On the 26th July 1946, Britain’s socialist Minister of Health Aneurin Bevan travelled through bomb ruined London to visit a muddy building site just south of the Angel.
He had come to lay the foundation stone of a building he saw as the model for Britain’s rebirth.
For the building’s architect, Berthold Lubetkin, this endorsement was perhaps the high point of his career. For more than a decade he had argued that municipally funded architecture could heal many of the wounds that industrial capitalism had inflicted on British society. Before the war his Finsbury Health Centre displayed in concrete form the possibility of universal healthcare free at the point of use. Now, with plans for a National Health Service and a massive programme to build good modern homes for all, the government was building this vision.
Unsurprisingly for a man whose most quoted slogan was “nothing is too good for ordinary people”, Lubetkin was a lifelong communist. Born in Tblisi in 1901, Lubetkin was a teenager living in St Petersburg when the October Revolution swept through the city.
1922 he left Russia to travel across Europe. He planned to study architecture so he could return to take his place in building Soviet society. But as Stalin’s tyranny engulfed every aspect of Russian life, Lubetkin stayed abroad, finally settling in the UK in 1931. Quicker than many communists of his era, Lubetkin learnt to separate his ideals from their sociopathic implementation in the USSR.
In spite of his self imposed exile, the promise of the revolution was undeniably always present in his work. But his early years in England gave few outlets for revolutionary architecture. He supported himself building luxury flats for the rich, and a series of spectacular cages for zoo animals.
THE FINSBURY CONNECTION
In 1936 his work came to the attention of a group of radical socialist councillors in the inner London Borough of Finsbury. They hired him to build a health centre to improve the lives of their citizens, who were still living in the appalling urban slums left behind by the industrial revolution.
Lubetkin’s achievement in Finsbury was to unite the aesthetic ambitions of Modernism with the radical municipal socialism of the Borough. The health centre resolved the tension between three key modernist ideals. First: a social function; universal access to healthcare free at the point of use for all the borough’s residents. Second, the political; no longer was social good to be achieved through charity or hope, instead it was provided by a democratically elected and accountable municipal authority, funded through taxation. And third, the element which made Luketkin’s work unique, the aesthetic. The building’s tiled facade shone above the surrounding slums, its conception asserted the ideal of a socialist future as the rational endgame to progress; in Lubetkin’s words the architecture “cried out for a new world”.
Lubetkin’s modernism laid down a challenge to the class-bound complacency of thirties Britain. But the Borough’s plans to replace Finsbury’s slums with modern flatted housing designed by Lubetkin were stopped by the onset of war in 1939.
Paradoxically the war would move Lubetkin’s work from the radical fringe to the mainstream. As the fighting progressed, the British government became increasingly committed to the idea of building a fairer society when peacetime came. As this was articulated through propaganda, Modernist architecture became the visual expression for this radiant future. Abram Gamesdesigned a series of posters comparing the promise of modernism, one featuring the Finsbury Health Centre, with the appalling realities of pre war Britain. The uncompromising title to each poster was: ‘Your Britain- Fight for it Now’.
The post-war Labour victory was built on the promise of delivering a socialist modernism across the nation, as pioneered by the Finsbury Health Centre. In Finsbury, Lubetkin’s design at Spa Green showed how the modern features of his pre-war luxury flats at Highpoint, could with the right poltical will be provided in housing for the working class.
In 1947 Lubetkin was commissioned to be master planner and chief architect for Peterlee, a new town to be set in England’s north east coalfield. He saw it as a utopian habitat for the greatest heroes of the British industrial society – the coalminers. In Lubetkin’s vision it would be a city of towers, with a main road through it’s heart: where as he described “young couples could sit on its banks watching the traffic, the economic pulse of the nation, with coal and pig iron in huge lorries moving south, while from the south would come loads of ice-cream and French letters”. But Lubetkin lacked the political skill to negotiate successfully in the new post war world of ministerial committees. Falling foul of the newly-nationalised coal board’s plans for the area, he was sacked. It was a sign of things to come.
Lubetkin returned to Finsbury to complete what would become his final project for the Borough, built on the site of where the founder of the Soviet Union had lived when exiled in London, and named in his honour. The housing was to be called Lenin Court . Post-war austerity had imposed far greater budgetary constraints than in the showpiece Spa Green Estate, forcing Lubetkin to strip the project of the basic amenities he had planned; there were to be no balconies, community centre or nursery school. Instead Lubetkin focused his energies on the social space. Fusing his aesthetic and political concerns he created a stunning constructivist staircase – a social condenser that forms the heart of the building.
But the scheme echoed a shift in British housing policy. To save costs, Lubetkin successfully made significant use of prefabricated floor and wall components. Less beneficially, the diminished social provision forced on the architects by the reduced budget would be repeated with far worse consequences across post-war Britain. And also beyond the control of the architects was a political statement. Before the building was completed the Cold war had intensified and as a result the scheme was renamed Bevin Court (honouring Britain’s firmly anti-communist foreign secretary Ernest Bevin). Lubetkin was ordered to put the memorial to Lenin that he had planned the place at the heart of the building into storage. In defiance, Lubetkin buried his memorial in a hidden location on the site.
With the radical era of British modernism coming to a close, Lubetkin struggled to fit into the bureaucratic conformity of post war architectural practice. As in post-revolutionary Russia, when ideals became policy, there were few roles for the truly radical. Frustrated architecturally, he increasingly devoted his time to managing the farm which he had moved to during the Second World War.
As a new generation of politicians displaced his patrons in Finsbury, he failed to win new commissions for the borough. And little of his subsequent work had the same vitality as he had achieved there. He moved on to complete a series of projects from the Borough of Tower Hamlets, most strikingly at a big scale with the 1960’s Lakeview Estate, and with the smaller scheme at Sivill House on Columbia Road. This remains as a masterful interpretation of the post war point block that achieved an elegance far beyond that of the contemporary work being produced by the London County Council.
A few months before Lubetkin died in 1990, rioting broke out in central London in protest against the Thatcher government’s hated and regressive Poll Tax. It was an explosion of pent up rage at the way that since 1979 the government had fought a war against the way of life in Britain’s inner cities, areas where it had little electoral support. Perhaps on his deathbed Lubetkin felt that in this resistance to what Lord Hailsham described as “elective dictatorship”, there was hope that Britain could again find the path to a rational socialist future. 25 years later his buildings stand firm amid another Tory assault on urban life, a reminder that there are always alternatives.