Time was when most Londoners lived in houses, now most of us live in flats. And the building that kickstarted that change, it can be argued, was a concrete block in Belsize Park.
The IsokonBuilding on Lawn Road was completed in 1934, the brainchild of Jack and Molly Pritchard. They were designers by trade, mostly of furniture, but wanted to create somewhere completely different to live. What they came up with was a sleek block of flats built from reinforced concrete, unheard of at the time. There were 32 flats in total across four floors, each accessed via an external walkway - another pioneering first. The kitchens were on the small side, but that was fine because there was a communal kitchen on site with a dumb waiter to bring up the meals. Up top was a penthouse, which the Pritchards took for themselves, and downstairs an amazingly eclectic mix of artists, designers and socialites moved in. One of these was Walter Gropius, German architect of the Bauhaus, fleeing from increasingly intolerant conditions in Nazi Germany. And at least four foreign secret agents became tenants, easily disguised amongst the bohemian foreigners on the slopes below Hampstead.
It wasn't long before the communal kitchens became a restaurant - wittily named the Isobar - cementing the Isokon's status as a cultural meeting place. In 1940 the block's most famous resident moved in, none other than Agatha Christie, whose output during the ensuing six years included Sparkling Cyanide and the spy whodunnit N or M? But postwar the building's sparkle faded, entering council ownership in 1972 and falling gently into a state of disrepair. English Heritage Grade I listed the Isokon around the turn of the century, at which time a housing trust took over and restored the building. Rejoice, it's not all been snapped up by oligarchs, it's now shared ownership housing, and rather more affordable than you might expect.
Andit'sbeautiful. The Isokon stands out from the neighbouring housing like a sleek off-white ocean liner, improbably moored up in the shadow of the Royal Free. Every line is clean and measured, if semi-obscured behind a canopy of trees. And no, you can't sneak up the stairwell to walk along the well-scrubbed balcony, this is a private residence after all. But as of this summer you can go inside the garage, which has been kitted out as The Isokon Gallery. Open Saturdays and Sundays, 11am-4pm, should you be in the area or tempted over. [video][5 photos]
It's not a big space, but there is room inside for a free exhibition on the history of the building nextdoor. Rest assured it's detailed too - the National Trust's had a hand in its curation - combining information with artefacts from the top. Chief amongst these is a set of plywood furniture from the Pritchards' design company, Isokon, perhaps most famous for their angular Long Chair. Also present is a Penguin Donkey Bookcase, a striking low shelf unit with space for 90 Penguin paperbacks and centrally-stashed magazines. It should have been a roaring success but World War Two interrupted after only 100 had been produced, and the plywood supply chain was cut. Budding 21st century Modernists can now buy their own from a revamped Isokon company based in Hackney, but at £670 a shot you'd have to be particularly keen.
Further displays reveal how the building came to be as well as some of its famous residents. Peruse a menu from the Isobar, from an era when Stewed Rabbit and Camp Coffee were deemed socially palatable. A period radio belts out period songs to stir the soul while you glance at period adverts. The penthouse's original copper-coated door is in one corner alongside a recreation of an apartment's kitchen - tiny by modern standards, indeed the walls had to be shifted by 10cm during modernisation to ensure a fridge would fit. A map shows where to find similar Modernist treasures scattered around the Hampstead area. And there's also a small shop stocked with appropriately progressive books, badges and gifts, in case you're already wondering what to get the designeroholic in your life for Christmas.
The Isokon Gallery's only open at weekends and only until October, so don't come without checking it's open first. And it's only a fifteen minuter, but don't let that put you off because there's plenty of other stuff to see nearby. Immediately behind the Isokon is Belsize Wood, a small but perfectly formed nature reserve whose trees have blessed the residents' lounge window views for 80 years. Hampstead Heath's just up the road, as are Burgh House, Keats House and Fenton House, each of which is worth a look. Me, I paid a quid for the Gallery's Hampstead Trail, a map which led me round half a dozen 1930s Modernist houses in the immediate locality. Ernő Goldfinger's home at 2 Willow Road I know well, but the others less so, hence I enjoyed my reinforced concrete tour of the backstreets of Frognal. You'll no doubt know if you would too.