The beautiful modernist form of London’s Isokon building, otherwise known as the Lawn Road flats, is without doubt one of the most significant pieces of pre-war Modernist architecture in Britain. It has had its fair share of literary appreciation over the years, however The Lawn Road Flats: Spies, Writers and Artists is the first book to turn its focus to the residents that lived here, of whom there are many intriguing tales. One of the most notable is that of Agatha Christie, and while it may lack the suspense of her own writing, the eclectic range of characters from the 35 flats hold their own fascination.
All images courtesy of The Boydell Press
The Lawn Road Flats: Spies, Writers and Artists
By David Burke
The Isokon Building: Home to architects, authors and spies
Author David Burke, an Intelligence historian, was inspired to write this book following numerous visits to the Isokon building in Hampstead while researching a book on Soviet spy Melita Norwood. He discovered that there had been a number of people involved with Soviet Intelligence living in the building, surely more than a coincidence, and decided to explore this more thoroughly. It turns out that the Lawn Road Flats had also been home to a community of avant-garde architects, artists, authors and celebrities, the personal stories of whom add another dimension to the ‘life’ of this building.
The Isokon Building: Influenced by Le Corbusier
David Burke begins by telling how the Isokon building came about: the result of a partnership between entrepreneurial furniture designer Jack Pritchard, and the eccentric young architect Gordon Wells-Coates, who “drove a Lancia Lambda, cooked Eastern cuisine and was known to sit comfortably in the lotus position for hours”. In 1931, they formed the design practice Isokon Ltd. The pair were greatly influenced by the architecture of Le Corbusier and other European Modernist architects and intended the building to showcase modernist design as a way of providing effective and affordable housing. It was the first British residential structure to be built from reinforced concrete and it’s fascinating to read about the objections to this new aesthetic and how they were overcome.
The Isokon Building: Home for Bauhaus Designers
Opening in 1935, coinciding with the rise of fascism in Germany, it wasn’t long before some of the biggest of the Bauhaus names were drawn to the Isokon building, as London and the Lawn Road flats provided a refuge from the increasingly destructive Nazi Party in Germany and Austria. Pritchard had met Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius on a visit to the Bauhaus School in Berlin, so it was no coincidence that Gropius and fellow Bauhaus émigré, the graphic artist Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, took flats in the building; architect-designers Marcel Breuer and Egon Riss followed soon after. Jack Pritchard had formed Isokon Furniture Ltd by this time and both Marcel Breuer and Egon Riss designed for the company, the results of which included Marcel Breuer’s Long Chair and Egon Riss’ ‘Donkey’ shelves, while Maholy-Nagy worked on the graphic design.
The Isokon Building: A Magnet for British Modernists
These architects of continental Modernism inevitably attracted like-minded British Modernists and David Burke explains how the likes of artist Ben Nicholson and sculptors Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore all spent time socialising in the Isokon building. Henry Moore even took one of the Lawn Road Flats himself. David Burke gives a fascinating account of the unique cross-pollination that occurred between the British Abstract movement and the European modernist movement. For anyone looking for a more historical take on the Bauhaus movement and British modernism, there is a great deal of original material here.
The Isokon Building: Hideout for Soviet spies
The book then makes a riveting diversion, as it focuses on the wartime residents who worked for the Soviet Union, using the building as a base for spying operations against both the British and indeed the Germans. Even Arnold Deutsch, the recruiter of the Cambridge Five, lived here. Incredibly David Burke found details of 11 people with links to the Russian intelligence who lived at the Lawn Road Flats during the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. When you consider the building’s location in an artistic enclave of London, it’s no great surprise that the area was a hub for left-thinking folk unhappy about the rise of fascism and the British government’s response to it, but the fact that so many spies ended up residing at the Lawn Road Flats makes for a great story.
The Isokon Building: Agatha Christie’s London Pad
All of this of course would be great inspiration for any thriller writer, so what better period author than Agatha Christie to move in? She had a flat in the Isokon building between 1941 and 1948 and during this time wrote her only spy novel N or M? David Burke has some fun evoking some of the inspiration she must have got from her time in the Isokon building and it’s amusing to hear that she would apparently recline after writing on, what she called, her “perculiar” Marcel Breuer Long Chair.
The Isokon Building: The Isobar
There are other characters who, thanks to David Burke’s prose, provide interest. Philip Harben, the chef and raconteur behind the Isobar, the in-house bar and restaurant that had its furniture designed by Marcel Breuer, which must have witnessed some pretty unique table talk. Philip Harben went on to become one of televisions first celebrity chefs.
The Isokon Building today
The Lawn Road Flats: Spies, Writers and Artists provides a level of detail, which while never too heavy, gives an insight into the Lawn Road Flats and their colourful residents that a purely architectural overview could never provide. There are two photograph sections in the book, showing original black and white images from the 1930s-50s. We particularly enjoyed seeing the shots of Jack and Molly Pritchard’s own flat and roof garden, at the top of the building, complete with furniture designed by Marcel Breuer for Isokon and Isokon ‘Donkey’ bookshelf by Egon Riss. The image of the in-house Isobar restaurant, with its Breuer-designed dining tables and stools, has a distinctly European aesthetic. David Burke finishes in the present day, describing how the Isokon building itself had fallen into disrepair until 2001, when it was restored to its full glory by the Notting Hill Housing Group. It’s now as desirable a residence as it was when it was first built, a successful example of a 20th Century building being preserved and updated for contemporary living.
The Lawn Road Flats: Spies, Writers and Artists by David Burke
Published by The Boydell Press
24.1 x 15.7cm
Buy The Lawn Road Flats: Spies, Writers and Artists here
To buy contemporary re-issues of Isokon furniture, go to furniture retailer Skandium
For more information on the restoration of the Lawn Road Flats, click here
There’s more on the work of Marcel Breuer in Britain in our article Marcel Breuer furniture: Bauhaus and Bristol
Click here to get Agatha Christie’s N or M?