The Isokon flats

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I mentioned the Isokon building in my recent post on Modernist houses in Hampstead. But I thought that the building deserved its own, more detailed post.

Designed by the Canadian architect, Welles Coates, they’re located on Lawn Road, a leafy residential street close to the Hampstead Free Hospital, they’re also known as the “Lawn Road Flats”.

Picture source: Museum of London website

It’s an outstanding Modernist building.

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Coates was commissioned in 1931 to build the flats by Jack and Molly Pritchard who were the owners of “Isokon” a design company they’d established the previous year.  His brief was to design a block of service flats, built to a standard plan, which would be fitted out with Isokon designed furniture.  The block was completed in July 1934. The design was heavily influenced by the ideas of Le Corbusier – it was meant to be “a machine for living”

Aimed at young professionals the flats were made of reinforced concrete with dramatically cantilevered sculptured stairways and access galleries. Coates felt that furniture should be an integral part of architecture and all essential furniture and equipment was built-in. Each flat included a sliding table, a divan with a spring mattress and cover, a radiator, linoleum floor finish, light fittings, a wash basin with a mirror and a glass shelf, a hanging cupboard with a long mirror, a dressing table with drawers and cupboards beneath, an electric cooker, refrigerator, sink and draining board, refuse container and cupboard space.

The original services included hot water and central heating, cleaning and bed making with meals provided in a central kitchen.

(Design Museum website)

The communal kitchen on the ground floor was converted to restaurant and bar, the Isobar,  which was designed by the Bauhaus émigré Marcel Breuer, in 1936. Although the Isobar was popular for a while, before WW2, with the “Hampstead Set”, the communal facilities weren’t popular and were eventually converted into more flats.

The flats were originally intended to be occupied by “young professionals”  – according to Coates they were designed

“with special reference to the circumstances of the bachelor or young married professional or businessperson.” (source here)

However, in practice, the building attracted a number of Hampstead intellectuals and former residents include the author Agatha Christie, Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus.

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It’s distinctive features are the cantilevered balconies which run along the full length of the building on all the floors, and the tower and entrance hall at one end.

Agatha Christie described the building as “a giant liner without any funnels” and I think she had a point., To me,  the design is very typically “streamline moderne” i.e. an architectural style emphasized curving forms, long horizontal lines, and sometimes nautical elements” (Wikipedia). I felt there were similarities with the design of the Midland Hotel in Morecambe, built during the same period.

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There’s a floor plan of the building here which shows how compact the individual flats are.

After WW2 the building went into a period of decline. For a short period the building was owned by the New Statesman magazine but were transferred to Camden Council in 1972. They allowed the flats to continue to deteriorate but they have been recently was refurbished by Notting Hill Home Ownership (NHHO), Avanti Architects with Alan Conisbee Associates as structural engineers and the Isokon Trust. The building now houses 25 shared ownership flats for key workers and 11 for private homes. So they are finally fulfilling their original purpose.

A number of other bloggers have written about the flats, including

London Bytes

Insideology

Studio 325

and there is further information here, here and here

The Four Courts, Dublin

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This attractive neo-classical building that stands on the banks of the Liffey in the west end of Dublin city centre is the historic Four Courts building. It was originally built between 1786 and 1802. I say originally as the building was pretty much destroyed in 1922 during the Irish Civil War (it had previously survived the 1916 Easter uprising when the rebels had occupied it).  It was rebuilt to the original design, although many features, particularly in the interior, were lost.

For more information on the history and architecture of the Four Courts, click here.

The Crown Hotel, Liverpool

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This very distinctive Grade II listed building is one of the first things you see when you leave Lime Street Station in Liverpool. On the corner of Lime Street and Skelhorne Street, it’s a rare example of a British Art Nouveau building.

Art Nouveau was very much a continental movement, reflecting the rise of a dynamic new middle class and Nationalist movements trying to make their mark in countries such as France, Belgium, Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Finland at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th Centuries. In Britain we had the Arts and Crafts Movement and the work of Rennie Mackintosh, but, in their own time, they had a limited audience for their work. And classic AN style buildings are few and far between in Britain. But the Crown Hotel is one of them.

According to the Liverpool Daily Post

It’s a Victorian toff of a pub that’s been dressed to kill to make it welcome for the passing train trade brigade.

After a little research I came across a page on the BBC website that reveals that the pub was built in 1859 in the neo-Classical style typical of many Victorian era buildings.

The Crown Pub taken in the 1890s

Picture source: BBC Website

It was remodelled in 1905 in the Art Nouveau style when it was taken over by Walker’s of Warrington and looks quite different than its original appearance. It has fancy bow windows with stained glass on both sides facing the street,

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and ornate signs with Art Nouveau style lettering.

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I’ve never ventured inside the pub, but I understand that its also quite ornate with oak panelling, stained glass and a gilded plaster ceiling. I’ll have to pop in for a look next time over in the ‘pool.

Blackwell, Arts and Crafts House

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It’s been a busy week. On Wednesday we went up to Cumbria. In the morning we went to see the latest exhibition at the Abbot Hall Gallery and the, in the afternoon, drove the few miles over to Blackwell, the Arts and Crafts house near to Bowness that’s also owned by the Lakelands Art Trust.

Built at the turn of the 20th Century as a holiday home for the Mancunian Brewery tycoon, Edward Holt,  on a hill overlooking Lake Windermere, its a superb example of a house built in the English Arts and Crafts Movement style. The architect was Mackay Hugh Baillie Scott and, according to the Blackwell website

Blackwell offered him the opportunity to put his ideas on the use of space, light and texture into practice on a grand scale and, perhaps, to experiment in ways which might not have been possible had the property been intended as the client’s main home, rather than a holiday home.

The house is orientated east west with the main windows on the south side to capture the light, although the best views are to the west, towards Lake Windermere and the fells.

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I guess the holidaying occupants were not too interested in sitting staring at the views when they were inside the house. The priority seems to have been to get the light in. However, the opportunity to sit and admire the view is available in the Drawing room at the south end of the house. They could also enjoy the view while sitting on the terrace.

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The exterior of the house is not particularly exceptional. I guess the best description of it’s style is “vernacular” with it’s stuccoed walls and steep pitched roof. There is certainly no symmetry or deliberate, harmonious Palladian proportions. Baillie Scott’s primary concern seems to have been designing a house that worked – a case of “form following function” and this has determined the shape of the building and the size and positioning of windows which from outside appear to be placed almost at random.

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Although the exterior is relatively plain, but looking closely, the application of philosophy of the Art and Crafts Movement to create beautiful objects can be seen in the intricate decoration of the drainpipes.

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and the Gothic style front door

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The main priority of the design of the house was the interior, which has been exceptionally well restored by the Trust. They were lucky in that many of the original features have been preserved and the Trust have acquired furniture, objects and fine art consistent with Baillie Scott’s original designs and ideas about the layout so that the interior (downstairs at least) probably looks very much as the architect intended.

It wasn’t permitted to take photographs inside – although you can download some photographs from the Trust’s website here. But one Blogger, who’s an architect, has managed to get away with it and there are some good pictures and commentary here. He also visited and photographed another Arts and Crafts house, Broad Leys, designed by Charles Voysey which is nearby. It’s interesting to see how they compare.

The centrepiece of the house is the Medieval inspired great hall. Although the medieval and Elizabethan influence is clear to see – half timbered, it even has a small “minstrel’s gallery”- there are many “Art Nouveau” style features – the peacock frieze on the upper part of the wall at the end nearest the dining room, the copper lampshades, stained glass and the magnificent fireplace in it’s  “inglenook”. Inglenooks are recessed fireplaces almost forming a small room within a room. These must have been a speciality of Baillie Scott as these are exceptional features in all the main downstairs rooms. He incorporates windows and seating and they must have been very cosy places to sit and read or talk on a cold damp Lakeland day.

The design of the fireplace in the hall and in the dining room is a blend of modern and traditional. The surround is very modern with interlocking dark and light stones which slot together like pieces of a jigsaw, but he has used Delft style tiles to surround the grate.

The dining room has a very dark decor, which reminded me very much of those in Rennie Mackintosh’s reconstructed house at the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow and his “House for an Art Lover”. Besides the fireplace, the other outstanding feature was the hand printed hessian wall covering. It’s amazing that it is still in such wonderful condition after all these years.

My favourite room was the white drawing room at the west end of the house. This is a very “modern” rather than traditional room – very “Art Nouveau”. Light floods in and there is a magnificent view over Lake Windermere and the Coniston fells. There’s another beautiful recessed fireplace and I particularly liked the ceiling and the spindly columns with the decorated capitals, which all seemed to be different.

I found the following picture of the fireplace in the drawing room on Wikipedia.

File:Blackwell - White Room Fireplace - geograph.org.uk - 546780.jpg

Picture source: geograph.org.uk via Wikipedia (The copyright on this image is owned by Rob Farrow and is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.

I thought there were many similarities with Rennie Mackintosh’s House for an Art Lover which we visited last year

and also his Hill House (now owned by the National Trust for Scotland)

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with the vernacular style exteriors and with a very similar approach to interior design.

Express building, Manchester

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I was in Manchester Northern Quarter on Saturday and decided to pop over to Great Ancoats Street to take a look at the former Daily Express print works, a Grade II listed building. Opened in 1939, it’s an excellent example of a 1930’s Modernist structure. I first visited it on business over 20 years ago when it was still a working print works. However, the Daily Express stopped production in Manchester in the 1980’s and today it’s been converted into residential properties and offices.

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It’s a simple box like structure completely covered with glass – plain and opaque black. Originally the plain glass was transparent and the printing machinery could be seen from outside. It’s been replaced with reflective glass to create privacy for the new residents.

The corners are rounded, giving the building a streamlined appearance, so it could be considered to be “streamline moderne” in style. Although it is over 70 years old it has a very modern look and could easily be mistaken for a much more modern building.

The Midland Hotel, Morecambe

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I finally got around to going to visiting the Midland Hotel in Morecambe. Its a striking Modernist building dominating the sea front at the south end of the resort, built in the 1930’s. A fashionable place to stay before in the late 1930’s, it fell into disrepair after the war. It was renovated by the Manchester based development company, Urban Splash, reopening as a “boutique hotel” in 2008. It is now owned by the Lakeland Hotels chain.

It is often referred to as an “Art Deco” building, but that isn’t strictly true. Art Deco was a decorative and ornamental , rather than an architectural, style, although there are plenty of buildings with Art deco styling . The exterior of the has very little decoration. It is a simple, plain but elegant, white building without the ornamentation associated with Art Deco. It’s style is better described as “Streamlined Moderne” –  i.e. an architectural style emphasized curving forms, long horizontal lines, and sometimes nautical elements” (Wikipedia). The long, curved form of the Midland, which, from a distance, could be mistaken for an ocean liner, certainly meets that definition.

The architect was Oliver Hill. Although his early designs were in the Arts & Crafts style, he later began to design modernist style buildings. The Midland Hotel is his most well known commission. I found the following details on the construction of the building on the BBC website

“The building was constructed around steel frames with concrete slab floors and brick walls resting on shallow foundations which spread the load across the sandy surface of the site.  The walls were faced with white rendering composed of cement and carborundum, electrically polished to produce a surface resembling marble. This was relieved by the architraves of the principal windows which were treated with a mixture of carborundum and crushed blue glass.  The soffits of the projecting ledges and the undersides of the balconies were glazed in blue-green. “

The hotel stands on the sea front near the recently renovated “Stone Jetty”, the convex side facing the sea, and is flanked by well kept  public garden on it’s north side.

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A glass structure runs along the front of the hotel at ground floor level. This wasn’t an original feature. A conservatory seems to have been added some time during the 1970’s. It was probably considered to be needed to allow guests to sit looking at the sea and the mountains over the bay on a cold day. That appears to have been demolished and replaced by the current structure during the renovation. From photographs I’ve seen the original conservatory spoiled the lines of the building. The replacement is predominately glass and is less obvious. I don’t think it is too detrimental to the look of the hotel.

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Another significant change made by Urban Splash during the renovation was the addition of a number of penthouses on the roof. I can understand why they were added. The hotel only has 44 bedrooms and suites, including these penthouses, and so they were probably needed to make the hotel a viable concern. However they obstruct the view of the tower and, to me, spoil the look of the building to some extent.

The entrance is on the concave east side of the building facing the car park and the former railway station, the hotel being originally owned by the London, Midland and Scottish Railway Company. The main feature on this side of the hotel is a central circular tower which protrudes slightly above the roof line of the main part of the building. It houses the principal stairwell – a spiral staircase – and contains the front entrance. It has three long narrow windows extending above the door up to a few feet below the top of the tower.

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Just above these windows are the only significant decorative elements on the outside of the building – two seahorses carved by Eric Gill. They are meant to resemble Morecambe Bay shrimps and are used as a motif by the hotel.

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Eric Gill also produced three other significant works of art for the hotel which are still displayed inside. Directly behind the reception desk there is a large stone bas-relief based on a story from Homer’s Odyssey. It shows Odysseus being welcomed from the sea by Nausicaa.

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At the top of the stairwell is a medallion of Neptune and Triton accompanied by two mermaids, designed and carved by Gill and painted by Denis Tegetmeier, his son-in-law. It is edged with the words “And hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn“. The medallion is 10 feet in diameter and can be clearly seen from the bottom of the stairwell. Guests can get a closer view, but interlopers like us are prohibited from climbing up the stairs. It was restored and repainted during the renovation.

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On the wall of the function room behind the Reception, there is a large map Gill created of the Lancashire and Cumbrian coastline centred on the hotel and extending from Whitehaven in the north down to Birkenhead. I like the cheeky way he has smoke from the Royal Scot steam train drifting over towards Blackpool (Morecambe’s rival) and down over Southport (another rival resort) and Liverpool. Morecambe and the Lake District are unaffected, suggesting that they’re clean areas away from the smoke and grime of industrial Lancashire.

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At the north end of the hotel there is a circular structure that houses the Rotunda Bar. The interior was originally painted by another well-known artist of the time, Eric Ravilious. However, this deteriorated very soon after the hotel was opened. Today the bar has been fitted out in a modern style.

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The textile designer Marion Dorn created striking hand-knotted rugs featuring a directional pattern of waves for the entrance lounge. These have been recreated for the renovated hotel.

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The new owners of the hotel haven’t opted for an “Art Deco” design for the interior, which has a more contemporary look.

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Despite the modifications to the original design, I think that the the Midland Hotel is a beautiful building. An outstanding example of 1930’s Modernist architecture that needed to be preserved.

Friends of the Midland Hotel

Watch: Tom Dyckhoff has a look round the Hotel (BBC)

Watch: Beth Rowley performs at the Midland Hotel (BBC)