Berthold Lubetkin Copyrighted image Credit: Used with permission

Date:
(1901 - 1990)

 

Nationality:
Russian

Famous Buildings:
Highpoint One, London
Finsbury Health Centre, London
Spa Green Estate, London

The Revolutionary Artist

Berthold Lubetkin is arguably the most important figure in the British Modern Movement in the pre-war period. As head of the prolific Tecton practice, he brought a Russian's revolutionary zeal to a British architectural scene which seemed to be completely out of step with the development of modernism on the continent. By the time he had effectively retired in 1950, Lubetkin and Tecton had built everything from zoo buildings, to luxury flats, to a pioneering health centre, to lauded examples of planned social housing estates.

Born in Tiflis, Georgia in 1901, into a middle-class Jewish family, Lubetkin witnessed the Russian Revolution through his bedroom window whilst he was a young art student in Moscow. A commitment to socialism remained with him throughout his career.

For Lubetkin and many of his fellow countrymen, art, including architecture, should be an instrument of social renewal, a means to a political end. Lubetkin would insist that architecture was politics "pursued by other means".

Vanguard to Backwater

Before arriving in Britain in 1931, Lubetkin travelled widely in Europe, gaining formal training and meeting many of the giants of the Modern Movement. Arriving in Berlin in 1922, he worked in what was then the intellectual capital of the continent, before moving to Paris, the artistic capital, in 1925.

In Paris he met Le Corbusier and studied under Auguste Perret, one of the pioneers of using reinforced concrete in architecture. Paris left a tremendous impression on the young Russian: its combination of the aesthetic and the deliberately planned confirmed to him that rational thinking could produce an emotional, beautiful urban environment.

Britain in 1931 was, in contrast, far from these intellectual and political developments. Here, the Modern Movement was truly foreign. Lubetkin commented that the country was fifty years behind Europe in its architectural maturity, and set about importing Modernism into Britain.

Concrete Legacy

Tecton, the practice he founded with six British architects in 1932, quickly became the most potent exponent of the exotic new Modern Movement in Britain. After designing the famous Penguin Pool and Gorilla House at London Zoo, Tecton started work on the seminal Highpoint One apartments in 1933.

Originally designed as homes for factory workers, the block quickly attracted instead a thoroughly middle-class tenancy, eager to experience the joys of high-rise modern communal living in Lubetkin's beautiful white double-cruciform landmark, which high on its hill in Highgate, looked down on the smog-ridden city below.

Along with Wells Coates' Lawn Road Flats of 1934, Highpoint One signalled the arrival of Modernist housing in Britain.

But it was in the much less salubrious borough of Finsbury that Lubetkin was given the chance to bring the revolutionary aspects of his architecture to the fore. Here the local leftwing council asked him to build a health centre to combat the dreadful conditions in the slums.

The result, the Finsbury Health Centre, (FHC) is still in operation today. Built in 1938, ten years before the arrival of the NHS, the FHC exemplifies the marriage of the aesthetic (its graceful white curves and shining glass bricks contrasted sharply with the Victorian horror surrounding it) and the political (Churchill tried to ban an Army Bureau poster of the Centre which compared its promise with the reality of the nearby slums), which is the essence of Modernism in this 'heroic' period.

After the War, Tecton's main achievement was the Spa Green housing estate, also in Finsbury. Spa Green stands as a thoughtful precursor to the avalanche of social housing which would soon come to dominate British cities, many of which were not as generously funded, nor as well thought through.

Tecton was dissolved in 1947, when Lubetkin began to spend more time working on plans for the abortive New Town of Peterlee, County Durham.

He was never as prolific again, and a growing sense of disillusionment with Britain and with British architects led to his gradual retreat from architectural practice from 1950 onwards. Yet his legacy had already been secured through his determined effort to bring the beauty and vaulting social ambition of Modernist architecture to Britain.

The Modernist Architects