Aya Bolt: Finbsury, Lubetkin’s Socialist Utopia

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 Intern

Jane Macintyre on Northampton architecture and Mr Bassett-Lowke

This is the second of two posts about Northampton architecture featured in the Conway library that I came across during a visit to the town, you can read the first post here.

Energetic local businessman W.J. Bassett-Lowke (1877–1953), or “WJ”, was the man behind the development of the UK’s model railway industry. He was also an enthusiastic supporter of modernism and this led him to engage two leading architects of the early 20th century to design his homes: Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Peter Behrens.

In 1916, WJ’s father purchased a modest Georgian terrace house as his son’s wedding present. But ahead of the marriage WJ decided to remodel the house and asked Mackintosh to provide the redesign. The work was carried out during the difficult circumstances of WW1.

78 Derngate – back garden with Mrs Bassett-Lowke. CON_B04291_F001_011. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.

The new interior was striking, especially the decoration of the hall lounge with black walls and a golden frieze. It has been suggested that the couple found the scheme somewhat overpowering because soon WJ asked Mackintosh to lighten it. This second version is depicted in the photograph in the Conway library.

78 Derngate interior – hall lounge. CON_B04291_F001_012. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.

You can still see the original design because it has been reinstated at 78 Derngate which is now a museum.

The Bassett-Lowkes had not been at 78 Derngate long before they decided to move. They wanted a brand new home further away from the River Nene, hoping that this would be more comfortable for Mrs Bassett-Lowke who had been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis.

Mackintosh was in poor health by the time WJ was ready to commission the work. Unable to find a British architect with modern ideas that matched his taste, WJ turned to the pioneering German architect and designer, Peter Behrens. The result was New Ways, probably the first modernist house in the UK and the only one in this country designed by Behrens. It perfectly suited the Bassett-Lowkes whose home it remained for many years.

New Ways exterior – frontage. CON_B04291_F001_014. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.

New Ways interior – lounge. CON_B04291_F001_015. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.

Modest from the outside, but decidedly modern throughout, this Grade II* listed house was recently on the market and, at the time of writing, could be yours for £875,000.

 


Jane Macintyre
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer

Lorraine Stoker: Modernity in the Conway

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