Lubetkin’s stairwell hovers like layers of propellers in the atrium at Bevin Court; it is nothing short of stunning. If this is not enough, in the entrance hall to this modernist council built apartment block, there is also a bust of Ernest Bevin and the Peter Yates’ mural Day and Night, Winged Bulls. How must it feel to live or visit here: surely at least a boost to health and sense of pride, including seeing its recent regeneration.
Lubetkin of course famously said that nothing is too good for ordinary people: what a vision and starting point for creating such architecture as a home to live in, to visit as a health centre or during leisure time at the zoo?
Lubetkin’s inspirations were many. Born in 1901 he watched the Russian revolution unfold and studied art in Moscow and Leningrad, then Berlin and Warsaw, before working with Le Corbusier in Paris. Arriving in London in 1931, Lubetkin was part of the modernist movement and his constructivist informed work fused design, art and engineering in private commissions and in socially progressive projects. His joint architecture practice – Tecton (an abbreviation of the Greek Architecton) – designed leisure facilities including London Zoo’s penguin pool 1934 (click here for recent interesting thoughts) and Whipsnade’s elephant house in 1935 as well as his more socially minded health centres and residential properties.
Tecton’s domestic projects for wealthier private clients included the 1934 concrete Genesta Road terrace in Plumstead near Greenwich, before turning to even larger projects such as the Highpoint apartments at Highgate, London from 1935 which share similarities in design such as the balcony structures.
Highpoint I was radical, introducing a new ideal of living. It was favoured by Le Corbusier and demonstrates many features we recognise today in many blocks of flats, including use of reinforced concrete and engineering – then new in housing – pillars (pilotis) and balconies.
Municipal works followed and the Labour Council at the then Metropolitan Borough of Finsbury commissioned Tecton to design the pioneering Finsbury Health Centre in 1938, the first time such a municipal commission had been granted. It moved health care ideas forward and its architectural and design aesthetic was optimistic and progressive, and innovative including such things as a solarium. Its design and decor sought to encourage behaviour change toward a healthier way of life. More recently its future has been under question.
As we saw in an earlier post, graphic designer Abram Games’ 1942 posters for the Army Bureau of Current Affairs, from the Your Britain Fight for it Now series portrayed progressive buildings for post-war hope and new beginnings. These included the Finsbury Health Centre which Lubetkin wanted to be a fresh new approach: cheerful and flooded with light and colour and replacing the very different architecture that had gone before.
After the Second World War, then Minister of Health Aneurin Bevan laid the foundation stone in 1946 at Tecton’s Finsbury Spa Green Estate. This new estate boasted lifts, central heating, balconies, plenty of daylight and a roof terrace and there were communal spaces to meet. Even today it remains a pleasant living environment.
What a career indeed. Returning to where we started – Bevin Court, completed in 1954 – which many continue to see as the peak of Lubetkin’s work. It really has stood the test of time and been beautifully restored.
In a future post we’ll shift to a very English form of ‘modern’ architecture (with perhaps a touch of deco): that of interwar suburbia.
Stewart, J. (2016) Housing and Hope: the influence of the interwar years in England, (available at the iTunes Store)
Turner, E. (2017) Berthold Lubetkin: ‘nothing is too good for ordinary people’ (pp. 114-122), in J. Stewart (2017) Pioneers in Public Health, Routledge Focus