Thursday, 16 July 2015

Modern hampstead - The Isokon Building.

Yesterday I was posting pictures of 'old' Hampstead and that's what it's mostly like.

Even the new houses are trying to look old.

Except that in the 1930's there was an influx of refugees escaping from Nazi Germany and among them were a group of highly talented artists and architects who were naturally attracted to Hampstead where a number of British 'Modernists' were already living.

They hit it off, big time.

They brought with them a completely new way of living - rejecting the cramped, dark, depressing architecture and furniture of the 19th century.

The first house we took a look at was 2 Willow road, next to Hampstead Heath.

It doesn't look it but it's very much a building of the 1930's; designed as a terrace of three houses by the architect Erno Goldfinger and completed in 1939.

The wealthy locals hated it. In particular Ian Fleming (the spy and right wing author) fought to stop it being built. It's no coincidence that he named his arch villain 'Auric Goldfinger' as some kind of revenge.

In fact, the real life 'Goldfinger' was a Marxist and many of the buildings he designed were social housing or public buildings.

Here's the terrace of three houses he built;

What is so interesting is that it looks so tame now. The concrete beams, the huge windows, the columns are all quite normal today.

That wasn't the case in the England of the 1930's - wealthy people's houses pretended to be oak beamed medieval mansions while the poor lived in dark, unhealthy slums.

Light, air, space?

That was something alien, something unheard of.

Now it's normal for schools, hospitals, stations, offices and even homes to be light and airy.

Then we drove down to Belsize park which is at the bottom end of Hampstead;

I was there to take a look at 'The Lawn Road Flats', an incredible social experiment which has been recently renovated. Even better, there is now a free gallery which explains the history of the flats and exhibits the furniture and style of the building.

It's fantastic;

Financed by the Pritchards, designed by Wells Coates, it was intended to follow the principles of Modernism, the ethos of Le Corbusier and, as Wells Coates said;

"I can plan a house - a machine to live in - which will give you better accommodation than that provided by the present plan".

He was as good as his word and just look at these fantastic lines;

It's pure sculpture.

The flats were small and designed with tiny kitchens - there was a communal kitchen and all services were supplied to the residents.

More than that, the Pritchards company 'Isokon' made furniture for the flats too, in the 'International Modern style'.

One of the first residents was Walter Gropius, the exiled director of 'The Bauhaus' college in Germany, which had pioneered the use of radical new materials like glass, steel, and plywood. Naturally, Isokon reflected this; 

They made revolutionary stacking chairs and chairs made out of tubular steel and leather;

But the star of the show is still the building, which just dominates everything;

 The 34 flats were in great demand and at different times were occupied by the leading lights of the modernist movement like the sculptors Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore, the abstract painters Ben Nicholson and Piet Mondrian, Agatha Christie the author as well as a changing collection of writers, journalists as well as a few ordinary people.
It was fashionable and to be honest, quite expensive.
There was even a smattering of Soviet spies to enliven the atmosphere!
But the real star is always the building;

What I found so strange, just like with Willow Road, is that looking at these two buildings with the eyes of 2015...they look quite normal and natural just like the furniture which once seemed so revolutionary.
On my way home, I stopped to take a photo or two of an office where I once worked which has now been turned into expensive flats.
Built in the 1960's you would call it boring, everyday. And yet the architect had appropriated many of the ideas from the Lawn Road flats or Willow Road that had seemed so outrageous some 30 years before.
If you are in the area, take a look. Lawn Road is looked after by volunteers every Saturday and Sunday and is free - paid for by a stellar list of sponsors from the world of design and architecture.
2 Willow road is owned by the National Trust and costs £6 to go around.
Neil Harris
(a don't stop till you drop production)

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