The Twentieth Century Society

Campaigning for outstanding buildings

Building of the month

January 2006 - The Isokon, London

Text and Images by Annie Atkins

I’m not going to go into more detail here about the history of the Isokon. There are plenty of people far more knowledgeable than me about the building, not least the Twentieth Century Society (see Casework: The Lawn Road Flats are brought back to life).

Instead I hope to give you an insider’s peek. Does it work in 2005? How does modern life square up to those crazy modernists?

I moved into a rented flat in the block at the end of August 2005. I haven’t rented for years, feels quite liberating. Stories vary but from what I can gauge the first tenants moved back into the refurbished block in the previous March. Even since I’ve been here there seems to have been a queue of vans and taxis in the forecourt spilling out boxes and lamps and flustered tenants. Long gone are the days of turning up with a single cardboard suitcase. As you might expect everyone seems young and I haven’t noticed many children.

There’s an entryphone on the door now and the corridors are pretty municipal and still smell of emulsion. The front doors all match (which is nice) and Avanti have come up with a jolly font for the door numbers. I have letter box envy. There seem to be two types. Something bordering on the original (mine) through which you could probably receive a single postcard or an air mail letter (if such things still existed), and others, which are bigger and can manage A4 envelopes and mobile phone bills and such.

I am 5’2″ and the fixtures and fittings in the flat are perfect. Others find them low, I find them natural. I have two of the original sinks, which everyone loves. There has been a comment that they’re not suitable for modern living – you couldn’t wash a wok in one. True, probably true, but they’re fine for things like wine glasses.

I’ve grown to love the view from my kitchen window looking towards Gospel Oak. Gropius and his wife lived in my flat for a time and I like to think of Mrs Gropius looking out over the same part of London as she washed up Walter’s egg cup. Most of the buildings I can see probably arrived subsequently but the houses opposite must have been there, and the dawns.

Way back at the beginning there was a dumb waiter that came up from the restaurant. Residents could collect food in a servery on each floor and trot back along the corridor to complete their crime novel, teapot design etc. Part of the lift shaft comes up through my flat. It’s been rather ingeniously converted to house a washing machine and a fridge both hidden away behind a sliding door.

The first time I walked past the building when it was being converted I was a bit taken aback by the windows – they were a pinky bronze. As a resident I love them. They are draught-free, they have safety catches fitted, they open easily, they shut out noise.

The flats are relatively small. Overall there’s very little storage (NB that cardboard suitcase). My mop lives on the balcony, my hoover hides behind a door and the darling little wardrobe is groaning. Built to accommodate two outfits – ‘best’ and ‘everyday’ – it struggles to cope with my blatant consumerism. Still it has a dandy folding door incorporating a full length mirror and one way and another we muddle along.

The face of new modernism is revealed in a satellite socket in the wall, recycling facilities courtesy of Camden in the refuse area, and a neat gas boiler tucked away in a cupboard in the bathroom.

There are many joyful things about the Isokon. One of them is the Belsize Wood Nature Reserve at the back. Now trimmed back from its wildest state, the squirrels are most amusing. The second is the lighting of the building at night. Coming home in the evening she looks quite lovely, entirely flattering.

The building and its tenants are still settling into each other. I’d love to tell you of high jinks going on late into the night but on the whole things are pretty quiet, people getting on with their own lives. It’s nice to be part of it, for a while at least.

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