 10 years later, in July 2014, a small gallery opened in what had been the garages, thanks to the tireless work of John Allan and Magnus Englund who, with his wife, had rented the Pritchard’s penthouse flat on the top of the building. And it is thanks once again to the tireless efforts of John and Magnus that we now have a blue plaque – and not any old blue plaque either….
According to the lovely CEO of English Heritage who was one of the speakers at the ceremony, the Isokon is the first building to have a surface mounted plaque (normally they are embedded into the wall but because of the pre-stressing of the Isokon’s walls, you could not embed); we are the first plaque to commemorate three residents (normally it is only one, or max. two) and, if we are not the 1,000th plaque to be unveiled, we are jolly near to it.
And a very fine unveiling it was too. Notting Hill Genesis, who hosted the event, had not only splashed out on the prosecco but had their rather fine cupcakes topped with miniature, edible blue plaques!
And….. I am delighted to report…. They were offering not just plaque-topped cupcakes, but gluten-free and vegan versions of their plaque-topped cupcakes. Thank you Notting Hill Genesis!!
Meanwhile, a fine gathering of notables had been brought together for the unveiling ceremony which was carried out by Walter Gropius great nephew. Here they all are, under starter’s orders.
From the left….. Wolf Burchard, Walter Gropius great nephew, John Pritchard (virtually invisible) grandson of Jack and Molly, John Allan (back to us), the deputy head of the Hungarian embassy, the Head of Culture and Education at the Germany Embassy, now-retired Camden councillor Gerry Harrison who was so instrumental in getting the building saved in the late 1990s, Kate Davies, CEO of Notting Hill Genesis and Kate Mavor, CEO of English Heritage. And a splendid job they all made of it. The Queen, with all her years of experience, could not have done it better!
And if you want to share in our blue plaque excitement, in the gallery shop we can offer you plates, mugs and fridge magnets….
…and maybe we can get some more copies of the one-off T-shirt that Magnus got printed in Camden Lock for the occasion!