Isokon Building and Gallery
Blog Post

Sunny Sundays are Made for Modernism in London

Isokon Building and Gallery

On that rare thing—a glorious spring weekend morning in London—I was treated to a tour of the Isokon Building and Gallery in Hampstead. Built in the 1930s by Wells Coates for Jack and Molly Pritchard, the Isokon building epitomizes the values of the interwar modern period through its founding principles and design, as well as the challenges faced by modern architecture throughout the twentieth century.

Composed primarily of residences (it was originally called the Lawn Road Flats), one can see the strong influence of the Bauhaus, and indeed past tenants included its founder Walter Gropius, as well as Marcel Breuer and László Moholy-Nagy. In 1937 Breuer and Maxwell Fry designed a bar and restaurant for the complex called the Isobar, which became a hub of intellectual life in Hampstead—both residents and neighbors, including the writers Agatha Christie and George Orwell, and sculptors Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, were regular visitors. Running the kitchen was Philip Harben, now considered Britain’s first TV celebrity chef. The list of past tenants and associated individuals is a remarkable who’s who of architects, designers, writers and artists from the period. Even a number of Soviet spies called the Isokon home!

After the Isokon’s sale to Camden Council in 1972, the building was almost lost, falling into a derelict state with an uncertain future. Fortunately, a change of ownership in the early 2000s and a restoration by Avanti Architects led to the building’s complete turnaround. Magnus Englund, who runs the Isokon Gallery Trust, met me in the building’s gallery space and led me through its history. The gallery and recreated rooms, which are open to the public, give a complete picture of the building’s history. An archetypal kitchen and dressing room are set up to give a feel for the interior residential spaces, which are privately-owned. John Allen from Avanti also joined us midway through the tour, and we had an interesting conversation about the ongoing challenges of preserving modern architecture. Mr. Allen is working on another fantastic project at St. Peter’s in Scotland—a 2008 Watch site—which just received an additional £4.2M in lottery funding to transform it into a premier arts venue and heritage destination.

The distinct impression I had upon leaving the Isokon was that the opportunity to visit this little-known gem needs to be broadcast far and wide. It stands out in its context—a gleaming white ship among its more familiar brick neighbors—and is a perfect antidote to the cacophony one experiences in a huge museum or the constant deluge of content we are delivered through our electronic devices. Although the building and Trust face some of the same challenges well-known to modernist buildings around the world—the ongoing costs of maintenance and the fragility of stewardship—it was a pleasure to witness its successes in a landscape so often mired in loss.

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Also by this author: Modernism on the Prairie.