Bohemians, Bauhaus and bionauts: the utopian dreams that became architectural nightmares

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Bohemians, Bauhaus and bionauts: the utopian dreams that became architectural nightmares
An imagined underwater colony, part of the General Motors’ Futurama 2 ride at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York
Bohemians, Bauhaus and bionauts: the utopian dreams that became architectural nightmares
An imagined underwater colony, part of the General Motors’ Futurama 2 ride at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York

The theme of the inaugural London Design Biennale is Utopia to mark the 500th anniversary of Thomas More’s classic

Lawn Road Flats in north London, also known as the Isokon building, is long and thin, with cantilevered exterior walkways that resemble the promenades on a ship. Built in 1934 by the Canadian architect Wells Coates, a follower of Le Corbusier, it was launched by the local MP, who smashed a bottle of beer (rather than champagne) on its rose petal pink facade. The four-story block, with its 32 “deck-access” apartments, was one of the first modernist buildings in Britain.

According to one resident it had a “Brave New World air about it”, and indeed it aimed to be a pioneering showcase for a new way of living in a modern age. The “minimum” flats were fully furnished and serviced, and all occupants shared a laundry, communal kitchen and the Isobar. “As young men, we are concerned with a future that must be planned, rather than a past that must be patched up, at all costs,” wrote Coates. The idealistic developer Jack Pritchard, who commissioned the architect, shared this unshakable modernist belief “that a rational, brave new approach to all problems would make for a better world”. Pritchard hoped similar buildings would soon replace working-class tenements all over London.

The Isokon was a modernist utopia made concrete, and its bohemian, leftist residents reflected many of the political battles of the age. The building was inspired by Pritchard and Coates’s visit to see Mies van der Rohe’s Weissenhof Estate in Stuttgart, a model community that included houses by Mies, alongside others by modernist pioneers such as Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier. The previous year Mies had built a controversial brick monument to the martyred German communist leaders Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, and his answer to the problem of mass housing was a socialist manifesto of sorts. […]

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