Through the Keyhole of Hampstead's Modernist Icons
22 October 2018
Sometimes a building is so pure in its design and intention that visiting it today can transport you back to the era in which it was built; the Isokon Building in Hampstead does just this.
Approaching the block from the quiet and leafy Lawn Road, just a short walk from Belsize Park tube station, the Isokon Building’s
clean curved form, with smooth alabaster-like rendering, appears like an ocean liner, sailed in from 1934, the year of its completion. In this case, the building has undergone a sensitive restoration, by contemporary practice Avanti Architects
, and so now represents a re-shined modernist jewel, with its defining living features safely intact.
The Isokon’s significance to cultural life is manifold. Construction-wise, it is the first domestic block to be built from reinforced concrete, serving as a precursor to London’s other lusted after modernist concrete builds such as the Barbican, which boasts similarly clean lines and minimal shapes.
Concept-wise the building represents a progressive experiment in modern urban living by the avant-garde architect Wells Coates, who sought to optimise utility and comfort within limited living space, something every Londoner today can relate to. This intent gave way to features including a communal kitchen, connected to each floor via a dumb waiter. In due course, this kitchen was to become the much-heralded Isobar, a restaurant and watering hole for eminent writers, artists and architects at the time. Regulars included Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson, who lived down the road, on Parkhill. The Isokon’s pioneering, and more covert roster of former residents includes founder of the Bauhaus School Walter Gropius, modernist furniture designer Marcel Breuer and avant-garde painter Laszlo Maholy-Nagy. Soviet spy Arnold Deutsch and detective writer Agatha Christie both also took residence, and during the sixties British architect James Stirling called the flats home. If only walls could talk.
The Isokon Building Exterior
And because, unfortunately they can’t, aficionados on the building have opened up an exhibition space on the ground floor, in a former garage, so you can step inside and peruse original Isokon furniture, including many Breuer-designed pieces, while gemming up on the architecture of the building and its remarkable residents. Note however, this is a volunteer-run enterprise, open only on weekends.
If you are in Hampstead and intrigued by this golden age, of intelligentsia dinner parties and burgeoning ideas, then a 15-minute stroll to the influential Modernist home of architect Ernö Goldfinger, on the outskirts of the heath is in order.
Built in 1939 for himself and his family, Goldfinger lived at 2 Willow Road
until his death in 1987, and via ticketed entry, you can see the house just as he left it. Along with the original furniture, much of it designed by Goldfinger, is the family’s significant collection of 20th-century art, by Bridget Riley, Prunella Clough, Marcel Duchamp, Henry Moore and Max Ernst. Again the house was a pioneering design, using concrete, large windows to optimise natural daylight and open plan space to accommodate flexible living. At the time, it famously riled contemporary local residents including Ian Fleming and Conservative politician Henry Brook.
2 Willow Road, home to Erno Goldfinger
It is from 2 Willow Road that Goldfinger designed the Balfron Tower and Trellick Tower, perhaps London’s most controversial Brutalist tower blocks. It’s also where Goldfinger held exhibitions to raise funds for liberal causes of the time, and where Hampstead’s left-wing idealists often gathered.
With its vast green spaces overlooking London’s urban sprawl, over the ages Hampstead has always attracted artists and thinkers, and has the blue plaques to prove it. But there are few opportunities like these to look through the keyhole at how some of its most interesting residents lived, and where the pioneering movements of the time were formed.
Words by Rachel Calton
Check out some other Modernist places on APLO