Print Essay

The Isokon Building by David Burke

15 May 2014

Lawn Road Flats, also known as the Isokon building, was home to some of the most prominent Soviet spies working in England in the Thirties and Forties, but this seminal modular building also attracted a number of celebrated writers and artists, drawn to its Modernist architecture.  Situated in Lawn Road, Belsize Park, North London and comprising 32 units of equal size it was, and remains, a remarkable building with an equally remarkable history.

The name, Isokon, arose from the building’s architect, Wells Coates’ use of isometric perspective in his drawings and, as the Lawn Road Flats were to be in a form of modular units, ‘isometric unit construction’ soon became Isokon. While this was not the first Modernist building in Britain – that accolade should go to New Ways in Northampton, a whitewashed, cement-rendered, two-storey structure with crested parapet built in 1925 – the construction of the Isokon building in 1934 was the first time that reinforced concrete had been used in British domestic architecture. The building quickly became an icon of Modernism, lauded for introducing a number of innovative Modernist concepts into the architecture and design worlds. It boasted Britain’s first ‘deck-access’ apartments with external walkways and was, arguably, London’s most avant-garde building at that time.

Inspired by the work of the radical French architect Le Corbusier and his 1923 book, Vers une Architecture, an impassioned manifesto proclaiming ‘a house is a machine for living in’, each Isokon flat conformed to a standard plan using modern materials. A convert to Le Corbusier’s theory of Purism, which called upon architects to always `refine and simplify design, dispensing with ornamentation’, Wells Coates designed minimalist apartments or studio flats with built-in furniture. Laundry facilities and a communal restaurant were located on site, which was an innovation at that time; Isokon was to be a new way of living for a new age. Young professional couples or single people would move in with a minimum amount of belongings and get on with their lives. Coates, a stylish figure who drove a Lancia Lambda, had set out his modus vivendi in an article for the BBC journal The Listener in 1933: ‘We cannot burden ourselves with permanent tangible possessions as well as our real new possessions of freedom, travel and new experience – in short, what we call life.’

When Hitler became German Chancellor in January 1933, the Nazis, claiming to speak for German nationalism in the cultural sphere, dismissed the architects of Modernism as ‘the creators of structural cubes with flat roofs’, even denouncing Modernism as Cultural Bolshevism. The Bauhaus, founded in Weimar by the German architect Walter Gropius in 1919, was seen as its epicentre. Harassed by the Nazis and accused of a cosmopolitan bias, Gropius fled Germany in 1934 and settled in the Lawn Road Flats. He was later joined by two other Bauhaus exiles – the furniture designer Marcel Breuer and the artist László Moholy-Nagy. The new arrivals from the Bauhaus brought with them not only their art, but also their personal experiences of continental Fascism and Communism that made living in the Lawn Road Flats a political as well as an artistic experience. A number of artists, who were consciously developing an English style of the European Abstract movement, now began visiting the Flats, among them the sculptor Barbara Hepworth, her husband Ben Nicholson, and Irina and Henry Moore, who moved into the Lawn Road Flats in 1941.

Breuer, Gropius and Moholy-Nagy were joined by two fellow German-speaking exiles from Fascism, the Communist spies Arnold Deutsch and Brigitte Kuczynski. Deutsch, the Austrian cousin of Oscar Deutsch, the influential owner of the Odeon cinema chain, was responsible for recruiting and controlling the Cambridge spies Anthony Blunt, Guy Burgess, John Cairncross, Donald Maclean and Kim Philby while living in the Flats. Kuczynski, meanwhile, a recruiter of agents for Soviet military intelligence, formed part of the Kuczynski network that recruited and controlled Britain’s atomic bomb spies and was probably the most damaging and successful foreign spy network ever to work in Britain. Along with her brother Jürgen – also for a while a Lawn Road Flats resident – and her sister Ursula they helped the Russians gain valuable scientific and technological intelligence for the construction of a Soviet atomic bomb in 1949.

Intriguingly, Agatha Christie, of whom it was once remarked ‘loved houses more than she loved people’, resided in the Flats – alongside the Soviet spies – for six years between 1940 and 1946, and it was while living there that she wrote her only spy novel, N or M?. She too made a contribution to the triumph of Modernism, upsetting pre- and post-World War I literary conventions in her wartime novels.

A new architecture for its age, Belsize Park’s Isokon building was a splendid arena where the cultural and ideological battles at the heart of Modernism worked themselves out.

 

Dr David Burke is an historian at Cambridge University, and author of The Lawn Road Flats: Spies, Writers and Artists.

  • The Isokon building on Lawn Road in Belsize Park, North London. Designed by Wells Coates, it housed a series of illustrious artists, designers, writers and spies throughout the middle part of the twentieth century. ©Alamy
  • Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius was forced to leave Germany by the Nazis in 1934, and settled amongst the burgeoning artistic community at the Isokon building. Pictured here c1915. ©Alamy
  • Another of the Isokon building's former Bauhaus refugees, Marcel Breuer in his quintessentially modernist Wassily Chair. ©Alamy