Lawn Road is a quiet residential street in North London’s well-to-do Hampstead but for decades it saw the dramatic decay of one of England’s ground breaking modern buildings. Now the Lawn Road Flats are restored – and reveal again an ambitious concept of modern living conceived seventy years ago.
The Lawn Road Flats, a four-storey block of small apartments, were built at a time when the Modern Movement just started to happen in Britain. The building was the product of a fruitful and complex relationship between an allegedly self-taught young architect and a progressive developer couple; the Canadian designer Wells Coates met Jack and Molly Pritchard at a time when the architectural elite of Europe embarked on a fundamental process of rethinking the concept of housing; at the CIAM conference in Frankfurt in 1929 it was the ‘minimum flat’ that was avidly discussed. In England, the Pritchards in turn started to cultivate similar ambitions and in 1929 they purchased a site on Lawn Road for a residential development.
While working for the furniture company Venesta, Jack Pritchard came across the young Wells Coates (1895-1958), who had then designed some shop interiors. Both had an interest in the qualities of plywood, which Wells Coates had applied in his designs, but their ambitions reached further. When the Pritchards realised that they had found a like-minded spirit in the inexperienced but modern thinking Wells Coates, they ditched a more traditional designer they had commissioned to draw up a scheme for Lawn Road and handed the project over to Coates.
Initially the Prichards had wanted to build two private houses and a children’s nursery, but the scope of their projects grew and became more experimental. Alongside the Lawn Road project, which was to become a block of minimum flats, the team developed a more abstract way of thinking about the modern flat, and Wells Coates designed a number of prototype flats that could be combined into blocks as desired – including standard fittings that would fit into all types. The flat units were named Isotypes and the Pritchards’ newly established firm Isokon was to provide the furniture, of course to be made of plywood. But plans to buy land outside London and build Isotype houses never took off. The developers and their architect were busy trying to secure the finances for their project on Lawn Road and on top of that kept on falling out with each other. But despite all problems they managed to get the Lawn Road Flats built. After less than a year’s construction time in 1934 probably the first monolithic reinforced concrete building on the British Isles was completed. It remains one of the most rigorous modern housing projects and a stunning product of theirambitious ideas.
The Lawn Road Flats are both functional, since designed from the plan outwards, as well as indulgently sculptural. The ‘minimal’ one bed flats that feature a combined living and bedroom plus a tiny kitchenette, a bathroom and a dressing room (hardly one square metre in size), are arranged alongside each other, forming the long wing of the L-shaped block, together with four bigger flats at its end. All flats are linked to exterior walkways, located on the street facade – but as Sherban Cantacuzino remarks in his book on Coates, this was hardly a novel approach to access. However, what Wells Coates did with these walkways and the integrated escape stairs was audacious and truly deserves the use of the much over used analogy of the Ocean Liner. The cantilevered walkways, four altogether, give the building its dramatic appearance and create a play of shadows that turn the façade into a three dimensional object. On the roof sits a penthouse built for the Pritchards, with a separate unit for their children, stepped back from the far edge of the building to allow for a generous roof terrace.
The strongly articulated long stretch of the building along Lawn Road is balanced by the vertically oriented short wing of the ‘L’ which houses a studio flat on each floor, an expressive stair tower, and attached to it the former garage block.
The interior has its flaws, with the penthouse kitchen being windowless and some of the beams and ducts running randomly across walls and ceilings. But the building envelope with its round corners, its geometry and smoothness of the rendered concrete is a successful and very powerful modern statement. The heavy massing of the building represents a departure from the aesthetics of Le Corbusier’s five points of architecture; the building is a grand gesture in its own right, its appearance created through the load bearing concrete and a deliberate intention to make the building look coherent.
The flats were to be served from a kitchen on the ground floor since it was thought that the modern urban dweller should benefit from domestic services rather than focussing on such activities himself. The kitchen shut in 1936 but in its place the Isobar opened, a space designed by Marcel Breuer and F.R.S. Yorke, which attracted the emigré and home grown intelligentsia and bohemia of the time (including Walter and Ise Gropius, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Agatha Christie to name just a few) and helped the building to achieve a good part of its fame.
The post-war period saw a steady decline of the built fabric. The Pritchards were unable to carry out comprehensive maintenance works and finally sold the house in 1969 to the New Statesman. Only three years later the London Borough of Camden took over ownership of the building. In spite of its listed status, (the building was awarded Grade II in 1974, and upgraded to Grade I five years ago), the necessary refurbishment did not happen. One of the few measures taken was an unfortunate window replacement with uPVC frames. Then, in 2000, the Borough made a bold move that saved the Lawn Road Flats – it announced a competition for restoration of the building. The winner, a teammade up of the Notting Hill Home Ownership (NHHO), Avanti Architects with Alan Conisbee Associates as structural engineers and the Isokon Trust, started the restoration job in 2003. And the project is a success. Most of the restored flats will be sold to key workers on a shared ownership basis, and in order to cross-finance the works, the bigger flats are now on the open market. The Trust will be able to move into the former garages and use them as exhibition space. Sadly the Isobar that had been converted into flats under Camden’s ownership will not be returned to a communal use.
The building does shine again after an exemplary restoration, and has all it needs: new roof coverings, new metal framed windows to match the originals, and restored interiors featuring original or replicated built-in fittings in kitchens and bathrooms. There is new insulation, new heating and services (Avanti director John Allan is particularly proud of the well hidden new gas boilers in each flat), and a repaired and cleaned surface. What may come as a surprise is that the building is re-rendered not the expected modern white, but (and you’ll only see it when the light is just right), in what is thought to be very close to its original colour: ‘rose petal pink’!