That’s no. 10 Palace Gate in Kensington, rather than Downing Street of course. Many Londoners are familiar with the notable Modernist Lawn Road flats in Hampstead, designed in the early 1930s by the Canadian architect Wells Coates for Jack and Molly Pritchard, the couple who went on to found the pioneering Isokon furniture company. The building opened in 1934 and was home over the years to a pretty distinguished set of residents: from Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer (designer of some of the most significant pieces for the subsequent furniture company) and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, to more surprisingly Agatha Christie and the Soviet agent Arnold Deutsch who recruited Britain’s most notorious spy ring, the Cambridge Five.
The following year in 1935 Wells Coates’ Embassy Court block of flats opened in Brighton with Britain’s first penthouse apartments to much controversy, amongst the Regency buildings of Brighton. To finish off the decade and his last design for a block of flats, was at 10 Palace Gate in a distinctly salubrious part of Kensington. For this last design he was able to employ his innovative “three two” system of architectural plan – two floors on one side equal to three floors on the other side. The living rooms were created as spaces with very high ceiling heights and large sash windows on the rear of the building, while the bedrooms and kitchens were located on the other side of the building in conventional height rooms. From the British History Survey: “The entrances are at the level of the middle room on the three-floor side, from which steps go up to the top flat living-room and down to the bottom flat living-room. Apart from providing rooms of different height an advantage of this system is that the single-height rooms at the middle level can be taken into either the top or bottom flat, or alternatively into the adjoining flats, without structural alteration, giving both vertical and horizontal flexibility in the apportionment of accommodation.” The reinforced concrete structure of the building was clad with a new form of artificial stone . The site was completed on the street (west side) with an annexe housing the entrance with a concave facade, linked to the main building with a glazed staircase and lift shaft.
We at Viewport luckily got the chance to give a lick of paint to one of the flats in the building for a long standing client and got into see the clever system of the internal layouts as well as see some of the original features in the Grade II * listed building.
WW11 intervened in Coates’ promising multidisciplinary career during which he worked in design for the Royal Air Force on lightweight aircraft development. He died way too young at the age of 63 in 1957 in Canada – his mother a Canadian had been a student under Louis Sullivan in Chicago and went to Japan as a missionary to design a missionary school, where Wells was born. During his life he also designed a recording studio for the BBC, Bakelite radios, the interior of a flat for actress Elsa Lanchester (the Bride of Frankenstein), a sailing boat, a cinema for the Festival of Britain and developed (not built at the time) a monorail system for Vancouver. It was a great shame that he did not or was unable to return to create more architecture, because his small legacy of these three mould-breaking apartment buildings is an indication of what his radical thinking could have brought to the post-war rebuilding of the UK.
Photography: Michael Franke