The Finsbury Health Centre is to a quick glance a fairly unremarkable looking building but it represents a tradition of modernist architecture with roots stretching back to revolutionary Russia.

Lubetkin Visualisation

Faced by a row of ’80s cottages, incongruous in this heavily built-up part of London, is a small garden, and an entrance of glass bricks, with two glass and tile walls curving out on either side. Look closely, and you notice more things about it – the now-quaint lettering, the roof garden on the top, the symmetries and patterns of the design, and an air of quiet, unassuming confidence. A sign points out that this is an NHS centre, and the home of the Michael Palin Stammering Centre.

It’s the sort of building that, with PFI’s compulsory newbuild, we don’t see any more – small-scale, intimate, humane, and right in the middle of a residential area. The lack of similarity with the crass, cheap out-of-town health malls of today should not be surprising – this building is where the NHS effectively began, and not only that, it’s one of the few built legacies of the Russian revolution in western Europe.

Perhaps for both reasons, a recent attempt by the local ‘Primary Care Trust’ in Liberal-controlled Islington Council- the authority responsible for the building – to sell it off, has met with trenchant opposition. Not only is this a building which works extremely well serving the local area, it’s a symbol of what the Labour Party used to represent – both the promises it kept, and the promises it would renege upon.

The Finsbury Health Centre was designed in 1938 by an architectural firm called Tecton, who were founded by Berthold Lubetkin, a Georgian architect trained in revolutionary Moscow and St Petersburg. Some other Tecton members went on to moderate fame – Denys Lasdun, architect of London’s National Theatre, or Peter Moro, designer of the Nottingham Playhouse – but Lubetkin was always its presiding figure.

In the early 1920s, he was a roving architectural attach√© for the Soviet government, working for instance with the architect Konstantin Melnikov on his 1925 Paris Pavilion, a wildly original structure intended to display the revolution’s achievements to western visitors. On eventual emigration to London, Lubetkin hoped to adapt Soviet, socialist innovations – modern, collective housing, and ‘worker’s clubs’ – multi-purpose cultural centres at the heart of the new projects – to a British context.

At first, the new Constructivist architecture was so controversial that it was limited to private houses and, curiously, zoo buildings, in Dudley and Regent’s Park – London’s famous Penguin Pool, with its sweeping concrete ramps, is a Tecton design. In an analogy for the fate of his architecture for humans, it worked very well until the 1990s, when the zoo put burrowing penguins inside, who unsurprisingly found the concrete rather difficult.

Penguin Pool, Regents Park Zoo

The zoo’s management has since filled it with porcupines. Tecton’s commissions might have been either elite or whimsical, but they were desperate to build collective, social buildings for the working class – one of their prospective schemes was featured in the Daily Worker, with the heading ‘The Homes that are Needed’, contrasting it with the overcrowded Victorian slums, subdivided and let out by unscrupulous landlords (here, little has changed).

Eventually, Tecton had their wish granted by the Labour and Communist councillors of Finsbury, an inner-city borough since absorbed into the London Borough of Islington. Tecton prepared a Finsbury Plan, for housing and a health centre, free at the point of use – a decade before the NHS.

At the time, Finsbury was a heavily polluted area, and tuberculosis was rife. The new centre broke in every way with previous buildings for health – where they were Gothic and imposing, Tecton’s centre was light and intimate, and more to the point, where they charged for their services, the new centre did not.

The roof became a sort of mini-sanatorium in this cramped site, and the waiting rooms were made as informal as possible. Lubetkin and Tecton also ensured that, given the fast-moving nature of medical technology, the building was easily adapted, with all the partitions and walls dismountable. This makes a nonsense of Islington Primary Care Trust’s claims that the building is too expensive to refurbish for its original purpose.

John Allan, an architect who has restored many Tecton buildings, has claimed it would cost around £5 million to upgrade the building – roughly the price of closing it and moving the services elsewhere in the borough, which is the current plan. In reality, the prospective sell-off is for straightforwardly ideological reasons – an inside source quoted by the Architects’ Journal claims ‘the government’s PFI model for new group medical practices is driving the agenda’.

A Lubetkin StaircaseThis would not have surprised Lubetkin, however, as he was well aware of how politics distorted and reclaimed his architecture. Early 1930s buildings like Highpoint in north London were intended for working class tenants, until the private owners decided on a better class of occupant. Tecton’s Finsbury Plan was partially carried out after World War Two, but in a manner which frustrated the architects’ original hopes.

The first phase, Spa Green, was completed to the very generous space specifications – it was opened by Aneurin Bevan, who saw it as an exemplar of what the post-war world should look like. His colleagues at the Housing department did not agree, and imposed an austerity programme which led to cuts in Priory Green, the second phase (which, even so, is still far above the space standards in most private flats today).

But the most symbolic fight was over Bevin Court, the third and final part of the plan to be completed. This y-shaped building was designed for a site adjacent to the house where Lenin had lived in London, and Tecton intended to pay tribute in the name – Lenin Court. A memorial to the former resident was built nearby.

After repeated defacement by local Fascist groups and a refusal from the council to pay for its upkeep, Lubetkin personally buried the memorial under the site of the new building – which was itself renamed after the Cold War foreign secretary and right-wing union leader Ernest Bevin, as the Labour councillors got cold feet about paying such visible tribute to a revolutionary.

Nonetheless, the building still contains within it Tecton’s most astonishing invention – a Constructivist staircase, an airy, geometric and curvaceous social space at the heart of the building, which residents often use instead of the lifts. It might be the single most breathtaking piece of modern architecture in Britain, and it’s reserved solely for the everyday use of council tenants.The Cranbrook Estate

After this, Lubetkin produced an abortive plan for Peterlee new town, where he was commissioned by Durham miners – his town plan was shelved when the Coal Board objected to the expense. Tecton split up, and Lubetkin went into practice with some former members, where he produced three estates in Bethnal Green which still look incredibly striking, all the more so because they’re relatively unknown.

The Cranbrook, Lakeview and Dorset Estates are a series of baroque puzzles, patterned buildings which mixed low, medium and high-rise buildings with pubs and libraries – the Soviet heritage of workers’ clubs and collective houses was still present, in these lost places in the east end.

Late in life, Lubetkin, still a Communist Party member, was not keen on the preservation of Tecton’s buildings – not because they didn’t work as such, but because society as it was organised ensured that they could not work as they were intended. ‘They cry out’, he put it, ‘for a world which has not come into being’. And no doubt he’d have been the first to bury the Finsbury Health Centre rather than see it fall into the hands of BUPA.

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