When architect Wells Coates designed London’s Isokon building in 1934, he exemplified Le Corbusier’s mantra that buildings should be ‘machines for living’.
Its exterior earned comparisons to an ocean liner from Agatha Christie – a one-time resident of the building – while its apartments were minimal in both size and flourishes, fit for the needs of modern life.
Photographer Baker first became fascinated with the Grade I-listed building eight years ago while house-hunting. ‘I really liked the building’s simplicity and clean lines. A few years later I was in Brighton where I knew the Isokon had a sister-building, Embassy Court. I looked it up, started researching Coates’ work and how he pioneered Modernism in the UK. It really chimed with my own interest and ideals: I like everything to have a function and purpose.’
Designed for Isokon furniture founder Jack Pritchard and his wife Molly, the Isokon attracted swathes of creatives from the get-go, with former residents including Agatha Christie, Marcel Breuer and Bauhaus-founder Walter Gropius, not to mention Soviet spies.
Despite its rich history, the building fell into serious disrepair in the late 20th century, before Avanti Architecture renovated it in the early noughties. Embassy Court experienced similar strife, rescued by Conran + Partners in 2004.
Now, the Embassy Court’s residents’ committee organise regular tours of the restored 1935 building. ‘I got in touch with the chairwoman, told her about my project idea,’ says Baker. ‘Over three months, I shot the building and hung out with its residents she introduced me to, took their portraits, and then they introduced me to someone else…’
Getting his foot in the door at the Isokon building was a trickier affair: ‘I made notes and stuck them to the doors. Over the course of the month, three or four residents got in touch to talk to me, and let me shoot their portraits.’
Eventually, Baker was introduced to Skandium founder, Magnus Englund, who lives in the Isokon’s penthouse apartment with his wife, Gjøril. ‘The penthouse is the jewel in the crown, and that portrait with Magnus really made the project work,’ says Baker. Englund has amassed a collection of original Isokon furniture and has remained true to Coates’ original interior vision.
Baker is currently working on a film about the buildings and their residents, to be unveiled this summer. In the meantime, catch a glimpse of life inside their walls through his photography series, The Legacy of Wells Coates.