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.
An unusual concrete sculpture by Barbara Hepworth has been painstakingly restored and will feature in a forthcoming exhibition at the Hepworth Gallery, Wakefield.
Turning Forms was the first work that Barbara Hepworth made in concrete. It sat on a slowly rotating plinth, outside The Thameside restaurant, at the main South Bank Festival of Britain site, completing one stately revolution every two minutes. The restaurant was designed by Jane Drew (as partner in the firm Maxwell Fry & Jane Drew), who was an admirer of Hepworth’s work. Drew had a major role at the 1951 Festival, and was also responsible for the Harbour Bar and the Health and New Schools pavilions. She used her influence to secure direct Festival funding for a work she felt would complement her building especially well. Whilst most of the other sculptures, both at the South Bank and in Battersea Park, were commissioned by the Arts Council (including Hepworth’s better-known Contrapuntal Forms, in Irish blue limestone, which is now on the Glebelands housing estate in Harlow.) The Festival board paid for Turing Forms directly.
The list description for the work emphasises how dissimilar it is to much of the artist’s work, describing it as “an unusual kinetic composition, a helix structure originally made to turn by an electric motor. The constructivist composition has a strong affinity with the work of Naum Gabo, rare in Hepworth’s large-scale work.”
When the Festival closed, Turning Forms was given to Hertfordshire County Education Authority and sited in front of St Julian’s School, St Albans, in 1952 (now the Marlborough Science Academy). In October 2020, after nearly seventy years outside, it was moved to the Jackson Sculpture Conservation studio for major conservation work. Hertfordshire County Education Authority were pivotal in enabling the restoration.
Careful scientific analysis, research and information from the Hepworth estate showed that its original steel frame was made by F J Moore LTD of Plymouth, and coated with Vermiculite to form a comparatively lightweight rough core, which was transported to Hepworth’s Trewyn Studio. There the concrete was built up and carved back. The final surface finish was of Snowcrete with an applied wash of Snowcem. The conservators discovered that this was not a wash but a proper coherent applied layer. However, over the last ten years on site it had been refreshed with several layers of white Sandtext exterior paint.
Both Snowcrete and Snowcem were proprietary cement-based products developed by Blue Circle and a history of the firm provided more information:
Snowcrete was developed by the group in the 1920s. Here was something decorative, something to give boring old cement a bit of glamour. Initially manufactured at Magheramorne in Northern Ireland, it was subsequently made in West Kent on the Medway. Snowcrete brought the possibility of coloured cements and development was carried further to produce Colorcrete. During the Second World War further development was carried out following the Government’s request to produce a camouflage paint. This development led to the introduction of Snowcem, which was Snowcrete with some additives and was effectively a paint. For a time, it was enormously successful as other paints were largely unavailable. It was produced in plants in India, Thailand, Brazil and Singapore, and reached a peak output from Blue Circle plants of 10,000 tons a year in the early 1960s. For many years it was highly profitable for the Group but its growth declined with the advent of emulsion and resin-based paints.
Once the work was in the conservation studio, Tessa Jackson could assess the extent of cracks, mould growth, land losses to the surfaces, and pull a team together to enable her to restore it, of which I was excited to be part (drawing on my expertise/experience of historic concrete conservation). It was gently cleaned by Andy Coxall (cement specialist) using a ThermaTec steam cleaning system, a process originally developed for cleaning delicate architectural stonework. Andy Coxall also carried out concrete analysis and worked on the removal and replacement of large structural fills and advised on the concrete throughout.
After sufficient time for drying out Tessa was able to replace some areas of loss, and consider how best to reinstate the surface, to replicate the original effect as accurately as possible.
Amazingly Snowcem is still manufactured to the original formula, and Snowcem specialists David and Robert Buck from Northern Paints and Coatings came to the studio and applied the final layers to the work. Taking great care not to obscure the fine surface detail, they spray applied the product in two very fine layers which were later gently smoothed back to recreate the hand finish.
It’s now ready to head to Wakefield, where it will be shown alongside Hepworth works on other media. A particular objective of the exhibition is to draw on new research from the recently established Hepworth Research Network (HRN), in collaboration with the Universities of York and Huddersfield, into the ways material factors shaped Hepworth’s sculptures and how they related to her broader conceptual and aesthetic concerns. This will include how starting bronze casting in the 1950s enabled Hepworth to create new forms and how, later in life, she experimented with new materials such as lead crystal and aluminium. Also on display will be The Hepworth Wakefield’s unique collection of 44 surviving prototypes in plaster, aluminium and wood, many of which show the marks of Hepworth’s own hand and tools. These will be shown with a specially commissioned intervention by artist Veronica Ryan, the first artist to undertake a residency in Hepworth’s old studio in St Ives, where the prototypes once stood.
Sadly, it has not been possible to physically make Turning Forms rotate again, but there is a short film of it moving one rotation in 2 minutes made by Huddersfield University. There is also a documentary film being made by Royal society of sculptors. After the exhibition closes it will return once more to the Marlborough Science Academy. Its condition will be monitored, and any repairs needed carried out in a timely fashion.
Our recently published Top 10 Buildings at Risk list received great coverage in the media, including nearly a full page in the print edition of the Guardian (5th May) listing all 10 buildings plus online and in depth stories on the Architect’s Journal and Dezeen a lots of regional radio coverage. We are delighted with this reach and hope that it will galvanise relevant decision makers to rethink their plans.
Additional media coverage:
Brutwax, a London based company, creating hand-poured candles and other products with a focus on Brutalist aesthetics have announced that they will be donating 10% of their profits to C20 Society. We would like to thank Jamie and his team for considering C20’s casework as a cause to support. He has said: “we are incredibly proud to support C20 Society to help conserve the worlds irreplaceable Brutalist treasures. By committing to this, we attempt to help protect the very thing that inspired the product.” Their products take inspiration from the forms, textures and materials of Brutalist architecture and apply them to everyday home decor.
Each candle is hand-poured using an all natural wax, with a crackling wooden wick, and comes with a hand-poured and hand finished base, using a specially formulated, high strength concrete. The candles are around 160mm tall and weigh roughly 750g.
They have just launched a Kickstarter campaign which you can contribute to here.
Note: the money raised through the Kickstarter campaign will not be donated to charity. This campaign is to help raise funds for the start-ups initial production costs.
To celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Festival of Britain, which opened its doors to the public on 4th May 1951, we are offering our readers and supporters the chance to download The Festival of Britain South Bank tour by Elain Harwood, Annie Hollobone and Alan Powers, originally published in Festival of Britain journal (2001).
You can buy the full journal and support our casework for just £10 on our shop here.
You can catch-up on our recent Festival of Britain events here.
Festival of Britain South Bank Tour by Elain Harwood, Annie Hollobone and Alan Powers
Simon Phipps’ recent photographic survey, Brutal North (September Publishing, 2020) covers over 120 modernist buildings in the north of England, many of which can claim to be Brutalist and which are, sadly too often, unoccupied, in need of extensive repair or facing threat of demolition.
Taking the basic building information included the book, (which was written by Manchester School of Art’s Matthew Steele), our volunteer Lettie Mckie has compiled a project spreadsheet which we are using to generate illuminating graphs from the data collected, such as the cumulative listings over time and the number of listings by region and city. This research (which is still in progress) will help C20 track trends in the listing history of Brutalist Buildings in the North of England and help us focus future campaigning priorities.
We have been going back through the C20 case files, to ascertain the listing history of each building, checking the reasons for refusal in cases where listing has been turned down, often on several attempts, and analysing whether we have new information which means that a further application is worth pursuing. We have also been going through the planning records of each local authorities where a building is located, and noting down any significant alterations that have been made to it already, or if there are any plans for redevelopment. It has been most challenging trying to find out the current state of repair of a building, whether it has ever been coated or painted, or if the building was in fact constructed fully to its original designs, which can make a big difference to a case for listing.
The more information we can find out about the more accurate the overall picture. Please get in touch via email@example.com if you can help us fill in any of the blanks on the spread sheet which you can download below. We are particularly interested to hear of any current threats to buildings on the list, or any local campaigns that we might not be aware of. We also welcome any photographs of Brutalist buildings at risk.
C20 Brutal North Research Spreadsheet
Give monthly or one-off to the C20 casework fund to support our campaign to protect Brutalist architecture in the North of England
Readers of C20 Magazine may remember the house in Paris which we featured back in 2013 (issue 3). Maison Zilveli, was designed in 1933 by Jean Welz, a friend of both Le Corbusier and Adolf Loos. Our author, Peter Wyeth described his excitement at coming across the house, and his growing fascination with it as he researched its history. It was then in a state of extreme dilapidation, but Wyeth was optimistic that it could be sensitively refurbished and gain the recognition it deserved as a major work of early modernism in the city. He has become an increasingly vocal advocate for it.
Sadly, things have not proceeded as expected and there is now a very real threat that the building will be demolished and a replica constructed in its place. Wyeth describes the proposed replacement as “a cynical pastiche” and points out that it will have almost double the space and leave out key features. He is mounting a campaign against demolition, and calling upon architecture and conservation experts in France and abroad to write to Le Monde and lobby the French Minister of Culture.
We certainly agree that a replica of the house, however carefully constructed, would be an inadequate substitute for the genuine historic artifact, and that the case for demolition has not been justified. Although the house was built on uncompacted land, some of which has been subject to subsidence, a geophysical survey by the nearby Architecture school of Belleville, apparently shows no ‘caves’ under the house, a big advantage compared to a number of the neighbouring houses. Like many buildings of the period, the concrete was built with less cover to the reinforcement within than would be required today. This does mean that some of the reinforcement has corroded, and some elements of the building have sagged. However there is increasing knowledge and expertise to enable a conservation-led solution to address this, and to properly complete the job by reinstating the original elegant balcony.
Over a dozen international conservation architects and historians have written to the French Minister of Culture requesting a year’s stay of execution pending a professional assessment of the condition of the house.
Read Peter Wyeth’s article for Iconic Houses and C20 Magazine here.
Sign the petition to save the house.
Peter Wyeth’s has written a book: The Lost Architecture of Jean Welz, to be published in November by Doppelhouse Books, Los Angeles.
We are pleased to announce that our Director, Catherine Croft, has written a guided architectural tour of Elephant and Castle as part of Open City’s Pocket London Tours. The tour is suitable for walking or cycling and showcases examples of 20th century architecture in the area, built as part of an ambitious post-war reconstruction effort. It includes several striking buildings including Metro Central Heights, originally known as Alexander Fleming House, by Hungarian-born modernist architect Ernő Goldfinger and constructed in the early 1960s.
Those of you who have been on our very popular “Up the Elephant” C20 walks will know that C20 tour leader, Richard Walker, lives in the Goldfinger building and he has made the below video which gives you a sneak peak into the amazing lobby and his flat in the building itself!
Richard will also be hosting a walk for us on 12th June. Booking will open soon on our events page.
Become a C20 Society member and save money on our events and publications.
During this Art Deco Month initiative by The International Coalition of Art Deco Societies, we will be hosting a special virtual event about Art Deco in Britain with Elain Harwood.
Elain will talk about cinemas, seaside buildings, factories and other buildings in this most fantastic of styles, based on her book Art Deco Britain, published by Batsford.
We’re also running a competition to win copies of Elain’s book over on our Instagram.
NB: If you do not have Instagram, you can also email your answers to firstname.lastname@example.org.
We will draw two winners at random from amongst the correct answers we receive.
You can also check out the rest of the ICADS Art Deco Month programming here.
Competition Terms & Conditions: