Isokon - formerly known as Lawn Road Flats - in London's Hampstead, was designed in 1932-4 by Wells Coates and Jack and Molly Pritchard as a response to the question 'what does a person need to live in a city?' Coates came to design from being a journalist, Jack was a plywood salesman, Molly was a psychiatrist. Described as a 'haven of enlightenment', notable figures from the artistic and literary world, including Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer, lived there for a time. The building, which was Grade I listed in 1999, became uninhabitable during the post-war years, but has recently been brought back to life by Avanti Architects, in collaboration with Notting Hill Home Ownership and the Isokon Trust. Anew generation of residents is now making itself at home.
Lawn Road Flats was designed as polemic - both client and designer wanted the building to be known and to be talked about.
In 1930, during the protracted evolution of the scheme, Wells Coates sent Jack Pritchard an extraordinary memo in which he reminded Pritchard that it had been agreed (evidently very loosely, which was to result in acrimony) that 'any arrangement we entered into? would not conform to established professional rules, but would rather take the form of a mutually helpful scheme, in view of the possibility of making the fullest use of the publicity value of the scheme in general, ie my remuneration would largely take the form of credit accruing from that publicity value'.
They succeeded in generating publicity. The building may have been neglected (under the ownership of the New Statesman and Nation from 1969-72, then Camden Council), but its glamorous image has never really faded from consciousness and it has continuously been revered as a pioneering modern masterpiece, with very well-connected friends. Fiona MacCarthy comments that '[Pritchard] and Lawn Road flats? are as near as one can get to the popular conception of 1930s Hampstead' - an era she compares with Paris in the 1950s. At the block's 21stbirthday party in 1955, Pevsner explained 'the gist of the manifesto? is to get down to the essentials of living without compromises with convention'. In 1959, John Summerson noted that client and architect 'felt themselves to be the agency of a new force in English architecture and to be breaking the ice' and had no problem concurring with this assessment. When the '30s exhibition was held at the Hayward in 1979, a flat from Lawn Road, reconstructed by Neave Brown, was part of the show.
Avanti's 'gleaming' refurbishment (Financial Times) of 'perhaps the most important Modern Movement building in the country' (The Times) has been enthusiastically covered by the broadsheets.
Isokon's near-mythical status has been fuelled by the people connected with it. Wells, with his 'lm-star good looks and passion for sailing and fast cars, was a charismatic figure. The first person to spend a night there was Philip Sargent Florence, the American-born, art-loving professor, economist and social scientist.
Lawn Road was where Walter and Ilse Gropius arrived when they left Germany in 1934. They loved it and stayed until 1937, when they left for the US, and Gropius recalled 'for an observing architect from abroad, this building became an exciting housing laboratory, both socially and technically, its positive qualities far exceeding its few shortcomings'. Other tenants included Adrian Stokes, László Moholy-Nagy, Arthur Korn, Jacques and Jacqueline Groag, Viennese architect Egon Riss and Agatha Christie, who famously recalled that 'coming up the street, the flats looked just like a giant liner, which ought to have had a couple of funnels'.
The early communal life of the building was fostered by the presence, in the comparatively spacious and luxuriously fitted out penthouse, of Jack and Molly Pritchard. They set up the 'Half Hundred' dining club - so called because 25 members were each allowed one guest - with chefs Philip Harben and Raymond Postgate. Meals were prepared for ten shillings a head and 'conversation was to be free of taboos'. The Pritchards were directly responsible for recruiting many of the tenants, and in some cases helped them find work - rather extraordinarily, architect Riss was employed as shoe-cleaner for the block - just one of the services, along with bed-making and cleaning, that was offered as part of the package.
The building was adapted early on to reflect patterns of use slightly different to those anticipated. Originally there had been three flats for short-stay tenants without kitchens, but these soon had them fitted. When it became clear that the large kitchen designed to provide meals, effectively like room service in a hotel, was underused, the famous Isobar was installed on the ground floor. 'We called it the Isobar because Molly was interested in the weather, ' wrote Jack. Resident Marcel Breuer designed the conversion barograph with its works on view, and the venue got a reputation for lively conversation and as 'the only restaurant in London where bananas and cream were served in wartime'.
Harben had stockpiled dried bananas and tinned cream. While Bexhill suffered as the beaches were mined, Lawn Road had a good war. It was thought that the concrete structure would provide protection in an air-raid and there was reputedly much camaraderie and bedding down on the 'oor of the Isobar among late-night dancers.
Malcolm Higgs lived at Lawn Road from 1960-63. The heyday was past, but Jack Pritchard was still upstairs 'sitting like a guru in his Breuer long chair, somewhat aloof' and effectively 'hand-picking' tenants 'to live in his ship'. Other architectural types living there included Alan Colquhoun, Frank Newby and Jim Stirling, 'who complained it was like living in a shoe box and wanted a double bed', recalls Higgs. You still got your laundry done for you, and 'the utter luxury' of being somewhere that was warm and had a bath was still a treat. However, Higgs' general impression was of 'gloomy bachelors'. It was 'rather beautifully formed' he says, underlining the compactness, but 'one tended to go away at weekends'. He built a modular bookshelf on wheels but concluded that 'as one collected things, the building became too small, unless one was very aesthetic'. He wonders how well the building would be suited to this more acquisitive age.
I spoke to many of the new residents who are a mix of key workers, private purchasers and tenants. All seem happy to have traded space for a great location and the chance to live in a modern masterpiece. There is more to fit in than in the 1930s - a washing machine/dryer, plus all that messy, cumbersome cleaning kit that was superfluous when you could just let someone else come in and do it for you. Retired designer Billie Jay's array of kitchen equipment is a long way from the couple of saucepans that Coates probably thought would suffice. Back then, most tenants would have been content with a single bed, but now a double seems a necessary symbol of luxury as well as sexual possibility. Jay swears by her Italian sofa bed. She has a two-room unit and has 'kept it all as one living space' with a sliding plywood screen. She's on the ground floor and has colonised her own bit of outside space.
Higher units have balconies to the rear. Architectural historian Annie Atkins loves being in the one that gave refuge to the Gropiuses. It's more complete than many of the others, with the original kitchen sink and wash basin. She has a real enjoyment of the sense of history of the place - relishing the story of how Agatha Christie served her husband a feast of tinned sardines and black tea when he showed up unexpectedly back from the war. As a tenant who sees herself as sampling the lifestyle for a while, she echoes the transient spirit of the original occupiers and relishes the prospect of not putting down roots. She's come from Florien Court, the Deco block in Charterhouse Square, compared to which her doubleaspect, two-room unit seems both spacious and light.
Natalie Frost is an art education worker in one of the key-worker units. Like Jay and Atkins, she knew about Isokon before the restoration. 'I loved the idea it was built for creative people to hang out together and eat together, ' she says. From the black lace draped across her kitchen window onwards, it is clear that she is no minimalist. She has painted murals in her bathroom and installed an Art Deco mirror and 'lots of tiny things from Al'e's Antiques Market'. Frost describes her style as 'very Carrie in Sex and the City'. This may seem at odds with the building, but is perhaps the best popular modern image of contemporary, glamorous, but compact urban living.
What makes Lawn Road special is its very early date for a British Modern building. It was very neatly fitted out, and it has been cleverly adapted to work in the 21st century. It's ultimately right that it has survived as a repository of stories; a monument to the excellence and energy of a pioneering period and a vivacious and bold group of people. Much of the original fabric has been lost - windows had been replaced gradually over the years and Avanti has had to take out the cross wall between the flats to improve insulation. It would have been good to see some shared facilities reintroduced. The Isobar was not feasible in planning or economic terms, but a communal laundry - ruled out because of projected management difficulties - would have freed up space in the flats and encouraged interaction. However, it is a joy to see the building back in use and appreciated by the public and its lucky occupiers.
Dec 1931 Formation of Isokon Company
Oct 1933 Construction of Lawn Road Flats commenced
July 1934 Completion and formal opening of Lawn Road Flats
Nov 1937 Isobar opened
Jan 1969 Lawn Road Flats sold to the New Statesman and Nation
1970 Planning application to convert Isobar into three flats
1972 Building sold to Camden and renamed Isokon Flats
May 1974 Listed Grade II
1979 Window ment 1999 Listed Grade I
2000 Competitive bids sought by Camden Council.
Jan 2001 Second-stage tender submission of short-listed teams
Feb 2001 NHHO/Isokon Trust/Avanti Architects team wins the May 2003 Contract started on site
Dec 2004 Project completed
John Allan, Avanti Architects
The existing defective roof coverings have been entirely removed back to the concrete slab, and concrete repair carried out. New tapered cellular glass insulation has been laid to improved falls with channels and reformed rainwater outlets, followed by the application of polymer-modified asphalt coverings and promenade paviors.
The numerous accumulated layers of paint and cementitious coatings were removed to reestablish the original concrete face.
Survey work was undertaken to determine the extent of latent as well as patent damage. Concrete repair and local replacement was followed by the application of fairing coats and elastomeric anticarbonation coating to the original building colour (pale pink). The imprint of original shuttering lines has been retained, and a small area showing the succession of overcoatings over the 70-year life of the building is displayed as a historical record. The cork lining to the internal faces of the external walls was severely damaged, and was removed to allow concrete repair. The insulation values have been substantially upgraded with thermal laminate board lining, which is skimmed and decorated.
WINDOWS AND DOORS
The non-original windows have been replaced to the original fenestration pattern and colour with W40 double glazed, low-E, argon-filled, polyester powder-coated steel windows. Doors have been renewed within the original cast-steel door frames, which have been retained and repaired in situ.
The internal layout of the original apartments has been retained, with separating walls being upgraded acoustically and internal partitions replaced with metal-stud plasterboard partitions.
The previous (non-original) communal heating system with its external surface-mounted pipework has been removed and new gasfired individually controlled combination boilers have been installed, thereby avoiding the impact of an electric hot-water storage tank on the internal plan arrangement of the flats, and eliminating the need for an on-site electricity substation. The balanced-flue terminals have been specially designed to be contained within the building line in the original vent grille openings.
The closely detailed kitchen, dressing room and bathroom areas have been reconstructed in accordance with the original design, but upgraded to incorporate household appliances to meet with current standards. Surviving internal original plywood fittings have been carefully removed, stored and restored and reinstated where possible. Linings, floors and sliding panels, including the ply panelling and fittings in Jack Pritchard's penthouse, have been restored by the cabinetry specialist Nick Goldfinger, with matching pieces being introduced to make good missing fragments.
Surviving original Wells Coates-designed 'D' handles have been restored and recoated.
Costs refer to gross internal floor area.
Cost analysis based on final account.
Wall strip-out; floor and ceiling finishes; windows, doors and services; asbestos removal
Foundations/slabs £194/m2Basement upgrade works; making good ground slabs, including screeding works; exhibition-space floor repairs
Frame £194/m 2Contractor-designed reinforced concrete frame repairs comprising removal of existing coatings, and skim coat Upper floors £20/m2Repairs and screeding works; penthouse timber floors restored Roof £84/m 2 Asphalt roofing; insulation to existing concrete slab, including gallery upgrades, canopy treatment and balcony upgrades; new protective handrail to flat-roof terrace; existing cast-iron rainwater pipes and gulleys repaired/upgraded Rooflights £8/m 2Six rooflights to flat roofs Staircases £7/m 2Hardwood handrails to main staircase; metal staircase for basement access; hooped roof cat ladder External walls £34/m 2Contractor-designed reinforced concrete external wall/gallery wall repairs comprising removal of existing coatings, repairs (skim coat/decoration included under frame); balcony handrail repairs; dry lining; access-stair glass blocks repaired Windows £100/m 2Metal-framed windows; argon-filled double-glazed units External doors £46/m 2Metal-framed doors to circulation space and balconies; timber doors; ironmongery to flats; penthouse doors refurbished; refurbishment works to door frames, hinges and locks Internal walls and partitions £55/m 2Flat party walls removed and replaced with metal jumbo studwork; metal stud flat walls;fire-rated metal stud riser duct casings; boiler and bath framework and boarding Internal doors £91/m 2Existing doors part refurbished part renewed; new timber single doors, decoration and ironmongery; new glazed bathroom screens; new dressing room sliding doors
Wall finishes £43/m 2Skim coat and decoration to flats, circulation and exhibition room; mosaic ceramic wall tiling to bathrooms Floor finishes £38/m 2Linoleum to flats with decorated softwood skirting; non-slip ceramic tiling to main staircase; painted floor finish to exhibition room Ceiling finishes £23/m 2Plasterboard on resilient bars, insulation, skim and decoration to flats; plasterboard placed on timber framework to exhibition space; plaster repairs and decoration to main staircase softs
FITTINGS AND FURNISHINGS
Furniture £186/m 2White goods comprising fridge, cooker, hob and washer/dryer to flats; bespoke timber dressing room vanity unit and wardrobes; kitchen worktops, wall and base units and extract; bathroom mirrors, shower curtains and bath end panels; cupboards to four flats; exhibition room disabled WC and display installation; flat doorway curtain rails; penthouse cupboards restored
Sanitary appliances £60/m 2Bath with shower over or shower cubicle/tray; wash hand basin; WC and butler kitchen sink Disposal installations £3/m 2Soil and vent pipework; upvc waste pipework and traps Water installations £3/m 2Hot and cold water services Space heating/air treatment £90/m 2Combination boiler, radiators; heated towel rails; kitchen and bathroom extract; underfloor heating to penthouses Electrical services £83/m 2Lighting (emergency lighting) and small power installation to flats and communal areas; IT and TV points Protective installations £4/m 2Smoke alarms; lightning protection Communication installations £9/m 2Door entry system Builders' work in connection £12/m 2General builders' work in connection with services
Landscaping, ancillary buildings £148/m 2Resin-bonded gravel forecourt; subbase; paving slabs to rear areas and paths; topsoil and planting; stone-'lled gabion wall retaining structure; reinforced-concrete bin store walls and boundary wall; metal access and bin store gates; lighting bollards; drainage relining and renewal External services £47/m 2Incoming gas main rising to serve all properties; water main renewal; electricity main upgrades; telecoms ducting; builders' work including trenching
PRELIMINARIES AND INSURANCES
Preliminaries, overheads and profit £366/m 2Main contractor preliminaries, overheads and pro't Credits Tender date April 2003 Start on site date 26 May 2003 Contract duration 48 weeks Gross internal floor area 1,365m 2Form of contract JCT Standard Form Of Building Contract Private Without Quantities 1998 Total Cost £2,487,500 Client Notting Hill Home Ownership Architect Avanti Architects: John Allan, Fiona Lamb, Keyvan Lankarani, Kelley Christ Quantity surveyor Stace Quantity Surveying Structural engineer Alan Conisbee Associates Mechanical and electrical engineer Max Fordham LLP Landscape architect Heaton Associates Clerk of works Fisherking 2000 Advisor The Isokon Trust Main contractor and concrete repair Makers Subcontractors and suppliers Mechanical services GS James; electrical services AJR Electrical; external works Calabasus; roo'ng Permanite Asphalt; windows Metal Casements/ Vista Brunswick; specialist cabinetry restoration Nick Gold'nger; ironmongery Izé; joinery Brett Valley Joinery