The Isokon Flats in Hampstead, where Agatha Christie once lived, were a beacon for well-designed compact housing. We could profit from revisiting some of those ideas, writes Ben Derbyshire
This article first appeared the Journal of The London Society 469 (Spring/Summer 2016)
In April 1938, Wells Coates, architect of the Isokon Flats in Lawn Road, Hampstead, NW3, wrote an article in the Architectural Association Journal entitled "The Conditions for an Architecture for Today". This prescient and timeless piece expressed many of the frustrations felt by today’s architects who work in housing: “...every living person is qualified, by right, to possess a decent home. Why do we not then begin to build them? ... the mass-production home ... would include, as a matter of course, all those ‘accessories’ that today are by way of being luxuries... it would cost only a half, or perhaps a third, of current costs, and would include everything that is needed ... you would plan a large number of standard units capable of assembly in a large variety of forms and finishes and colours. And you would assume (you would have to) that your mass-production methods would be matched by mass-planning methods, siting the new dwellings in new group formations, bearing some ordered relation to work, play, entertainment, and to the systems of communication that link these into the community.”
The 1930s were a remarkable decade, in which ideas, technologies, politics, and the migration of people and culture brought immense change. AJP Taylor, in his scholarly introduction to the 1979 Hayward Gallery Thirties exhibition, a retrospective of British art and design before the war, wrote of some of the powerful influences brought to bear on British culture then. The decade saw the dawn of consumer society, suburban living, the beginning of the end for Victorian mill towns, mass availability of domestic electricity, the refrigerator and wireless set, and the BBC Home Service in every living room. According to Taylor: “The economic revolution was quite simply the rise of the mass market. The instrument of this revolution was none other than hire purchase. Almost for the first time, humble people without capital could equip themselves on credit and pay back over the years. Furniture was bought on credit; household machines were bought on credit, cars were bought on credit; houses were bought on credit.”
True to the spirit of the 1930s, the Isokon Flats uniquely brings these diverse influences together all in one place. To judge by the image in my 1979 catalogue of the Hayward show, the building had at that point fallen into severe neglect and disrepair. But in 2003 it was acquired and lovingly restored by Notting Hill Housing Group with aptly named Avanti Architects. Now it stands as a gleaming monument to Wells Coates’s vision of mass- produced, mass-customised placemaking.
A magnificent metaphor for the memorable modernist cultures that begat it, Isokon is steeped in the icons of the social and creative world that existed around it.
The penthouse, originally occupied by developer Jack Pritchard and his wife Molly, is now a shrine to modernist décor and furniture by Magnus and Gjøril Englund, owners of Skandium. In the garage, the Englunds, together with John Allen of Avanti, have created the Isokon Gallery. The place is full of the Baltic- Scandinavian aesthetic, brought over by culture carriers fleeing Nazi Germany, such as Marcel Breuer and Walter Gropius, with birch-ply furniture by Alvar Aalto and later masters such as Charles and Ray Eames.
The influences don’t end there. Amongst illustrious former residents, Agatha Christie spent six prolific years (1941—47) living there. Christie, who likened the apartment block to a “giant liner” without the funnels, took up residence whilst her husband, archaeologist, Max Mallowan, was stationed in Cairo with the Air Ministry. In the compact environment of her Isokon flat, after a day’s work at University College Hospital, she wrote N or M — her only spy novel, and allegedly about other residents.
Modest pre-war standards
The Lawn Road flats were designed a generation before Parker Morris and Homes for Today and Tomorrow set the post-war standard for public housing. In fact, Coates' view was that: "We don't possess our homes in the old, permanent, settled sense; we move from place to place, to find work or to find new surroundings... So the first thing is that our dwellings have got to be much smaller than they used to be." Most of the flats at Lawn Road are thus designed on the principle of the "Minimum Flat", with one bed-sitting room and a five-foot strip alongside divided into kitchenette, bathroom and dressing room.
There are some quirky anachronisms, too. The flats were designed with a communal kitchen, with servants’ quarters at lower levels. Until 1937, hot meals could be ordered from the staff kitchen, and services including bed making, cleaning, laundry and window cleaning were included in the £96—£150 per annum rents. These arrangements were soon overtaken by changing economic circumstances and domestic technologies and, after the Second World War, disappeared completely as a feature of mass housing. But in the large-scale privately rented schemes that are today going up all over the capital, service provision at this level has reemerged in recent years.
The tiny galley kitchens predate the revolution in domestic life and silent odour-free appliances that brought cooking into the centre of home life. e layouts make very efficient use of space (just 429sq for a one-bed at — equivalent to the much-heralded Pocket Living product of recent years) by dispensing with wasteful corridors and using sliding partitions that open one room to another. In these and other ways the design presages current designers’ revisiting of features such as gallery access that was, until recently, thought to be too utilitarian for modern city dwellers. These pre-war compact flats certainly argue against the notion that we need more space for a sustainable lifestyle.
Lucy Smith, designer of this journal and a Partner at HTA Design, last year took up residence in a second-floor, one-bedroom at. What does she make of life in her apartment, steeped in the history of modernism? “It's a nice flat with lovely details such as timber sliding doors and original cupboard door-handles. It feels functional and efficient, and while not huge, the layout works really well. e deck access, gallery space at ground floor and the rear gardens all make it seem part of a community, and I have met most of my neighbours who, like me, feel incredibly lucky to be able to live in such an amazing building."
So, not so much an epitaph for a bygone age, but a reminder of just how forward- looking Wells Coates and his enlightened patron Jack Pritchard were.