The pioneering apartment block that offered a blueprint for modern living is back to its former glory

The Isokon Building in north London was 'the first example of Modernist communal living in the UK'

In a quiet street in Hampstead, north London, a surprise lies in wait. The Isokon Building, or Lawn Road Flats as it was christened in 1934, is a slice of pure Modernist swagger finished off in a delicate rose pink. On a sunny summer Sunday, the building seems to shine. Following a decade-long restoration project, it looks like new.

Meanwhile last month, 80 years to the day after the Isokon was opened, the ribbon was cut on a new exhibition to accompany the makeover. Housed in a gallery in the building’s former garage, it tells the story of one of London’s most intriguing residential blocks – a place where artists, writers and spies once lived at close quarters, and which transformed ideas about urban living.

The Isokon was “the first example of Modernist communal living in the UK”, according to Joseph Watson of the National Trust, who has helped set up the gallery. “Nothing like that had been attempted,” agrees John Allan of Avanti Architects, who lovingly masterminded the renovations. “It was a courageous enterprise.”

The building’s story is novelistic; its twists and turns form a fascinating narrative. The three key characters in its conception were the influential furniture designer Jack Pritchard, his wife Molly, and their architect friend, Wells Coates. The Pritchards were bohemians and Coates a playboy; all three shared a desire to champion Modernism and modern ways of living.

They set up a design firm, later christened Isokon, to do so, and after Molly and Jack bought a plot of land at Lawn Road, Coates set upon their first project: creating a block of flats that showed, according to Allan, that “it should be possible for people that aren’t wealthy to live in an elegant and affordable way in the middle of a city. It’s a building you can hear Jack and Molly thinking aloud about.”

Coates had fallen for Le Corbusier’s magnetism at Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne conferences, and in Hampstead he designed something radical, and radically different from what had gone before. It looks like a yacht. It’s made of concrete but is so debonair that it can seduce people who think that they hate the hard stuff.

Inside, it was just as maverick. Famously the building offered all manner of services, including cooking, housekeeping, shoe-shining, window cleaning and sun decks; in the first Isokon advertisements the spiel went: “All you need to bring is a rug, an armchair and a picture.” And, in keeping with its communal aspirations, it had a restaurant, the Isobar, which was initially steered by Philip Harben, who presented Britain’s first TV cooking programme on the BBC in 1946. His bizarre cookbook Book of the Frying Pan is a brilliant addition to the Isokon Gallery’s exhibition; Harben would cook flashy dishes such as Camembert ice-cream and send up meals to Jack and Molly’s penthouse in a dumbwaiter.

The Isokon Gallery, London NW3, is open on Saturdays and Sundays until October  

Their tenants were progressive thinkers from across the arts world, including the writers Nicholas Monsarrat and Agatha Christie, critic Adrian Stokes, architect James Stirling, furniture designer Marcel Breuer and Hungarian artist László Moholy-Nagy. The star resident, though, was the Bauhaus leader Walter Gropius, who moved with his wife, Ise, into Flat 15, a second-floor studio with a balcony and kitchen, after fleeing the Nazis alongside Bauhaus teachers Breuer and Moholy-Nagy. A card in the tenants’ ledger of the time read: “They [the Gropiuses] do not pay for rent or food.” The Pritchards held out a welcoming hand to Walter and Ise and created a kind of British Bauhaus: Moholy-Nagy designed a logo for the Isokon company, Breuer came up with bespoke dining tables for the Isobar, and another  resident, Austrian émigré Egon Riss, created the “Donkey” bookshelf, designed to hold Penguin paperbacks.

Political intrigue was often in the air. The Soviet spy, Arnold Deutsch, lived in the building and recruited Kim Philby and Guy Burgess during his time there. This wasn’t a place working-class people could afford, yet its residents held communality in high esteem. Isokon was unBritish – sophisticated, progressive, inclusive, liberal, urban.

The ageing building fell on hard times in the post-war years, and didn’t receive the care and maintenance it needed. By the 1990s, it was falling apart and threatened with demolition.

Eventually, Camden Council bought it, then the Notting Hill housing association stepped in and awarded Avanti Architects the contract to renovate it. Allan’s commitment to the cause is evident by the affection with which he speaks of the building. “Although it’s had mixed fortunes over the years, so much social value was invested in the beginning, it remained relevant.” It’s no surprise Allan ended up working on this project – he met many of the great Modernist architects, such as Ernö Goldfinger, Denys Lasdun and Berthold Lubetkin, and was Lubetkin’s biographer. (One of Lubetkin’s most celebrated designs, the penguin pool at London Zoo, opened the same year as the Isokon.)

Today’s flats have the same floor plan as the originals, but the kitchens are 10cm bigger to accommodate a fridge. The Isobar hasn’t survived – it was ditched sometime before 1970 – but Jack and Molly’s penthouse has. Magnus Englund lives up there with wife Gjøril. “We’ve been lucky to make friends with Jack Pritchard’s son Jonathan, who was at the opening in 1934, and his wife Maria, who managed the building in the 1950s,” he tells me. “They got married on the terrace in 1955. When me and my wife got married this summer, we chose the same location.” In a lovely piece of serendipity, Englund is managing director of Skandium, a furniture retailer which sells Donkey bookcases, Breuer tables and other Isokon plywood furniture to this day.

The Isokon presaged the explosion in single, young professionals wanting a small, well-designed place to live in the heart of the action, and it inspired a generation of apartment complexes flogging a branded lifestyle. Once it opened in 1934, so did the floodgates of Modernism: flats were the defining dwelling for the next 40 years. Coates went on to design the Embassy Court flats in Brighton. And today, flats are the defining dwelling once again. John Allan’s last word is that: “I’d like to think the Isokon’s clear social commitment and design invention might offer some lessons in the current housing crisis.”

The Isokon Gallery, London NW3, is open Sat and Sun, 11am-4pm, until Oct (isokongallery.co.uk)

Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
Arts and Entertainment
TV
News
Graham Norton said Irish broadcaster RTE’s decision to settle was ‘moronic’
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
    Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

    What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

    Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
    The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

    Setting in motion the Internet of Things

    British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
    Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

    Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

    Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
    Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

    Cult competition The Moth goes global

    The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
    Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

    Pakistani women come out fighting

    Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
    Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

    Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

    The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
    LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

    Education: LGBT History Month

    Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
    11 best gel eyeliners

    Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

    Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

    After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot