Wells Coates, (Canada)
1933 - 1934
A Vision for Modern Living
Isokon was a design firm established by Jack and Molly Pritchard in 1931. The original intention was that the firm should make flats, houses, and furniture. These would be designed by Wells Coates, a Canadian émigré. The Pritchards and Wells Coates shared a common fascination with the problems of city living in the modern age - both had met Le Corbusier, and Coates had attended CIAM's 1933 Congress.
In 1932 the newly-formed company gave Coates a brief to build a block of service flats in Lawn Road, north London, to be fitted out with Isokon designed furniture. Each was to be built to a standard plan. The block was opened in July 1934. For the young professionals who moved in, life was made as pleasant as possible by the provision of built-in cooking and washing facilities. Residents could also make use of laundry facilities and the communal restaurant (the 'Isobar') which was installed later. The idea was that tenants could move in with a minimum of belongings.
Wells Coates commented to The Listener in 1933; "We cannot burden ourselves with permanent tangible possessions as well as our real new possessions of freedom, travel, new experience- in short, what we call 'life'."
A Giant Ocean Liner
Wells Coates' biographer, J.M. Richards, believes that these flats are "nearer to the machine á habiter than anything Corbusier ever designed". The block showcases perfectly Wells' belief in the benefits of minimal living- gone is the unnecessary ornamentation of the Victorian house; in its place is a small, clean, furnished, centrally-heated apartment. Agatha Christie, one of Lawn Road's famous residents, compared the exterior to a giant ocean liner, so clean and striking is Wells' design.
The desire to create a organic community is also clear: Wells wrote to Jack Pritchard; "My scheme provides a place which every actor in this drama can call his own place, and further than that my idea of property does not go. This is the room where I sleep, this is where I work, and this is where I eat. This is the roof garden where everyone can turn out...This is the garden where everyone goes. It's like a park."
And as soon as the block opened, it was filled with refugees from Nazi Germany. Bauhaus leading lights Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer (who was to design the Isobar), and Hungarian-born architect Lazslo Moholy-Nagy all lived at Lawn Road in the years before the War.
Decline and Rebirth
But the War put paid to the Isokon company, as Pritchard was unable to import necessary materials for building from the continent, and after the war the flats failed to attract the same eclectic mix that had lived there in the 1930s. In 1955, the whole block was given a stucco makeover, spoiling their imposing appearance, and after a brief stint in the ownership of the New Statesman, the flats were transferred to Camden Council in 1972. The Isobar was closed and the sense of community which had been such a part of the Isokon experiment was lost.
Plans are now underway for the Notting Hill Housing Trust to take over the building, and to renovate it. Thirty-six flats will be refurbished, twenty-five of which will form part of the government's "key workers" scheme for public service workers. The others will be sold on the open market.