Wednesday, June 25, 2014
Lawn Road, London
Flats and curves
In 1934 the Lawn Road flats, designed by Wells Coates for the Isokon Company, were completed. They were the fruit of the joint vision of their architect and Jack Pritchard, who worked for the plywood manufacturer Venesta and had got to know Coates a few years before because they shared an interest in the use of plywood in furniture and building construction.
The block was very different from anything else built at the time. Coates and Pritchard conceived it as accommodation for young single professionals – the kind of people who in the 1930s normally expected to rent a room in ‘digs’. Most of the flats in the block were therefore very small, consisting of a living room with bed space, a tiny kitchen, bathroom, and small dressing room where there were wardrobes and cupboards for clothes. Fitted furniture helped make these small spaces both agreeable and efficient. As well as these ‘minimal flats’ there were also some larger ones with room for two people.
Just as remarkable as these interiors were the structure and exterior of the block. Made of reinforced concrete finished in white with the palest hint of pink, the block is quite unlike the neo-Georgian norm for flats at the time. The sculptural access balconies dominate the side of the block visible from Lawn Road, defining the building’s shape from curving corner at one end to protruding staircase tower at the other. As well as looking good, the balconies work structurally too – an underground tunnel under the front of the site restricted the footprint of the foundations, so cantilevering out the balconies made practical sense.
Embodying a ‘modern’ way of life in an up-to-the-minute design, the Lawn Road flats gained a lot of publicity. Coates hoped that they would be copied, providing much needed compact accommodation in many other places. This seems not to have happened, perhaps because developers could make more money in other ways. And the Lawn Road flats themselves seem to have attracted more upmarket residents than the architect envisaged – Agatha Christie and Adrian Stokes had flats there, the block attracted architects and designers including, for a while, Walter Gropius and László Moholy-Nagy, and a surprising number of the residents were once involved in the world of espionage.* Nowadays, under the auspices of Notting Hill Home Ownership, the block has been restored and its flats are mostly home to key workers who are closer to the constituency that Coates originally imagined.
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*There’s more on this building and its inhabitants in David Burke, The Lawn Road Flats: Spies, Writers and Artists (Boydell Press, 2014).