Compiled by her friends Bob Stanley (journalist, author, film producer and member of the indie band Saint Etienne), David Trevor Jones, Emily Gee, Paul Stirner and Jon Wright, C20 Society presents a special musical accompaniment to this months Remembering Elain Harwood event at the Southbank Centre.
Spanning punk, post-punk, folk, art rock and african music, the playlist features many of Elain’s favourite tracks and shows her taste in music was just as eclectic as that in buildings! Click the player below and drop the stylus for 3+ hours of sonic exploration.
David Trevor-Jones – Lifelong friend and Chairman of Cinema Theatre Association
Elain was passionately into music. It was what brought us together in Bristol in 1976. She joined the ‘Ents Committee’, the group of would-be musicians, promoters, roadies (and groupies!) that put on concerts in the Student Union. As a major league Union we could get some quite big names, and being there through the dawn of the punk revolution was a fascinating experience for both of us. It changed Elain’s style and outlook as well as her listening.
On moving to London in 1980 Elain started going to gigs at venues such as The Marquee, The Moonlight Club, The Electric Ballroom and The Clarendon (all now long gone). This was the immediate post-punk period that spawned a whole generation of innovative, thrilling music. It also saw the emergence of world music from its narrow niche and Elain dived enthusiastically into African music, especially the East African guitar bands championed by Andy Kershaw and John Peel.
Most importantly, Elain adopted The Fall very early in their recording and performing career, starting a life-long fandom and special relationship with that band and their music. They were undoubtedly her favourite band of all time. Among Elain’s literary works was a contribution to ‘Excavate – The Wonderful and Frightening World of The Fall’, edited by Tessa Norton and Bob Stanley.
Music really mattered to Elain. Before the pandemic she commenced the huge project of listening to her very large record/cd collection in alphabetical order – I don’t know how far she got or whether she completed it. So she did look back as well as forward in her listening but in recent years she pursued a path into electronic and dance music, and necessarily into the soundtracks for SPIN classes. I am not sure that she revisited the music that she was listening to pre-punk, around the time that I first met her, but she did talk about it in an interview with our mutual friend, the music journalist and author Mike Barnes, for ‘A New Day Yesterday’, his definitive account of Prog Rock. I do know that she maintained her commitments to African guitars and to The Fall (though it ceased to exist as a band/project following the death of main-man Mark E.Smith in 2018) and also to the radio show presented by John Peel’s son. Just as Peel Senior inspired Elain’s musical listening from the start and through the decades of his BBC Radio 1 shows, Tom Ravenscroft continued to do so with his show on Radio 6 Music to the end. Elain’s musical taste was never, ever mainstream!
As the growing crisis around RAAC concrete in schools and public buildings dominates the national news, Catherine Croft provides a handy explainer on this widely used post-war building material.
Any situation which might cause the sudden collapse of a building is clearly enormously concerning, and the safety of people must be the top priority. There is an urgent need to understand where RAAC was used, to examine whether or not it is now failing in each case, and then work out how best to repair or replace every building which requires urgent attention.
We don’t know yet if any of the schools or other buildings with deteriorated RAAC are ones which are either listed, or ones which may have merited listing in the future, but heritage concerns must of course come second to public safety.
What is RAAC and why was it developed in the first place?
AAC is the acronym for “autoclave aerated concrete”, first developed in the 1920s, RAAC, is AAC with added steel reinforcement-hence the “R” at the front. AAC is a special form of pre-cast concrete, that is concrete made in a factory, rather than cast on site, like the very visible concrete of most Brutalist buildings, such as the South Bank Centre.
By aerating the mix to provide a bubbly structure, which has been accurately compared to an Aero chocolate bar, the overall weight of the concrete is hugely reduced. The aeration is caused by a chemical reaction initiated when water is added to the mix. RAAC is cast in steel moulds and then, after it has set sufficiently to be taken out, it is placed in an autoclave in the factory to increase its strength. This heats it under pressure, a process more like firing a clay brick in a kiln than the normal curing of concrete at ambient temperature.
Unlike standard concrete the RAAC mix only includes small particles, and no larger stone aggregate (the small pebbles or chippings which can give normal concrete much of its character). This means that the individual planks and blocks created are much lighter and therefore cheaper and easier to transport to site and lift into place. They also have other advantages, including better thermal insulation, and good sound insulation.
It has always been understood that RAAC elements have less compressive strength than regular concrete ones of the same size, that is they will crush more easily if a compressive or “squashing” load is applied to them. This will have been taken into account in the initial design process, and there seems to be no evidence that this was not the case in almost all instances. The most common use of RAAC was for beams, used in flat roof and floor construction.
There seem to be a number of specific types of problem emerging:
Other issues which may be problematic, include flat roofs where extra weight has been added to address problems of water ingress. It will also be crucial to take into account the strength of RAAC when adding additional insulation to a building to improve its thermal performance.
Beyond schools, it seems probable that other public buildings from the same period – like hospitals, prisons, libraries, theatres and leisure centres – may also contain various amounts of RAAC.
It has been said that all RAAC in the country has now “exceeded its design life”. This sounds drastic, but many building components exceed their design lives totally safely. It does not seem to have been proven that all RAAC inevitably crumbles apart after any fixed period of time, and estimating future “design life” when making a component, or building a building, is not a precise science. Research needs to be done on RAAC taking examples made by different manufactures, and used in a full range of building types and locations, with good and bad subsequent maintenance regimes.
There may be parallels that can be drawn with High Alumina Cement concrete. This was a product popular from 1950 to 1970, but banned after a few well publicised collapses in the 1970s. Subsequent research has shown that the primary causes of these collapses were poor construction details or chemical attack, rather than problems with the concrete itself, and (as the Concrete Centre attests) up to 50,000 buildings with HAC continue to remain successfully in service today in the UK. The financial cost and the environment impact of replacing concrete can be immense, and no doubt there will also be some heritage buildings lost as part of a sensible and proportionate response to the RAAC crisis. But hopefully further research will be able to pinpoint exactly which sets of circumstances require demolition, and which can be addressed by remedial works and monitoring.
To reiterate: RAAC almost certainly will be found in buildings C20 cares about, but making sure everyone is safe must come before anything else.
Catherine Croft is the Director of the Twentieth Century Society and teaches the Conservation of Historic Concrete course at West Dean College.
As C20’s new Chairman – the respected architectural writer and journalist, Hugh Pearman – takes up the post, Director Catherine Croft sat down with him to discuss his own journey in architecture, the future of conservation and C20, and his priorities in the role.
When were you first conscious of your interest in architecture?
As a student at Durham, where I was studying English with a bit of Philosophy. I was at St Chad’s College, which faces the east end of the Norman Cathedral. So, I was surrounded by medieval and Georgian architecture, but also an amazing mix of recent C20 buildings. The Dining Hall at St Chad’s is by the neo-classical architect Francis Johnson, which I only discovered later, but there was also Ove Arup’s Kingsgate footbridge across the Wear gorge to ACP’s jaggedly Brutalist Dunelm House (now listed), and in the other direction the modern-medieval University library on Palace Green by George Pace. These all date from the same period, early 1960s. I am catholic in the architecture I like, perhaps because I loved this jumble of styles coexisting happily.
Were you tempted to study to become an architect yourself?
Not at all! I never thought about it! I can’t draw or design, I always wanted to write.
You were starting out at the end of the 1970s, a period currently generating lots of casework for C20 Society. What was happening in the world of architecture from your perspective?
Architecture was at an interesting point and not many people were writing about it. It was the time of the death throes of one kind of modernism, and the very beginnings of post modernism. Obviously, I couldn’t see that then, that’s with the benefit of hindsight. But all sorts of interesting things were happening—from the Alexandra Road housing in Camden, to neo-vernacular tithe barn ASDAs, everything seemed up in the air.
And how did you break into architectural journalism?
After uni, I took a graduate trainee place at a firm of trade magazine publishers. I worked on a travel agents’ mag for a while, after which the deal was that I could choose from whatever vacancies were on offer elsewhere. The one that interested me was an architects’ newspaper called Building Design, then edited by Peter Murray. I got to be news editor there, then quit to become an in-house editor at BDP of Preston Bus Station fame. My boss was Richard Saxon. While there I started freelancing for newspapers – the Guardian and Observer among them. Finally I went fully freelance, and was lucky enough to walk into the vacant architecture critic position at the Sunday Times. I thought this could never last, but it lasted 30 years, to the end of 2015. Other freelance work continued, and books started to make an appearance.
But I’d always had a hankering to be an editor as well as a writer, and that opportunity finally came when I took on the RIBA Journal in September 2006, retiring in December 2020. Writing for a professional audience is very different to a lay one. You have to speak in different voices. And we always tried to avoid being institutionalised.
I’ll come on to focusing on C20 – I know that you have been aware of our work for a long time, and very supportive of recent battles, including the alterations to the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery – but how do you think conservation more broadly is doing at the moment?
I am concerned. It feels as if many hard-won gains are under attack. For instance, since my teens I’ve admired the huge achievement of post-war restoration of canals and navigable rivers, but now the money to keep them going has been slashed to a dangerously low level by the Government . Many conservation organisations have an aging demographic, they are still run by those who had fire in their bellies in the 1970s, and they now need to bring in new blood. Plus in architecture there is definitely a culture wars effect, it feels like a time of retrenchment and uncertainty, and with incomes effectively falling it has become politically expedient to look back to an imagined golden past, to the “right sort of old” and 70-year-old Brutalism, say, is for these people not the right sort of old. They prefer antique-effect. Well, the Society is here for the best neo-geo and all other styles since 1914 too!
So what do you think C20 Society’s priorities should be at the moment?
It’s important that C20 should be seen as studiously neutral, not biased in its style choices. That’s already a strength. And we must never be seen to be in opposition to the architectural profession. Architects are our allies, and C20 has long been advocating for retrofit, which is great. We still throw away too many good buildings and we need to promote good examples of successful reuse, such as (since I’ve mentioned it) Preston Bus Station or the former Herman Miller Factory in Bath (now a campus for Bath Spa University). We need to reach out to more architects, get them on board as members and supporters, and encourage them to talk to us more at pre-application stage when they are altering major C20 buildings.
What about current calls for “beauty”, do you think those voices are helpful, and how should we respond?
In the architectural world the word “beauty” has been claimed by traditionalists as synonymous only with their approach. This is plainly absurd – beauty can be apparent in any style or approach, and is both subjective and mutable. Everything can’t be ‘beautiful’ anyway – that’s like saying everything must be above average. What’s wrong with ‘good ordinary’, in whatever style? Architecture needs biodiversity, not monocultures. Hence my evocation of old and new Durham at the start of this. Good design, better materials and good craft skills are of course vital, but they are not the sole preserve of any one architectural persuasion, as the range of styles of twentieth century listed buildings demonstrates. It’s a bit of a febrile period right now but over time, all this will settle down, as style wars always do. Meanwhile, it’s our job to stay alert lest there are unfortunate casualties of the present faddishness.
How about C20 Society’s recent broad campaigns? Have you followed them and do you think they are working?
Yes, I’ve been particularly struck by the Department Stores campaign—a great response to “The Death of the High Street”. It’s good to see more developers now coming forward with conversion proposals. And I’m very concerned about the last generation of coal-fired power stations with their cooling towers. Drax near Selby is my favourite, I love the way it is an almost symmetrical grouping and how well it sits in the wider landscape. To see all those great industrial landmarks vanish forever would be tragic.
So what will be your priorities as Chairman?
Fundraising, never easy, has to be crucial—we need to be able to do more of what we do, more professionally, and that means being able to employ more staff, pay them properly and give them the resources to deliver. That includes good design, up to date communications and the ability to call in specialist help when needed (for planning inquiries, for instance, or to challenge dubious environmental claims). I’ll be looking to strengthen the board, and looking at ways to broaden the membership, many of whom are already actively involved: our volunteers are the best! I’d like more large architecture and design practices to join us, and I’d like to find common ground with the best property developers, working with them rather than being thought of as only oppositional.
To an extent we have to work ahead of public taste, identifying the best of the recent past at the moment when it may be at its most unfashionable. The raft of Millennium projects will be coming up to their 30-year anniversaries before too long. What and where will be the first 21st century listed building? This is why our members around the country are so vital. You really are our eyes and ears.
Having sat in already on most of the C20 committees and seen the work going on, I’m encouraged by the way this is fun as well as being a serious business. There’s a real joy, for instance, in our caseworkers unearthing a previously little-known gem of a building, or in successfully heading off insensitive alterations. Often it’s a matter of education, of enthusing others. And we have no shortage of enthusiasts.
Hugh’s most recent book is About Architecture: An Essential Guide in 55 Buildings (Yale University Press), 2023, available to order here.
Catherine Croft | C20 Director
One of the most expensive, ambitious and longest running C20 conservation cases the UK has ever seen is finally crossing the finish line. Battersea Power Station closed in 1983 and is at long last open to the public, and I’ve been along to check it out. C20 Society campaigned for literally decades to keep the sadly decaying building in the public eye, to see off numerous highly destructive proposals for the main structure itself, and curb the size and encroachment of the proposed adjacent development on its magnificent setting. We’ve consistently called for sensitive refurbishment and imaginative reuse, for a solution which works with the grain and character of the building, reinforcing its robust character. We campaigned for interim temporary work to make it wind and watertight, to halt decay and buy more time at stages when many felt that restoration was an unrealistic pipe dream. So is it now a triumph? Should it, or could it, have been different or better? And what can we learn from such a long trajectory for the buildings on our upcoming 2022 Risk List?
Firstly the positives. Sir Giles Gilbert Scott’s Grade II* masterpiece remains a London icon. Both the 1935 Art Deco Turbine Hall A, and the more austere fiancé of the 1950s Turbine Hall B have been restored and are filling with shops. Control Room B will be a cocktail bar, set in amongst the original dials. Working alongside Wilkinson Eyre, Conservation Architects Purcell have over seen “cleaning techniques to reverse the ‘patina of neglect’ present from thirty years of dereliction whilst maintaining the desired ‘patina of age and industry.’ They’ve achieved an excellent balance. The brickwork repairs are exemplary, with handmade replacement bricks sourced from the two firms which made the originals, the overall effect striking a good balance between old and new. Although C20 argued that the case for the reconstruction of the concrete chimneys wasn’t conclusive, the replicas are exact and alleviate all ongoing concerns about maintenance. The space in front of the power station is beautifully spacious with great views of the river, and the new tube link makes it easily accessible.
However, how much more we would be celebrating if a more socially beneficial new use for the building itself had been the final outcome, and if the amount of social housing on the site had come anywhere near the levels prescribed for developments in London. The social and cultural success of Tate Modern (Scott’s other London power station, which still remains unlisted) feels like the product of another world, and the comparison takes the edge off Battersea’s success. Battersea is a classy shopping mall, hemmed in by expensive flats which may or may not keep their value. Years of commercial speculation upped the site value and hence the need to maximise profits. Prolonged neglect of the building fabric caused repair costs to soar, and there is still a sense of a better future which might have been.
The lessons for the future must be to look for socially and environmentally sustainable solutions for the restoration of magnificent buildings, and to act fast, to minimise decay and maximise the options for positive conservation.
Interesting to see The Daily Mirror picking up on a story in the Liverpool Echo about the “’Legoland’ estate which went from dream to nightmare in only 15 years”. Noted for its “strange ‘washing machine’ porthole windows,” this was James Stirling’s Southgate Estate in Runcorn New Town (Cheshire).
Both newspapers finish up saying “While Southgate may have been short lived, photos from this bold architectural project still prompt debate over the decision to eradicate such a striking housing development.” Wow—that feels almost enthusiastic, or am I getting over excited? Whereas once a ‘look back” piece like this would have been totally condemning of crazed architectural hubris, and scornfully disinterested in the historic context and the laudable ambitions of such a scheme, something seems to have shifted. Not least, the articles are illustrated period shots of the estate on completion, including attractive furnished interiors with contented-looking tenants in-situ. There are no images of graffiti or vandalism at all. Could this be evidence that a public beyond C20 supporters might be starting to regret the loss of some of the best examples of Britain’s post war architecture? I really hope so.
When it was demolished in the early 90s, The Architects Journal called Stirling’s Runcorn housing “Britain’s Pruitt-Igoe”. The estate had only been completed in 1977 and comprised 1,500 residential units intended to house 6,000 people. Pruitt-Igoe was the 1950s Minoru Yamasaki designed slab-block housing scheme in St Louis, Missouri, whose blowing-up in the 70s was declared by critic Charles Jencks to signal the death of modernism. The British version of this reputedly iconic moment was nearly two decades late, rather less dramatic (no dynamite), and complicated by the fact that “Big Jim” had by that point moved on from modernism/high tech to postmodernism. But his standing as a RIBA Medallist and Pritzker Prize-winner helped make the story, it would have been even better had his impending knighthood been announced already.
For a more in-depth analysis of Southgate, I strongly recommend Hugh Pearman’s article in Flaskbak, not least as this starts out with a gripping account of a case of flagrant indecent exposure in one of those big round windows. He concludes that Southgate was “a project on the cusp of different approaches – stylistically anticipating the postmodernism of the Italian school. while incorporating high-tech elements, and constructionally combining heavyweight and lightweight techniques” which makes it a thought-provoking contributor to a more holistic, and less stylistically siloed interpretation of what was going on in the 70s through 90s.
Pearman’s article is important, too, as he states that “With hindsight, it is clear that all [the problems] could have been put right with better management and judicious alteration. For instance it quickly became apparent that the central band of duplexes in the sandwich, lacking their own gardens and somewhat overshadowed by the projecting apartments above, were unpopular. Accordingly Stirling and Wilford changed the design significantly for the final phase, reverting to homes with gardens at ground level. But revising the earlier phases was a course of action that seems scarcely to have been considered.”
The recent coverage blames the failure on the standard Alice Colman-inspired diagnosis of “deck-access apartments making surveillance difficult which led to problems with criminality”, so not everything is changing, and some of the posted comments are classic “concrete monstrosity-type rants of which this, from “Georgian52”, is my favourite example:
“Absolutely hideous modern architecture. The millions spent on this grey dystopian blandness….It really infuriates me when people say how wonderful these 60s modern housing estates were. The[sic] is one in london [sic], literally the properties are falling apart but people still have to live in them. These brutalist estates never worked and only became breeding grounds for everything you don’t want living in next door. Architects who designed these estates would never have wanted to live in them, themselves so why should anybody else find them decent places to live.[N.B. no question mark here]”
And this one shows equal contempt for both architects and planners, but then rather sweetly contradicts itself: “The architect wanted his project approved at all costs so he came up with some rubbish about it being ‘inspired’ by the Georgian squares of Bath and Edinburgh and the town planners were stupid enough to be impressed by that. Actually, I lived there for almost two years and we had a great time – but it really wasn’t suitable for families.”
Clearly there is still plenty for C20 to be doing, but maybe the Daily Mirror for once brings some cause for cautious optimism?
On the occasion of the release of the paperback version of Shelley Klein’s book The See-Through House published by @vintagebooks, we are delighted to be offering free copies of the book to three, randomly selected, lucky winners from our members and supporters..
To enter the giveaway: head over to one of our social media channels and simply tag a friend who also likes C20 architecture and design in our Instagram or Facebook comment fields of the posts about the giveaway or retweet our tweet about it.
The draw will take place in one week from today. Good luck!
NOTE: the giveaway is organised by the C20 Society and Vintage Books. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are in no way responsible for its content or the selection of the winners, and the giveaway is in no way sponsored, endorsed, administered by or associated with Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.
Know someone who loves C20 architecture and design? We are launching a new member offer that gives you the chance to nominate a friend to become a C20 Society member and both of you will receive 2 free tickets to an upcoming C20 Society lecture, tour or walk or a C20 Journal from our archive.
To enter, your friend should simply state your name and membership number in the comments box when they join. Example: ‘Nominated by member John Smith, no 12345’.
We will then email you both saying that we have received your friend’s nominated membership and ask you both to let us know which events you’d like a free ticket for or which Journal you’d like to receive.
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We are pleased to announce the theme of Autumn Lectures Series, starting October 21st: Mid-Century Modern.
Save the dates: lectures will take place on Thursdays at 6.30pm on 21st October, 28th October, 4th November, 11th November, 18th November, 25th November, 2nd December.
Alan Powers, who has convened the series, writes, ‘Depending on how far you stretch it, the term covers a broad slice of time. Does it mean anything special in terms of twentieth century architecture? Listening to our online lecture series this autumn, you may discover the answer, not just for Britain or Europe, but for more remote parts of the world, as we range with our expert guides into India, Sri Lanka, West Africa, Australia and Brazil. Architecturally, Mid-Century could be said to mark maturity in Modernism, when its youthful, risk-taking energy became more grounded in place and purpose. It was also a time of geographical expansion. Ex-colonial countries, discarding classicism, found new identities through public and private buildings, and architects displaced from Europe by war, such as Lina Bo Bardi, found new homes and professional arenas. It seems the right time to look at some of these other cultures, and to celebrate a great survivor of the period, Balkrishna Doshi, who will be 94 when Manon Mollard lectures about him.
For many people Mid-Century, with its handy label, is an entry point for enjoying modern architecture of all kinds. It is less easily characterised than ‘International’ Modernism of the 1920s, although many of the leaders of that moment joined in modifying their often manic technical and aesthetic convictions into more decorative, colourful shapes and textures, a Modernist equivalent of the Renaissance becoming Baroque. Peter Moro’s work on the interiors of the Royal Festival Hall offers a prime example. The term ‘Mid-Century’ usually implies the word ‘Modern’ as a suffix, but it is rarely pointed out how the negotiation between Modernism and the prevailing figurative architecture of the first decades of the century was a continuing theme and produced many original works of synthesis that filled the gaps in bombed cities, as Wolfgang Voigt will demonstrate in relation to post-war Germany.
The diversity and complexity of Mid-Century was challenged by younger architects yearning to return to rigorous and puritanical values under the banner of New Brutalism, and despite popularity, it has usually been treated by historians as an ‘also ran’ category. But if we accept that architecture is not a race with a winning post, we might instead sit by the trackside and simply enjoy the game for its own sake.’
The Isokon Gallery’s Agatha Christie and the Modernist War Years exhibition runs until the end of October 2022.
Leafing through the Lawn Road Flats’ tenants’ list for the year 1941, a new entry appears for Flat 20: “Mr and Mrs Mallowan”. Although registered under her married name, Mrs Mallowan was perhaps better known as Agatha Christie, the best-selling novelist of all time. The six years between 1941 and 1947 Christie spent living in the Hampstead flats, were amongst the most productive of her career. It was here in 1946 that she wrote the radio play which became The Mousetrap, the world’s longest-running stage play. It was also here that she killed her much-loved and eponymous hero, in Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case, a book which she kept locked in a bank vault for 30 years.
Designed by Canadian architect, Wells Coates, The Lawn Road Flats, now known as “The Isokon”, Britain’s first reinforced concrete apartment building, opened in 1934. Commissioned by entrepreneur Jack Pritchard and his psychologist wife, Molly (who wrote Coates’ brief), the 32 “Minimum Flats” were designed as a new experiment in social living. They were aimed at “young professional men and women earning around £500 a year”, who could move in with just “a vase, a rug and a favourite painting”. Inspired by Coates’ and Pritchard’s 1931 visit to Germany (where they had visited the Dessau Bauhaus and housing developments in Berlin and Stuttgart) the compact 25m² serviced apartments, consisted of a studio room, bathroom, dressing room and compact kitchen. Modular furniture could be purchased from Pritchard and Coates’ company, Isokon and meals were initially provided from a central kitchen – later replaced by the Isobar restaurant and dining club, run by Britain’s first television chef, Philip Harben. In 1934, Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius fled Nazi Germany and moved into the Flats, to be joined the following year by his colleagues Marcel Breuer and László Moholy-Nagy. Within a year of their opening, Pritchard had three of the greatest names of Modernism living in his new building and working for his fledgling Isokon Furniture Company. In 1936, Breuer designed a range of plywood furniture for Pritchard, including the Long Chair, short chair, nesting tables, a dining table and dining chair.
By the outbreak of the Second World War, Agatha Christie and her husband, the eminent archaeologist Max Mallowan had an extensive property portfolio. However, their London home, a four-storey detached house at 58 Sheffield Terrace in Kensington was damaged early in the Blitz and their country house, Greenway in Devon, was requisitioned by the Admiralty for the American navy. In Autumn 1940, Jack Pritchard had begun advertising the Lawn Road Flats, with its reinforced concrete structure, as “the safest building in London” and soon had a flood of new applicants, including the Mallowans. Christie already knew two of the tenants – Egyptologist Professor Stephen Glanville and the young architect and goldsmith, Louis Osman, who had carried out some alterations to her house in Wallingford in Oxfordshire. Osman, who had been awarded RIBA’s Donaldson Medal on graduating from the Bartlett, would later, design the Prince of Wales’ crown at his investiture in 1969.
Christie described the impression the Flats made as she approached them along Lawn Road:
“Coming up the street the flats looked just like a giant liner which ought to have had a couple of funnels, and then you went up the stairs and through the door of one’s flat and there were the trees tapping on the window.”
In March 1941, she and Mallowan moved first into Flat 20 and shortly afterwards into Flat 22. For the next year, Mallowan worked for the Directorate of Allied and Foreign Liaison, the intelligence branch of the RAF, while Christie (a qualified apothecary) took a job with the Voluntary Aid Detachment in the chemist’s dispensary at University College Hospital. Mallowan described their first Wartime year together in the Flats as “eventful, exciting and amusing”. In 1942, he was posted to Cairo. It was the first time in the decade since their marriage that the couple had lived apart. In her husband’s absence, Jack Pritchard allowed Christie to keep a Sealyham terrier, James, for company and she walked him on Hampstead Heath and took him into work at the dispensary at UCH. She recalled:
“Lawn Road Flats was a good place to be since Max had to be away. They were kindly people there. There was also a small restaurant with an informal and happy atmosphere. Outside my bedroom window, which was on the second floor, a bank ran along behind the flats planted with trees and shrubs. Exactly opposite my window was a big, white, double cherry tree which came to a gret pyramidal point.”
Christie buried herself in her writing, sometimes working on two books simultaneously. Although her study in Sheffield Terrace had been large enough to hold a Steinway grand piano, she adapted well to the modern, pared-back simplicity of her minimum flat furnished with Marcel Breuer’s plywood Isokon designs and found it conducive to her work. She wrote to her husband that she liked to:
“Lie back in that funny chair here which looks so peculiar and is really very comfortable, close my eyes and say, ‘Now where will I go to with Max?’ Often it is Leptis Magna or Delphi, or up the mound at Nineveh.”
Christie had accompanied Mallowan on his archaeological digs in the Middle East and studied photography at the Reimann School of Art and Design in London, in order to document his finds. She was a keen observer, who drew upon the people and places around her in her work. Her time at Lawn Road coincided with a fascinating cohort of international residents, who included the Czech designer Jacqueline Groag and her architect husband Jack Groag, Austrian architect and designer Egon Riss, the New Zealand political cartoonist David Low and Eva Collett Reckitt, founder of the left-wing bookshop Collets.
“I never found any difficulty writing during the War, as some people did,” she recalled.” I suppose because I cut myself off into a different compartment of my mind. I could live in the book amongst the people I was writing about, and mutter their conversations and see them striding about the room I had invented for them.”
N or M and Evil Under the Sun were published in 1941, followed by The Body in the Library in 1942, The Moving Finger in 1943 and Towards Zero in 1944. The book she was most proud of was Absent in the Spring, which she wrote in three days flat and published in 1944 as one of her Mary Westmacott novels. It was a psychological study about a woman alone in the desert. Death Comes to an End and Sparkling Cyanide were released in 1945 and The Hollow in 1946. Her short stories from this era included The Crime in Cabin 66 of 1943, and the Hercule Poirot adventures: Poirot and the Regatta Mystery; Poirot on Holiday; Problem at Pollensa Bay and the Christmas Adventure. The Veiled Lady and The Mystery of the Baghdad Chest arrived in 1944; Poirot Knows the Murderer in 1946. In addition, she penned an autobiographical memoir entitled Come, Tell Me How You Live in 1946, about her travels and archaeological work with her husband to Syria and Iraq.
The Lawn Road period is also significant for Christie’s successful dramatization of several of her works for the stage, including And Then There Were None… which opened at the St James’ Theatre in October 1943 and as Ten Little Indians on Broadway in June 1944. Appointment with Death premiered at the Piccadilly Theatre in March 1945 and Murder on the Nile which opened at the Ambassadors Theatre in March 1946.
As the War progressed, Pritchard painted the building, which was originally a Coates-specified shade of the palest pink, dark brown to camouflage it from the Luftwaffe. During the night-time air raids many residents left their flats and sheltered in the convivial atmosphere of the Isobar, drinking and dancing the night away. Christie, however, preferred to remain alone in her apartment: “face covered with a pillow as protection against flying glass, and on a chair by my side, my two most precious possessions, my fur coat and my hot water bottle…thus I was ready for all emergencies.”
Mallowan returned from Cairo in May 1945 and although by December Greenway had been derequisitioned, the couple kept Lawn Road as their London base. Keen to have more space, they asked Jack Pritchard if they could link Flats 16 and 17 by knocking down the party wall. He granted them this unique dispensation and they stayed on in the building until June 1947. The affection with which they regarded the Flats is revealed in a letter which Christie wrote to her husband.
“How odd to think that as I pass a funny old building like a liner I shall always look up at it and say to myself “I was happy there!” No beauty to speak of…but oh darling I did have so much happiness there with you.”
Agatha Christie wrote Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case during her War years at Lawn Road. Fearing for her own life and wanting to ensure her character met a fitting end, she locked it away for 30 years. Originally intended for release only after her death, it was published in 1975. Agatha Christie died the following year. Her books have sold over a billion copies in the English language and a billion in translation.