The People's Republic of Finsbury
Finsbury was, and remains, one of London's poorest boroughs. In the 1930s lice, rickets, and diphtheria were common and most residents suffered from poor housing and atrocious, vitamin-deficient diets. In Britain as a whole, 2,000 people per year died of whooping cough and tuberculosis killed 30,000 annually.
The local council, one of the most left-wing in Britain, set about tackling the problems with the ambitious 'Finsbury Plan'. The idea was to build a comprehensive health centre amid public baths, libraries and nurseries. In the end, only the health centre was built.
Nonetheless, Finsbury represents an important moment in the story of British Modernism. For the first time, an avowedly modernist architect (the Russian émigré Berthold Lubetkin), had been awarded a municipal commission (the 1935 De La Warr Pavilion was the result of a competition).
Nothing Is Too Good For The Ordinary People
The Centre incorporated a TB clinic, a foot clinic, a dental surgery, and a solarium. The basement had facilities for cleaning and disinfecting bedclothes, and a lecture theatre and mortuary were also included. Lubetkin wanted people to feel welcome but never patronised. He also wanted the Centre to be like a club, or a drop-in centre.
It was important that people not feel they were walking into just another bureaucratic staging post. To this end, the reception desk was left out of the original plans, (but was added later), and furniture in the foyer was deliberately not arranged into traditional waiting room rows. People had to feel they could drop in at any time and see clinicians in a relaxed, unthreatening atmosphere.
Lubetkin also wanted the centre to persuade people to live healthier lives, as well as treat their ailments. Murals on the walls encouraged patients to get some fresh air. The glass bricks of the front wall were a conscious attempt to "propagandise" the physical benefits of a light, airy environment. The solarium allowed the children of Finsbury (who spent much of their early lives enveloped in a thick smog), a chance to feel the benefits of sunlight. Of this revolutionary new approach to public health, Lubetkin famously commented "Nothing is too good for ordinary people".
Your Britain - Fight For It Now
The interior of the Centre was bright-coloured in reds and azures which were designed to contrast with the gloom of the surrounding slums, and the expanse of glass walls on each of the wings would sparkle on sunny days - "as beautiful as the hair of a beautiful young girl in the summer sunshine", according to Lubetkin. Finsbury shows that Modernist buildings do not have to be sombre. Lubetkin saw his Health Centre as a multicoloured beacon in the heart of the smoky city.
The Centre was also designed to be a flexible building: in itself a progressive concept in a British building of the 1930s. Lubetkin foresaw that in years to come the changing technology of healthcare would require buildings which could be easily adapted to the new needs of clinicians. The building's services - its plumbing, wiring, and piping, were all designed with adaptability in mind.
The political significance of the Centre was not lost on Winston Churchill. In 1943 he suppressed an Army Bureau poster designed by Abram Games which superimposed the shining centre onto a picture of starving children standing in a slum. Next to the Centre were the words; "Your Britain -- Fight for it Now". In 1945, Churchill would lose the General Election and the era of the welfare state, central planning, and the National Health Service, would begin.
The marriage of modernist architecture and socialist reforming zeal, first seen at Finsbury, was about to take centre-stage.
Berthold Lubetkin, (Russia)