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).


mondoagogo said...

Most people writing about the Isokon don't mention (or are unaware) what an awful state it was in for *decades* before the renovation. It was pretty horrific. The flats are teeny-tiny, especially the kitchens, and don't have the benefit of the in-house catering that was there when Christie et al lived there, but I suppose they have microwaves :)

It bugs me when people call it "Lawn Road Flats" though, because it implies there aren't several other blocks of flats in that street as well. Locals always just call it the Isokon.

Stephen Barker said...

The building always reminds me of the upper decks of an ocean liner.
I went round the flats before they were restored and they were in a sorry state after being used by the local council. It is good to see the flats restored and showing modernism at it's best.
As I recall there was a communal dining room as part of the original scheme.

bazza said...

I had heard of these flats but knew nothing about them. I really enjoy your historical background details, which go far beyond just the architecture. I was interested enough to go to Bing to see some more images. That led me to a review of the book you mention. The flats were, apparently, "like a miniature Riks Bar from Casablanca.
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s fabulous Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Philip Wilkinson said...

Anna and Stephen: Yes, the building was in a sorry state – I'd not realised how long they had been like that though.

Good point about the use of "Lawn Road". After all, the sign on the building does say "Isokon".