The Lawn Road Flats

The Lawn Road Flats: Spies, Writers and Artists

David Burke
Volume: 3
Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 256
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7722/j.ctt4cg6k5
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  • Book Info
    The Lawn Road Flats
    Book Description:

    The Isokon building, Lawn Road Flats, in Belsize Park on Hampstead's lower slopes, is a remarkable building. The first modernist building in Britain to use reinforced concrete and architecture, its construction demanded new building techniques. But the building was as remarkable for those who took up residence there as for the application of revolutionary building techniques. There were 32 Flats in all, and they became a haunt of some of the most prominent Soviet agents working against Britain in the 1930s and 40s, among them Arnold Deutsch, the controller of the group of Cambridge spies who came to be known as the "Magnificent Five" after the Western movie The MagnificentSeven; the photographer Edith Tudor-Hart; and Melita Norwood, the longest-serving Soviet spy in British espionage history. However, it wasn't only spies who were attracted to the Lawn Road Flats, the Bauhaus exiles WalterGropius, László Moholy-Nagy and Marcel Breuer; the pre-historian Gordon Vere Childe; and the poet (and Bletchley Park intelligence officer) Charles Brasch all made their way there. A number of British artists, sculptors and writers were also drawn to the Flats, among them the sculptor and painter Henry Moore; the novelist Nicholas Monsarrat; and the crime writer Agatha Christie, who wrote her only spy novel N or M? in the Flats. The Isokon building boasted its own restaurant and dining club, where many of the Flats' most famous residents rubbed shoulders with some of the most dangerous communist spies ever to operate in Britain. Agatha Christie often said that she invented her characters from what she observed going on around her. With the Kuczynskis - probably the most successful family of spies in the history of espionage - in residence, she would have had plenty of material. DAVID BURKE is ahistorian of intelligence and international relations and author of The Spy Who Came In From the Co-op: Melita Norwood and the Ending of Cold War Espionage (The Boydell Press, 2009).

    eISBN: 978-1-78204-235-8
    Subjects: History, Architecture and Architectural History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-v)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vi-viii)
  4. Foreword
    (pp. ix-xii)
    Christopher Andrew

    I first discovered Lawn Road Flats in Hampstead while working on a history of KGB foreign operations in the late 1980s with Oleg Gordievsky, a KGB officer who had worked for eleven years as an agent of the British Secret Intelligence Service (better known as SIS or MI6), supplying it with a remarkable range of KGB documents and other top-secret intelligence. Gordievsky greatly impressed the ‘Centre’ (KGB headquarters) as well as SIS. In 1985 he was appointed head (‘resident’) of the KGB’s London station (‘residency’), one of the most important foreign postings in Soviet intelligence. Soon after his appointment, however,...

  5. Acknowledgements
    (pp. xiii-xiii)
  6. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. xiv-xvi)
  7. Dramatis personae
    (pp. xvii-xxii)
  8. Prologue
    (pp. 1-4)

    Lawn Road Flats, also known as the Isokon building, comprises 32 units of equal size in Lawn Road, Belsize Park, North London.¹ It was, and remains, a remarkable building with an equally remarkable history.

    The name, Isokon arose from the architect Wells Coates’ use of isometric perspective in his drawings and, as the Lawn Road Flats were to be in ‘a form of modular units, “Isometric Unit Construction” soon became Isokon’.² While this was not the first modernist building in Britain – that accolade should go to ‘New Ways’ in Northampton, a whitewashed, cement-rendered, two storey structure with a crested parapet,...

  9. CHAPTER 1 Remembrance of Things Past, Hampstead Man among ‘The Modernists’
    (pp. 5-26)

    When Cambridge graduate Nicholas Monsarrat arrived in Nottingham in 1932 to train as an articled clerk with the law firm of Acton, Marriot and Simpson, like many a promising young newcomer to the city, he found his way to ‘Edgmont’. There the rooms were lofty, boasted ‘ornamented ceilings and threatening chandeliers’ and were ‘comfortably carpeted on the ground floor … a little austere on the first and second’ and ‘frigid at the top’ where ‘the carpeting gave way to linoleum and worn boards’. It was everything anxious mothers hoped for: ‘respectability, strict rules, a certainesprit de corps, and an...

  10. CHAPTER 2 National Planning for the Future and the Arrival of Walter Gropius
    (pp. 27-52)

    In December 1931 Wells Coates and Partners, the fledgling partnership between Jack Pritchard and Wells Coates, became Isokon Ltd. The name echoed Wells Coates’ fondness for isometric drawings and for unit construction, and Jack Pritchard’s long-standing concern with economic planning.² Earlier that same year Pritchard had joined the influential policy think tank Political and Economic Planning (PEP), the forerunner of the Policy Studies Institute, suggesting its name at the society’s inaugural meeting. Its guiding spirit was Sir Basil Blackett, a director of the Bank of England:

    Basil Blackett was proposing a new society … he wanted a name that would...

  11. CHAPTER 3 1935: ‘Art crystallises the emotions of an age.’ Musicology and the Art of Espionage
    (pp. 53-82)

    1935 was an eventful year. It opened ominously with the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini creating Libya out of the Italian colonies of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica. A week later he signed an agreement with the French Foreign Minister, Pierre Laval, where they accepted each other’s colonial claims. On 13 January a plebiscite in the Saarland showed that 90.3 per cent of voters wished to rejoin Germany. Two months later Adolf Hitler tore up the Versailles Treaty and launched a programme of German rearmament. In Germany, National Socialist denunciations of modern architecture and ‘Degenerate Art’ reached their height in 1935 with examples...

  12. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  13. CHAPTER 4 Arnold Deutsch, Kim Philby and Austro-Marxism
    (pp. 83-105)

    The Comintern agent Arnold Deutsch was an Austrian Jew who had travelled to London from Vienna in May 1934. His instructions from Moscow Centre were ‘to cultivate young radical high-fliers from leading British universities before they entered the corridors of power’.¹ In 1936, with his wife Josefine, a trained NKVD wireless operator, he moved into No. 7 Lawn Road Flats, a furnished studio flat on the ground floor at the monthly rate of £4 4s, to be paid weekly. Deutsch’s flat was only two doors from the Soviet agent Brigitte Kuczynski, a German Jew, who lived in Flat 4 with...

  14. CHAPTER 5 The Isobar, Half Hundred Club and the Arrival of Sonya
    (pp. 106-131)

    On 29 September 1937 the occupants of Lawn Road Flats received a letter from Jack Pritchard informing them of his decision ‘to form a club for the tenants of the flats and their friends’. He had ‘been fortunate’, he wrote, ‘in securing the services of T. A. Layton of the Book Wine Restaurant and Cheddar Roast to manage it.’¹ A prominent figure in the restaurant world and highly regarded in the wine trade for his ‘revolutionary practice of delivering carefully selected parcels of fine wine, from Bordeaux and Burgundy, to his customers throughout London,’ Tommy Layton brought reasonably-priced good wine...

  15. CHAPTER 6 The Plot Thickens: Jurgen Kuczynski, Agatha Christie and Colletts Bookshop
    (pp. 132-151)

    The Munich agreement of September had been arrived at without the participation of the Soviet Union, and encouraged Stalin to conclude that Britain and France were leaving Germany a free hand against the USSR. Stalin faced with a ‘dagger pointing east towards the heart of the Soviet Union’, accordingly revised his policies towards the West. On 23 August 1939, two days after the collapse of military talks between the USSR, France and Great Britain, Stalin signed the Nazi-Soviet Pact. This momentous act demanded an unprecedented intellectual leap on the part of the world communist movement, from one of outright opposition...

  16. CHAPTER 7 Refugees, The Kuczynski Network, Churchill and Operation Barbarossa
    (pp. 152-170)

    Ever since the departure of Gropius, Breuer and Moholy-Nagy for the United States in 1937, Jack Pritchard had continued to provide accommodation for refugees from Fascism by letting them occupy empty flats between lets, free of charge. His efforts on their behalf were tireless; making introductions, securing employment and, once the war had begun, writing to the chairman of the tribunal in support of their applications for exemption from internment as ‘enemy aliens’. Those refugees who were fortunate enough to enjoy the hospitality of Lawn Road Flats were, like the Kuczynskis, in the main, highly-educated left-wing Jews. One such refugee,...

  17. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  18. CHAPTER 8 Klaus Fuchs, Rothstein once more, and Charles Brasch
    (pp. 171-193)

    Klaus Fuchs was an outstanding physicist and atomic scientist with degrees in mathematics and physics from the universities of Leipzig and Kiel. A committed communist, Fuchs had been a member of the German Communist Party (KPD) since 1932; he had once been badly beaten up by student Brownshirts at Kiel University and thrown into the nearby river. On 28 February 1933, the day following the Reichstag fire, a warrant was issued for his arrest and Fuchs went underground before fleeing to Paris and then to Britain. ‘I was lucky,’ Fuchs recalled years later, ‘because on the morning after the burning...

  19. CHAPTER 9 Vere Gordon Childe
    (pp. 194-207)

    ‘The British prejudice against suicide is utterly irrational,’ the occupant of No. 22 Lawn Road Flats, Vere Gordon Childe, wrote before taking his own life in 1957. Childe committed suicide in his native Australia, by hurling himself 1,000 feet to his death below Govetts Leap at Blackheath in the Blue Mountains, New South Wales, on 19 October 1957. ‘To end his life deliberately,’ he wrote, ‘is in fact something that distinguisheshomo sapiensfrom other animals even better than ceremonial burial of the dead.’¹ Many theories have been put forward to explain Childe’s suicide not least his own fear that...

  20. CHAPTER 10 The New Statesman, Ho Chi Minh and the End of an Era
    (pp. 208-222)

    Not long before his death Childe sent ‘affectionate letters’ to all his friends, including Agatha Christie.¹ The Mallowans stayed on as tenants at the Lawn Road Flats until June 1948 and remained close to Childe. As the director of the Institute of Archaeology, Childe was Max Mallowan’s immediate boss and he helped Max secure the chair of Western Asiatic Archaeology. Mallowan undoubtedly liked Childe and in his autobiography made a number of favourable references to him; Agatha Christie, however, doesn’t mention him at all.²

    Max Mallowan had returned to England from Cairo in May 1945. As the war drew to...

  21. Epilogue
    (pp. 223-225)

    The Isokon building, Lawn Road Flats, was an expression of British Modernism that found its hubris in 1960s brutish architecture, ‘brave, bold and very British’.¹ Emerging from the architectural offices ‘of the postwar British state between 1950 and the 1970s’, brutalism has been described as ‘an architecture of the welfare state’. Certainly, Jack Pritchard’s early vision for the Flats as a model for working-class housing that wasn’t Peabody, fitted this description, even if it did take the Conservative MP Thelma Cazalet to see its advantages for middle class professionals.

    In recent years the British contribution to modernism has been neglected....

  22. Notes
    (pp. 226-254)
  23. Bibliography
    (pp. 255-262)
  24. Index
    (pp. 263-272)
  25. Back Matter
    (pp. 273-273)