This Tuesday July 9th 2019 sees the 85th anniversary of the official opening of the Isokon building on Lawn Road in Belsize Park. The stark modernist apartment block, also known as the Lawn Road Flats and designed by Wells Coates for Jack and Molly Pritchard, was declared open by Miss Thelma Cazalet (later Cazalet-Kier), an early British feminist and then Conservative MP for Islington East. Cazalet errounesley thanked “Russell Coates” for designing the building and broke a bottle of beer on the side of the Isokon to declare it open.
Construction on the building had started in September 1933 after a stuttering fruition. The Pritchards had originally wanted a house for themselves on the site. The brief then changed to two houses, then to two houses and a nursery school before settling on an apartment block designed to provide inexpensive flats for young professionals. The finished building provided 22 flats for single people, named “minimum” apartments, as well as larger apartments, a caretaker's flat and the penthouse apartment occupied by the Pritchards.
Inside, the flats were fitted out with space and labour saving fixtures and fittings, including sliding tables, electric cookers and lighting. The furniture was mostly in plywood and manufactured by the Venesta furniture company, who Jack Pritchard worked for. Food was also available from the communal kitchen, first as room service then as part of the Isobar, converted by Marcel Breuer and FRS Yorke in 1936. Breuer was an early tenant of the building alongside Walter Gropius, Arthur Korn, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and later on novelist Agatha Christie. Externally the building was formed of reinforced concrete, using the 10ft 8in module which reflected the width of the flat's main room. This meant no internal supporting columns were needed, allowing the spaces to be open plan and flexible.
Like most interwar concrete buildings, the Isokon suffered from weather related deterioration, with the roof, walls and windows needing repair after World War II. The postwar period was not kind to the building. After being sold to the New Statesman magazine, the building passed into the ownership of Camden Council in 1972, falling into disrepair, becoming essentially derelict and abandoned by the 1990’s. As part of a competition, the building was acquired by the Notting Hill Home Ownership Housing Association and refurbished by Avanti Architects. The building now provides 25 flats as shared ownership to key workers, and 11 flats for sale.
The building was Grade I Listed in 1999, and the former garage was converted into the Isokon Gallery in 2014, as a permanent display (open Weekends, March to October) telling the story of the building and its inhabitants. Today, the rejuvenated Isokon building stands as a monument to an earlier age, when the idea of designing an avant garde yet affordable building was not a pipe dream, as well as reminding us of the impact of one of the earliest modernist buildings in the country.