Modernist architecture in Hampstead

Posted on January 6, 2015 by Toothpicker There have been 2 comment(s)

isokan building

Isokon building/ Lawn Road Flats in Belsize Park


A lot of Londoners and foreigners love Hampstead for its history and villagey ambience, and the heath is considered a refuge for wildlife and nature in London. This area has always been a magnet for the rich and famous, as well as the artistic and intellectual elite; and it is not hard to see why.

Yet this area is also home to many well-known modernist architecture, notably the iconic Grade I lised Isokon building (also known as the Lawn Road flats) in Belsize Park. This minimalist architecture comprises of 32 flats was designed by Canadian architect Wells Coates for Jack and Molly Pritchard in 1934. Its early famous residents included Bauhaus émigrés Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, László Moholy-Nagy and even Agatha Christie. The building was restored about 10 years ago by Avanti Architects, and to celebrate the building's 80th birthday, the Isokan Gallery was opened to the public from April until October. Unfortunately, I missed the opportunity to visit the gallery (hopefully it will reopen in March), but I was still impressed by how timeless and striking the building's exterior looks from street level. The architect was said to have been inspired by the works of Le Corbusier, while the original Isokon plywood furniture (produced by a company founded by Pritchard) was predominately inspired by the Finnish architect Alvar Aalto (click here to read my earlier post of my visit to the architect's studio and home in Helsinki).


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3rd row & bottom left: Stanbury Court on Haverstock Hill; Bottom right: A WWII bunker in Belsize Park


Not far from the Isokon building is a less well-known Stanbury Court, built only 2 years after the Isokon building in 1936. The massive (when compared to the nearby buildings) and conspicuous white block consists of 53 flats, and has some interesting art deco features on its facade.

On the opposite side of the road further uphill, there is a white circular World war II deep level shelter built in the early 1940s that can be easily missed by passerby, even though it is fairly distinctive.

Another hidden 'secret' in the area is Parkhill Road and Mall studios (now privately-owned and forbidden to outsiders) where famous artists such as Henry Moore, Piet Mondriaan, Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson, Sir James Linton and Sir George Clausen once lived.


2 willow road 2 willow road 2 willow road


Moving up towards Hampstead, 2 Willow Road is another iconic Modernist architecture designed by architect Ernő Goldfinger in 1939 for him and his family. Now run by the National Trust, and the house is open to the public by guided tours. It is well worth visiting if you are interested in Modernist architecture and design because the interior and furnishings have left unchanged since his death in 1987.


66 Frognal66 Frognal 66 Frognal66 frognal Maxwell Fry's sun housesun house Formerly Gracie Field’s house

Top 3 rows: 66 Frognal; 4th & bottom left: Sun House on Frognal Way; Bottom right: Former Gracie Field’s house


On Frognal Lane, one house stands out from the rest, and it is the Grade II listed 66 Frognal designed by Connell, Ward and Lucas for solicitor Geoffrey Walford in 1938. The house was subject of a lengthy planning battle with oppositions from local residents and planning officials before it was built (thankfully, the plan was granted in the end). Over the years, house had been altered by different owners and finally in 2000, Avanti Architects was commissioned by the new owner to rebuild and restore the house in a manner sympathetic to the original design including the colour of the facade. The commission won a RIBA Conservation Award 2005, and you can view the interior of the house (including an indoor swimming pool) via the firm's website here.

Round the corner on Frognal Way is the Sun House designed by the renowned English modernist architect E. Maxwell Fry and built between 1934-5. This was the first Modernist concrete house to be built in London, and many of its features like the balcony and columns resemble Le Corbusier's Villa Stein in France. At the end of the street, you can also find the former house of Gracie Field built in 1934.


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Top row: Frognal Close; 2nd row: 41 Frognal Lane; 3rd & 4th rows: 13b Arkwright Road; Bottom: University College School & Frognal garden


A few minutes downhill you will find Frognal Close, a cul-de-sac of six houses designed by Ernst Freud, son of Sigmund Freud (whose museum is about 5 minutes' walk away) in 1937. Slightly further down on 41 Frognal Lane, another interesting modernist home was built later in 1968 by Alexander Flinder.

Nearby on 13b Arkwright Road, you will find a house that stands out from the rest because of its unusual glass brick facade and a side elongated porthole. The house was designed by Godfrey Samuel of Samuel and Harding in 1939, and it has two front entrances including one slope that leads to the basement.


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Spedan Close/ Branch Hill Estate off Heysham Lane


One of hidden modernist architecture gems in the area is probably the Branch Hill Estate or Spedan Close. Designed by Gordon Benson and Alan Forsyth from Camden's Architect Department in 1978, the estate resembles the Grade II listed modernist housing estate, Dunboyne Road (see below) in the nearby Gospel Oak. This estate is a fine example of social housing in modern times, yet it was also the most expensive at that period.

The secluded estate is located off Branch Hill next to a care home, and it is not visible from the main road. It is hard to believe that this is a purpose-built housing estate because it looks more like a set of Mediterranean villas! Built on a steep hill, the main entrance is from the top with a car park under a grass/concrete roof.


Dunboyne Road estate

The facade of Dunboyne Road estate designed in 1966 by Neave Brown from the Camden's Architects' Department and built between 1971 and 1977


The 21 pairs of 2-storey semi-detached houses are built on 3 rows, and in order to access to the bottom, one would have to walk down some 'dangerous-looking' (see above) sloping steps that are unlikely to be granted today. Aside from a small front garden, each house also has a roof top terrace. And since the houses face west, most residents would be able to watch sunsets from their homes.

While Modernist architects' utopian housing ideal has failed, this estate is one of the few that can be celebrated. It works because of the smaller scale, green and quiet environment; and besides functionality, the quality of living seemed to be a priority for the architects. Along with estates like Dunboyne Road, Barbican and Golden Lane (see my earlier post on it here) etc, these successful cases of social housing prove that utopian housing could work if the focus was more on the quality rather than the quantity.


blackburn houseblackburn housea modern house on 49 Denning Roadnew house by Guard Tillman Pollock ArchitectsThe Priory by Rick Matherbelsize lane 40 ornan road

Top left & middle: Blackburn house; Top right: A house on 49 Denning Road; 2nd row: New house by Guard Tillman Pollock Architects; 3rd row: The Priory by Rick Mather (1997) Bottom row: A mews house off Belsize Place; Bottom right: 40 Ornan Road designed by John Winter in 1971


If you spend some time walking off the main street in Hampstead and Belsize Park, you will come across many intriguing white modernist houses. One of them is Blackburn house located in Rosslyn Mews just off Hampstead High street. This mews house was designed and remodelled by Peter Wilson and Chassay Wright for Janice and David Blackburn in 1988. The house is used a residence, an office and a gallery, which was a new concept at the time when it was built. There are several notable postmodern architectural features on its facade like the use of white, an asymmetrical extended entrance area, the non-orthogonal framed window and an exposed silver pipe.

Two other minimalist houses that stand out nearby include the New House designed by Guard Tillman Pollock Architects on Willoughby Road, and The Priory on 5 Upper Terrace built between 1993-7 by the late American architect Rick Mather. The former was shortlisted for a RIBA award in 2012, while the latter was the runner up for the RIBA Stirling prize in 1998.


modern house by Webb architects Hopkins' house Hopkins' house50 Pilgrim's lane A modern house on Keats Grove

Top left: A house on Redington Road designed by Webb Archietect; Top right: 6 1/2 Redington Road designed by John McAslam; 2nd row & 3rd left: Hopkins' house; Bottom middle: 50 Pilgrim's Lane; Bottom right: A house on Keats Grove


The use of glass is commonly seen in modern architecture, and there are some houses in the area that utilise this material to either allow maximum sunlight or as an prominent element in its architectural style. On Redington Road, two houses stand out from the rest of the Victorian style houses. One of them is a part white, part brick house designed by Webb Architects in 2008; the other is a glass and brick structure that was a former 1950s cottage orginally designed by John McAslam and reinterpreted by Pennington Phillips in 2007. Another intriguing one is the glass and metal box-like Hopkins' house on 49A Downshire Hill designed by Michael and Patricia Hopkins for themselves in 1976. Minimal and timeless, this house is one of a kind, and one of my favourites in the area.


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Top & bottom left: Admirals House; Bottom right: A castle-style house on Belsize Lane


Although not a modernist building, but there is one house that is worth check out while you are in the area and it is the Admiral's House on Admiral's Walk. The house was built around 1700 and was bought by a naval officer, Fountain North in 1791 who reconstructed its roof to resemble a ship's quarterdeck. The house was often painted by John Constable who used to live nearby. The house's famous former tenants include architect Sir George Gilbert Scott (who designed St Pancras Station and Albert Memorial) and writer PL Travers, whose famous novel "Mary Poppins" was said to be partly inspired by the house.


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Top row: Exterior of Hampstead theatre; 2nd row left & bottom right: Swiss Cottage library; 2nd row middle & right: Central School of Speech and drama; Bottom left: Interior of Hampstead theatre


Finally, moving away from Hampstead and towards Swiss Cottage, there are a few notable buildings worth checking out. One of them is the Grade II listed modernist/ brutalist style Swiss Cottage Library designed by Sir Basil Spence in 1962-64. The library was remodelled by John McAslan + Partners in 2003 as part of the redevelopment project in the area. The interior of the library is spacious and bright, in my opinion, it is one of the finest public libraries in London.

Close to the library is the recently-revamped Hampstead Theatre, the first freestanding theatre to be built in London since the National Theatre in 1975. Designed by Bennetts Associates Architects from 1994-2003, the theatre won the RIBA Award in 2003. The theatre has a 325-seat split-level auditorium and a bar/cafe on its ground floor, and a smaller and cosy free-seating theatre in the basement. I have enjoyed various performances here (both upstairs and downstairs), and I think the close distance between the stage and the movable seating helps to create a more intimate environment for the actors and the audience which is rare to find in the West End theatres.

Right opposite the theatre is another interesting contemporary building which is part of the Central School of Speech and drama designed by Jestico and Whiles in 2005. The bold and slightly imposing structure was shortlisted for the RIBA regional award in 2006; and thanks to the theatre opposite, this building doesn't look as out of place amongst the post-war buildings and Victorian houses nearby.


Originally, I wanted to create a route/ locate all the buildings for this entry, but I think it is more fun to spend some time exploring the area on foot by yourself. I am sure there are many more hidden gems in the area that I have missed, and for a more comprehensive guide, you can check out the Hampstead section of Modern London houses website compiled by David Anderson, which also includes a map of most modernist houses in the area.



This post was posted in London, Architecture, British design, Design, Modernist & Art Deco and was tagged with London, British design, modernist architecture, Hampstead, social housing

2 Responses to Modernist architecture in Hampstead

  • Thank you for this awesome list. I want to work my way through all of these buildings with my group.
    Did you manage to see the interior of the Isokon building? We are planning to visit the gallery in March, but it'd be great to have a guided tour inside; have you heard of anyone conducting one?

    Posted on February 25, 2015 at 8:05 pm

  • Hi, thank you for your comment! I am glad that you find the information useful. No, I didn't see the interior of the Isokon building but I would love to! I don't know if there is anyone conducting a guided tour of the building, but there is a group that conducts tours in Hampstead on Modernist architecture, so perhaps you can contact them to see if they do. Their website is Good luck!

    Posted on February 25, 2015 at 11:19 pm