In fiction, poetry or song, houses are treated as living organisms. They are noble, respectable, or infamous. There are houses of high rank and those of low repute – houses have human characteristics and their individual biographies.
The Isokon Building in Hampstead tells a striking tale of recent historical events. At the time of completion, it was one of the few modernist dwellings in London’s cityscape; the block of flats housed a number of notable refugees from Nazi Germany; almost simultaneously it served as a recruitment office for Soviet spies. Crucial aspects of post-war American cultural and political developments originated in a few flats in this leafy corner of North West London.
Bauhaus in Dessau
With the conclusion of the First World War, ideas emerged how architecture could contribute to restoring the physical and mental health of a battered post-war generation. More urgently, hundreds of thousands of people needed to be re-housed throughout Europe.
As poor housing and lack of hygiene were linked to tuberculosis and flu pandemics, the need was stressed for rationally designed buildings. Traditional materials of brick and wood made way for steel (strength), concrete (resistance), and glass (light). Necessity overrode outdated notions of beauty; functionality and social welfare coincided in this approach. Innovative construction techniques were introduced by architects and designers of the Bauhaus School.
Founded in 1919 by Walter Gropius in Weimar, Bauhaus was a haven for avant-garde artists. The founder’s aim was to bring together art and technology in order to construct a compassionate and peaceful society. Modernism was there to serve humanity.
A war veteran, Gropius was driven by the idea that Bauhaus should lead the re-building of his shattered country. In 1925, after the school’s financial support was cut at the instigation of politically hostile forces, he relocated Bauhaus to Dessau, an industrial town southwest of Berlin, and constructed a new college. A gleaming glass and concrete complex of interrelating structures, it provided a stimulating environment to an international group of students who were motivated by a single purpose: the creation of modernist art and architecture.
Once the Nazis won political power, Bauhaus was in trouble. Hitler’s hatred of modern architecture was aimed at the movement’s ‘cosmopolitan rubbish’. Internationalism was obscured by a racially motivated populist movement (völkische Bewegung) with an ideology based on the myth of Aryan superiority which was spread by the slogan Germany First (Deutschland über alles).
In 1933 the school was closed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the last director of Bauhaus, having refused to accept the Nazi demand for the dismissal of Jewish colleagues. A year later modern art was condemned as “un-German” and “Bolshevist.” Bauhaus went into exile.
Bauhaus in Britain
In 1929, London-born entrepreneur Jack Pritchard founded a firm to design modernist dwellings with in-built furniture and fittings named the Isokon Company (a portmanteau for Isometric Unit Construction). He also managed the British branch of the Estonian plywood company Venesta.
In 1931 Pritchard and London-based Canadian architect Gordon Wells-Coates met Gropius during a visit to Bauhaus. Impressed by the vision that underpinned the teaching at the school, they exhibited a “Minimum Flat” (containing built-in equipment and plywood furniture) at the British Industrial Art Exhibition at Dorland Hall, Regent Street, in September 1933.
The promising response to the design made them decide to push on with the construction of the Lawn Road Flats (later named the Isokon Building). The first British residential structure to be built from reinforced concrete, this four-storey block became the firm’s flagship project. Its opening in July 1934 followed the closure of Bauhaus in Dessau. For its participants, London was the first port of call.
The Lawn Road flats provided a refuge to Gropius and László Moholy-Nagy first. Both men were employed by Isokon, the former acting as controller of design, the latter providing promotional materials and the design of the company’s logo. They were followed by designers Marcel Breuer and Egon Riss. The first contributed the iconic Long Chair; the second created the celebrated Penguin Donkey Bookcase. Isokon ceased production in 1939 when the Soviets invaded Estonia and confiscated the Venesta plywood company.
The presence of Bauhaus attracted like-minded modernists to Hampstead. Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, and Piet Mondrian spent time socializing at the building’s Isobar. Henry Moore occupied a Lawn Road Flat himself. Gropius and his allies planned to establish a British version of Bauhaus, but were unable to secure financial backing. The country was not ready for foreign “evangelists” with a passion for harsh lines and sharp corners. America offered an alternative.
Bauhaus in America
After Hitler’s rise to power, Mies van der Rohe moved directly to the United States to head the architecture school at Chicago’s Armour Institute of Technology (later Illinois Institute of Technology). He designed numerous apartments and offices and was responsible for erecting the Seagram Building at Park Avenue, Manhattan.
Turned down for a teaching job at the Royal College of Art, Moholy-Nagy made a living by taking on design jobs. In 1937 he moved to Chicago where he became Director of the New Bauhaus, before opening his own Institute of Design two years later. Also in 1937, Gropius accepted the appointment as Chair of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. His former student Marcel Breuer followed him to join the faculty.
With the emigration of Bauhaus members, the modernist idea was transplanted into another cultural sphere. Forms of expression changed, but it remained a merging of pre-existing pursuits and patterns. Bauhaus artists became successful at disseminating their ideas and designs. They were instrumental in the shaping of New York’s physical landscape.
Breuer in particular left a legacy of vanguard concrete architecture. In 1966, his design for the original building of the Whitney Museum was completed. More significantly, five years earlier he had seen the opening of his Begrisch Hall at Bronx Community College with its challenging concrete trapezoidal structure.
In Dessau, Bauhaus had started an inspiring period with the launch of Gropius’s university building. Nearly four decades later, his pupil Marcel Breuer closed the circle by designing a similar educational establishment for the city where their movement had found a second home.
Agatha Christie too occupied a flat at Lawn Road. During her residency she wrote N or M? – her only spy novel (published in New York in 1941). After a day’s work she would recline her “peculiar” Marcel Breuer lounge chair. Ironically, the Isokon Building had been a hotbed of underground political activity some years before her arrival.
After the departure of Bauhaus artists, the flats attracted more secretive occupants. Czech-born Arnold Deutsch had studied chemistry at the University of Vienna where he became a communist. In October 1934 he traveled to Britain for research at the University of London. His studies served as cover for espionage work; his claim to be an observant Jew was a means to disguise his role as a Soviet agent.
At Lawn Road, he initiated an effective recruitment strategy. Among academics he attracted to the cause were Kim Philby, Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess, and Anthony Blunt, later identified as the Cambridge Four. Using the code name Otto, Deutsch controlled the spy ring from 1934 until 1937 when he was recalled to Moscow.
Jürgen Kuczynski had been an outstanding student at Berlin University, before undertaking post-graduate studies at Washington’s Brooking Institution from 1926. He returned to Germany in 1929, settled in Berlin, and joined the Communist Party. Having been involved in anti-Fascists activities, he moved to London in January 1936. He set up home in the Isokon Building and became the leader of exiled German communists in Britain.
Jürgen was interned by the British authorities, but released following his recruitment by the US Intelligence Services. At the same time he spied for the Soviet Union and introduced the banished physicist Klaus Fuchs to his sister Ursula [Ruth]. She became Fuchs’s commanding officer when he communicated secrets to the Russians from the Atomic Research Laboratory in Los Alamos. In 1945, Lieutenant-Colonel Kuczynski returned to Europe and was stationed in West Berlin’s American sector. He remained a Marxist and eventually became a prominent academic and influential player in East German politics.
Agatha Christie vacated her flat in 1947. All utopian idealism associated with the erection of the original building was pulverized under the sledgehammer of Cold War reality. The block fell into neglect and eventually lay derelict. It took time for local authorities to come to their senses. In 1999 the Isokon Building was listed as a structure of significant heritage value. It was only then that the life story of the Lawn Road flats unfolded.
Photos, from above: Walter Gropius’s Bauhaus building, Dessau; Jack Pritchard in Marcel Breuer’s long chair and Riss’s Donkey bookcase; Renovated Lawn Road flats, 2014; Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram building at Park Avenue, Manhattan; Marcel Breuer’s Begrisch Hall; and First edition (1941) of N or M?, the spy novel printed in New York.