1933 - 1935
Berthold Lubetkin, (Russia) and Tecton
The Arrival Of High-Rise
In the early 1930s, the concept of social housing - communal living in apartment blocks - was an unusual one in England. Even in an era of official concern about slum conditions in British cities, authorities had tended to respond by building low density detached or semi-detached housing on the outskirts of towns, influenced by the thinking of the earlier English Garden City movement.
In Europe however, high density social housing was common, and a solution to housing problems which Modernists had championed for many years. Berthold Lubetkin and his Tecton colleagues had travelled to his native Soviet Union in 1934 to see for themselves the experiments in social living there, and, fortified by the work of their European fellow Modernists, returned to open in 1935 one of the seminal Modernist housing blocks in Britain - Highpoint One.
Highpoint One was initially commissioned by Sigmund Gestetner, head of his family's office equipment firm, as social housing for his workers. Lubetkin was given free reign to develop his ideas and to construct a suitable monument to architectural and social progress. The result was a bright white seven-storey double-cruciform block, comprising sixty-four apartments, built on a hill in north London (which meant that those on the top floor occupied the highest residential location in the city).
Creating a New Tradition
Apartments were available in two sizes - two or three bedroom. The block was specially designed to ensure that the living rooms in each apartment received at least some sunlight during the day, with the bedrooms mostly in shadier, more secluded areas (a device Tecton also employed in it's post-war Spa Green housing estate). Lift services and staircases were grouped at the intersections, leading down to a wide foyer and communal tearoom on the ground floor. Central heating was piped through the building and each flat had the luxury of a built-in refrigerator.
At the back of the block a large secluded garden sloped down the hill. In 1936, Lubetkin persuaded Gestetner to purchase the site next to Highpoint One in order to prevent unfavourable development. On this site he built Highpoint Two, a more luxurious block in whose penthouse he lived.
Lubetkin had been inspired by many of Le Corbusier's ideas on urban planning, and was particularly affected by the great man's Plan Voisin of 1925, which sketched a vision of cruciform towers set in lush parkland.
When Corbusier himself visited Highpoint One in 1935 he remarked; "This beautiful building sets a question of principle: to follow tradition or to break with it? I reply unhesitatingly by stating my personal point of view; a new tradition must be created…For a long time I have dreamed of executing dwellings in such conditions for the good of humanity. The building at Highgate is an achievement of the first rank."
The Finest Middle-Class Housing Project in The World
Despite the praise heaped on Highpoint One, it was never used by Gestetner's employees and its tenants were, from the outset, thoroughly middle-class (Highpoint was called "one of the finest, if not absolutely the finest, middle-class housing projects in the world" by American critic Henry Russell Hitchcock).
Interest in the apartments had been stimulated by exhibitions of the building in 1934, and there was a rush to reserve an apartment amongst wealthier house-hunters. Tecton would have to wait until after the war to build modernist housing for the working classes, and Highpoint became, like Wells Coates' nearby Lawn Road Flats, an oasis of modernist luxury for wealthy clients keen to live on the cutting edge.