ExhibReview – The Isokon Gallery, London

The Isokon Gallery in Belsize Park tells the story of the Isokon Building’s experiment in urban living in the inter-war period providing a snapshot in time as to how the Pritchard’s, Wells Coates and those around them believed people could live together better in the urban environment. 
View of the Penthouse at the Isokon Building with Marcel Breuer and Isokon designed furniture.

View of the Penthouse at the Isokon Building with Marcel Breuer and Isokon designed furniture.

Since the birth of modernism, many artists, architects and philosophers have tried to create utopia when faced with the continued growth of the metropolis. Faced with this, some rejected the city. Charles Fourier’s vision in France of creating an agrarian based society in the nineteenth century or the Salvation Army’s colony on the Essex coast at Haleigh in the early twentieth are examples of utopian visions which removed society from the urban environment, seeing the rural environment as the best suited for utopianism. The city is often described as isolating, dirty, claustrophobic and stressful, but these characterisations often used to describe urban life, surely, can also be applied to rural life? With population and metropolitan growth following the industrial revolution and continuing to the present day, for many, rejecting the urban environment is not an option.  The city has its benefits. It often provides convenience, spaces for different cultures to thrive and is at the forefront of modern technology. For those who saw the benefits of the city and have attempted to create utopia within the city, the twentieth century has had many varied and creative ideas. Peter and Alison Smythson’s Robin Hood Garden’s had “streets in the sky” big enough for milk carts to drive down and Goldfinger’s Balfron Tower placed residents on similar “streets in the sky” this time placing residents in same street configurations where they previously lived in the slums.

The Isokon Building did not try to recreate the existing city in a new configuration like these two projects listed above, instead, it created a whole new way of life which answered many of the struggles of living in the modern city in 1934. By modern standards the flats feel small, either built for single or double occupancy with the main living space devoid of the large kitchen that is central to the home of the twenty-first century.  Although this may feel outdated now, the large communal kitchens designed for the ground floor for meals and the relatively small number of flats in the Isokon building (thirty-four) provides a sense of the created a sense of community, which is so easily lost in today’s apartment buildings. This is exemplified by the significant array of famous residents who flourished in the environment Isokon provided. The range of communal services and efficient use of internal storage catered for the needs of those living in the city. This was not the family house to raise children but in fact the urban dwellers “crash pad”. The height of the building places it only one or two floors higher than the townhouses further up Lawn Road that creates an impression of a reserved building, one considerate to the proportions of the existing community. However this is not a building that is apologetic for place in time. Its sharp lines and concrete structure provide a strong marker to its place in history and about how it tried to change the way people lived in the city. Isokon’s utopianism will be remembered not only through its architecture, but by the residents who thrived in the environment its radical environment.

 The Isokon Gallery is open Saturdays and Sundays from 11am-4pm from March to October and entry is free.

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