Bohemians, Bauhaus and bionauts: the utopian dreams that became architectural nightmares

  • 2016-03-25
  • The Guardian

Lawn Road Flats in north London, also known as the Isokon building, is long and thin, with cantilevered exterior walkways that resemble the promenades on a ship. Built in 1934 by the Canadian architect Wells Coates, a follower of Le Corbusier, it was launched by the local MP, who smashed a bottle of beer (rather than champagne) on its rose petal pink facade. The four-story block, with its 32 “deck-access” apartments, was one of the first modernist buildings in Britain. According to one resident it had a “Brave New World air about it”, and indeed it aimed to be a pioneering showcase for a new way of living in a modern age. The “minimum” flats were fully furnished and serviced, and all occupants shared a laundry, communal kitchen and the Isobar. “As young men, we are concerned with a future that must be planned, rather than a past that must be patched up, at all costs,” wrote Coates. The idealistic developer Jack Pritchard, who commissioned the architect, shared this unshakable modernist belief “that a rational, brave new approach to all problems would make for a better world”. Pritchard hoped similar buildings would soon replace working-class tenements all over London.

The Isokon was a modernist utopia made concrete, and its bohemian, leftist residents reflected many of the political battles of the age. The building was inspired by Pritchard and Coates’s visit to see Mies van der Rohe’s Weissenhof Estate in Stuttgart, a model community that included houses by Mies, alongside others by modernist pioneers such as Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier. The previous year Mies had built a controversial brick monument to the martyred German communist leaders Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, and his answer to the problem of mass housing was a socialist manifesto of sorts. Pritchard and Coates also made a pilgrimage to the Bauhaus school in Dessau, which had been directed by Gropius and then Mies, but was now deserted after having being forcibly closed by the Nazis, its staff accused of fostering “cultural bolshevism”. Pritchard offered refugees from the Bauhaus free accommodation in the Isokon. These included Gropius, the furniture maker Marcel Breuer, and the artist László Moholy-Nagy, who soon began work on the special effects for Alexander Korda’s film of HG Well’s utopian novel The Shape of Things to Come. Gropius would gallantly defend the “handsome” Isokon (now Grade I-listed) when the literary magazine Horizon named it “the ugliest building in London”.