Aya Bolt: Finbsury, Lubetkin’s Socialist Utopia

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The Courtauld Institute of Art’s Conway Library houses an impressive photographic collection of architecture from a vast array of periods and locations. Some of the collection’s earliest photos are dated from the 1850s and these are a mere couple of decades older than the oldest surviving photograph of an image formed in camera. Given the seemingly endless opportunities to do some armchair, or rather office chair, travelling and discover some of the world’s most significant structures (many now destroyed to both war and time), it may perhaps seem strange that one would choose to focus on photographs of twentieth-century British architecture. However, these often under-loved and over-looked buildings have a story of their own to tell. Through this blog post, I hope to offer an exposé of the collaborative work between Finsbury Council and architect Berthold Lubetkin from the inter and post-war period.

Lubetkin’s success in Britain started with the establishment of the architecture firm Tecton. Formed in the 1930s, the firm was an instrumental pioneer in bringing continental modernism to Britain. Whilst some of Tecton’s most iconic builds are London Zoo’s penguin pool and gorilla enclosure, founding architect Lubetkin is, in fact, responsible for some of London’s more recognisable and perhaps infamous landmark social housing. His personal maxim was “nothing is too good for ordinary people!” and he strove to improve the living conditions of the working class. Spa Green Estate was the first of many projects designed to offer luxury features to working class families, including lifts, central heating, electrical and gas appliances, running water, a waste-disposal system, balconies and a laundry-drying roof terrace. The amenities offered far exceeded those enjoyed by the majority of the population at the time.   

Spa Green Estate in Finsbury, EC1, opened in 1949. The Conway Library. The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC.

Born in what is now Georgia, Lubetkin emigrated to the UK in the early 1930s. His formal training was completed in the USSR at VKhUTEMAS, a state funded art and technical school in Moscow where Lubetkin witnessed the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, allegedly from his bedroom window. It was undoubtedly this formation, both creative and political, which led to his neo-constructivist style. Particularly taken with the idea of the “artist engineer” who uses industrial techniques to produce socially useful objects, Lubetkin was committed to socially driven architecture. Arguably, no structure embodies his ideals more than the Finsbury Health Centre. Commissioned by Finsbury council, led by devout socialist Alderman Harold Riley, and backed by the chairman of the public health committee, Dr Chuni Lal Katial, the Finsbury Health Centre marked the dawning of a new era of Public Health Service. Planning and construction began in 1935 and the centre was ready for opening in 1938, a full decade before the advent of Britain’s National Healthcare System.

The Finsbury Health Centre Façade, EC1, opened in 1938. The Conway Library. The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC.

However, the opening of the centre was unfortunate timing as World War Two broke out soon after and the building needed to be protected rather than up and running – although it was used as a bandaging centre for civilian causalities throughout the war. In order to limit damage from bombing, the centre was covered in sandbags, cracking many of the glass bricks in the façade and wings which then needed to be repaired. This cost of this repair work combined with post-war austerity meant that the building’s finishes, such as the plumbing, could not be completed according to Lubetkin’s plans and standards.

Plans of the Finsbury Health Centre by Lubetkin and Tecton, featuring a welcoming open-plan layout and a design to let in as much natural light as possible, 1938, Riba Architecture, (DR50/1(1)) and (DR50/1(7))

Plans of the Finsbury Health Centre by Lubetkin and Tecton, featuring a welcoming open-plan layout and a design to let in as much natural light as possible, 1938, Riba Architecture, (DR50/1(1)) and (DR50/1(7))

Plans of the Finsbury Health Centre by Lubetkin and Tecton, featuring a welcoming open-plan layout and a design to let in as much natural light as possible, 1938, Riba Architecture, (DR50/1(1)) and (DR50/1(7))

As the fighting escalated, society was increasingly committed to providing more equality and fairness come peacetime. The ever-growing labour party promised a utopian fantasy of what the future could be, and this was reflected in the modernist architecture of new municipal buildings that councils were erecting. Modernism represented hope and potential, as the poster featuring the Finsbury Health Centre by Abram Games highlights. The contrast between the shiny new centre and the derelict slums behind it underline the sub-par living conditions of the working class prior to and during the war. The 1943 poster was purportedly banned by Churchill as he believed that it exaggerated the state the poor in slums were living in (many of whom had fought in the war) and shed a negative light on the conservative party who had been in power for the majority of the twentieth century.

Poster featuring the Finsbury Health Centre, 1943 by Abram Games, Imperial War Museum (Art.IWM PST 2911)

A better quality of life which included good health was being promised to those for whom lack of information, neglect and inaccessibility to health care had been cutting life short.

The mural in the health centre with slogans such as “chest diseases are preventable and curable” create a sense of hope but also illustrate how illnesses that now seem easily treatable were once fatal to many. Come 1948, the NHS looked to the Finsbury Health centre to found many of its ideals as it was upheld as a model structure for the provision of public healthcare. The centre’s aims were to unite the borough’s divided health care services, create a standardised system and provide free health care for all of the borough’s residents. A true testament to the daring vision of early British socialism and Lubetkin’s constructivist design, the Finsbury Health Centre has been awarded Grade 1 listing and thanks to the efforts of the FHC Preservation Trust and NHS Property Services, is still serving patients to this day.

The Finsbury Health Centre Mural by Gordon Cullen, EC1, opened in 1938. The Conway Library. The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC.

 


Aya Bolt
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant

Layers of London Highlights: Records by Michael Mayes

 

Introduction by Fran Allfrey, volunteer officer

 

You can now find over 80 photographs from the Conway Library on Layers of London. Layers of London is a fantastic resource and website run by the Institute of Historical Research, University of London. In brief, Layers of London allows you to pin photographs into a digital map of London, and add a short description.

Anyone is able to log on and add photographs that they have taken themselves, and many museums, archives, and libraries have been adding their collection items too. Most importantly, anyone is able to just explore the map!

Since lockdown in March 2020, over 28 Courtauld volunteers have been extremely busy sharing photographs from the Conway Library on Layers of London. In a series of blog posts, we’ll be sharing just a few of the records they have made to try and encourage our blog readers to go explore the map and photographs!

In this post, we have reproduced four of seventeen records (and counting) made by our volunteer Michael. Thank you, Michael, for creating so many evocative records, which really show the variety of photographs in the Conway Library.

Michael says: “My favourite photograph is one of Anthony Kersting’s – The Horniman Museum. It’s a place I know well from visits and he captures it in that unique way he has, making a building, no matter how familiar, appear to you as if for the first time.
My favourite entry, however, is of The Crown Tavern. I hope I’ve captured the nostalgia of the period and the central role pubs played in social life particularly as we have lost so many already and no doubt more to come.”

Records created by Michael Mayes

 

The Crown Tavern, Aberdeen Place, London. Architect CH Worley, built 1898. CON_B04084_F002_034. The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC.

The Crown Tavern, 23 Aberdeen Place, London NW8

This pub is sadly no longer with us, having sold its last drink in March 2004. Its new incarnation is a striking residential property restored to show off its late Victorian origins. This image is intriguing. The wonderfully decorated windows invite the sunlight to steal in, throwing panes of light across the floor and wall, and highlighting a coat on its peg. A restless dog lingers near its master. A half-finished beer stands on the table, where on the opposite side a man sits, rolling his smoke, with a pint of Dublin’s finest waiting to be enjoyed. Cheers!

Lenin Memorial, Holford Square, London. Designed by Berthold Lubetkin, erected in 1942. CON_B04266_F001_005. The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC.

Lenin Memorial, Holford Square, London WC1 

Badly damaged by bombing in World War Two, the then-named Holford Square was condemned in 1948 and rebuilt to plans drawn up by the architect Berthold Lubetkin. It was renamed Bevin Court and located in Holford Gardens. Lubetkin had previously, in 1942, designed and installed the memorial you see in the photograph. In an uncanny parallel with events in June 2020 when protesters targeted statues of figures involved in the slave trade, Lenin’s memorial was regularly damaged and defaced, and eventually it was buried by Lubetkin beneath a staircase when Bevin Court was being built. The photograph featured in an exhibition, British Art and Design Before the War, at the Hayward Gallery in 1979-80. The photographer has captured an image of what could be considered an understated design: the arch above Lenin’s head, the inset inscription, the housing set at a downward angle. Note, however, the security chain around the base, a sign, perhaps, of the protests to come.

Ludgate Circus Railway Bridge, London. Opened 1865. CON_B04108_F003_024. The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC.

Ludgate Circus Railway Bridge

This image featuring the railway bridge is undated though there are some clues as to the period in which it was taken. The clothes worn by a small group of young people in front of the King Lud pub on the left suggest the 1950s or earlier 1960s; note also the bus and the traffic light design. Scrutinise the cyclists hurtling down the hill, drop-handle racers having a great time in the light traffic – it is probably not rush hour. The City is either at rest, suggesting a weekend, or in an urgency of homeward bound city workers still toiling at their desks.

The Horniman Museum, London. Photographed by Anthony Kersting, 1990. CON_B04088_F001_010. The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC.

The Horniman Museum

The Museum opened on its present site in 1901. It is well known and frequently attended and plenty of information can be derived from its website. This image, taken by Anthony Kersting, exemplifies his approach to photography. Judging by the leafless trees, it appears to have been taken in the late afternoon of a winter’s day. The long shadow raking from the left anchors the building, which is highlighted and framed. Sky detail is minimal but the wisp of cloud is such a delight. The vehicle passing in front of the building suggests a longish exposure. Time, care and attention to detail whisper quietly from this image.

See all the records created by Michael here: https://www.layersoflondon.org/map/users/2090

And all the Conway Library photographs on Layers of London here: https://www.layersoflondon.org/map/collections/446 

Lorraine Stoker: Modernity in the Conway

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When I started volunteering on the digitisation programme, I never thought it would reignite my interest in the history of art. Yet here I am in the second year of a part-time M.A. in History of Art and Photography, and loving every moment of the challenge. I am about to start my final essay before commencing the dissertation, and I have chosen as my final option This is Tomorrow – Architecture and Modernity in Britain and its Empire, 1930-60.

CON_B04266_F005_001. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.

Professor Mark Crinson (University of London) describes the option module as a study of the entanglements of architecture and ideas of modernity, the home and the city in mid-twentieth century Britain, as well as how these issues related to Britain’s place in the world and its relation to its empire. Modernity, whether through the arrival of modernism or the various forms of state modernisation, has long been the focus of written accounts of modern architecture in Britain.

CON_B04266_F001_022. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.

The Conway library has led to this and is already proving a fantastic resource in my initial reading and research. There is an excellent collection of London photographs, which I am slowly helping to label, while also identifying useful images for use in the Architecture and Modernism essay and for discussion in seminars.
While I am looking forward to studying the Conway photographs in relation to mainstream Modernism, the influence of émigré architects and the search for utopia is already evident and enthralling in the photographs I have labelled and catalogued. The amazing Bevin Court (a personal favourite) is one of several post-war modernist housing projects in London designed by the Tecton architecture practice, led by Berthold Lubetkin, a Russian architect and pioneer of modernist design in the 1930s.

CON_B04279_F001_002. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.

An organised visit to the penthouse at The Isokon Building (Lawn Green Flats) was impressive. Built in 1934, The Isokon is a rare Grade 1 listed modernist building and an example of a progressive experiment in urban living at the time. The building was home to Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus, Marcel Breuer, designer of modernist furniture, and László Maholy-Nagy, headteacher of art at the Bauhaus school. Early advertising stated: “All you have to bring with you is a rug, an armchair and a picture.” Acquired by Camden Borough Council in 1972, it gradually deteriorated until the 1990s, when it was abandoned completely. Avanti Architects, specialists in refurbishing modernist buildings, restored the Isokon in 2004. The Conway photographs and images from the current sales listing of the Isokon penthouse – at nearly a million pounds – provides a fascinating insight into the concept of ‘one-room living’.

CON_B04279_F001_001. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.

Then there is BRUTALISM! I really am spoilt for choice, as photographs of key Brutalist buildings in London are also found in the Conway archives. Watch this space, as I delve further into this incredible resource and identify a research title worthy of the Conway collection of London’s 20th century architecture.

 


Lorraine Stoker
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer