But not everyone was as prepared as Churchill to bury their hatred for the Bolsheviks and the memorial was repeatedly vandalised so Lubetkin and his collaborators removed the statue.
Abram Games 1943 propaganda poster of Berthold Lubetkin’s Finsbury Health Centre for the British government’s war effort banned by Winston Churchill. By kind permission of the Imperial War Museum from Art.IWM PST 2911
The Finsbury Health Centre featured in wartime propaganda poster by Abram Games. The Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, didn’t like the socialist aspect of the poster’s message, that the Britain worth fighting for was the newer Britain of Finsbury and not the image of the working-class child with rickets that the Finsbury Health Centre was built to banish. So the poster was banned.
After the war ended the work of slum clearance and the reconstruction of London began. Finsbury wanted decent homes for its people and there was an urgent need. Lubetkin returned and designed the Spa Green Estate. It is another Modernist masterpiece and Lubetkin sought to incorporate as much of the lux feel of Highpoint as possible. For example, there are rubbish chutes and an aerofoil roof where residents might dry their washing. Nye Bevan, the left-wing Labour politician who, as Minister for Health, headed the creation by the post-War Labour government of the National Health Service, laid the foundation stone.
After the next project, Priory Green, was Bevin Court, close to Spa Green and, again, in Finsbury. It was finished in 1954 but money was by then very short. So Lubetkin had to scale back his ambitions; no balconies to the flats and no shared social facilities for the residents. But the result was nonetheless immensely pleasing. Clean, angular lines, an understated design style with the two blocks that comprise the estate set in a landscaped area with, now, mature trees and lawns.
Built over where Lenin had lived, the development is named after another Labour politician, Ernest Bevin, who served as Foreign Minister and was most definitely no communist. The original idea of calling the development Lenin Court was dropped – by the time of the estate’s construction we were in the midst of the Cold War – but, beneath the staircase, the central staircase that Lubetkin called a ‘social condenser’, that memorial to Lenin is buried.
Looking down through the Bevin Court central stairwell
Bevin’s bust is displayed in a niche in the entrance lobby of Bevin Court. While it may appear to be a bronze it is, in fact, an artfully 3D printed version of a bust of Bevin.
On the ground floor Peter Yates painted a mural but the open access the building allowed to the ground floor made it a target for vandals and in the dark days of the estate’s neglect until its through and careful restoration.
The restored Peter Yates mural, ground floor Bevin Court
Lubetkin didn’t pursue other projects. He died in 1990 but eight years before that RIBA awarded him its Gold Medal and in his acceptance speech displayed not only his immense intellect but made a searing defence of Modernism against its critics:
‘The epigones, the rearguard reactionaries, specialise in attacking what they like to call International Style which I think is the greatest innovation since humanity discovered the roulette wheel.”
A surprising simile? Louise Kehoe, Lubetkin’s daughter, who wrote an uncompromising and award-winning account (In This Dark House) of her deeply unhappy childhood with a father who she describes as a domineering and unsympathetic bully, tells how Lubetkin became devoted to gambling in casinos in the final years of his life. Louise solved the mystery of Lubetkin’s true background, one that might explain much of the man’s contradictions. He was Jewish and his parents, trapped in Warsaw, were like millions of other Jews, murdered by the Nazis while Lubetkin worked his farm.
We are hugely indebted to Rajiv, who lives in Bevin Court for his photographs. Rajiv has a fascination for architecture and his thoughtful insights about living in Bevin Court show why it is such a fabulous design and would, we believe, please Lubetkin.
Rajiv told us he looked at council properties as they were the most economical way of getting a foothold on the London property ladder. He says ‘I felt so lucky walking up the staircase on my first arrival. Like being in a living museum.’ when he first rented a one bedroom flat in Bevin Court.
Rajiv continued, ‘Having lived in ex-council properties for all my 12 years in London as a medical student and a doctor, I find they are generously proportioned. These properties allow for modular, multifunctional living. Living in a council property encourages more social connectivity with your neighbours, which is increasingly important, especially in our ever-fragmented society.’
‘I am very proud of where I live and enjoy the multiple different spaces that it offers. It is built on the bomb cleared remains of a grand square with a large bowling green at its historical centre. The high rise is now centred in a plot that has extensive gardens tended to by our residents gardening association and a public park. My flat and most of the others in this building, that are above ground level, have clear lines of sight and a dual aspect, and a Y shaped flat configuration, that looks like a 3 sided helicopter blade from the air.’
Rajiv quotes Lubetkin who said, ‘nothing is too good for the ordinary man.’
‘Bevin’s bust was 3D printed by my friend and future architect Mustafa Yasser Raee while he was staying with me at Bevin Court in the cramped 1 bedroom. We reworked the original interiors of a 3 bedroom property, four storeys below, to suit my needs. My visits to Erno Goldfinger’s Willow Road and even the penthouse of Lubetkin’s Highpoint, would satisfy my desire that my flat is a space that Lubetkin would have enjoyed. Plywood is used generously to make functional, space-creating and space-saving design solutions that I feel complement the ethos of the Bauhaus design collective that propagated at the Isokon.’
Interior of Bevin Court apartment, courtesy of the copyright owner Rajiv
We asked Rajiv to describe what is special about the experience of living in an architectural icon?
‘I enjoy the space. I enjoy the light. I enjoy the tranquillity of living in central London surrounded by greenery and a feeling of living in a tree house with lime green parakeets’ playing outside. It is particularly amazing when there is white cherry blossom 5 feet from my window. Not so great is the dawn chorus at 5 am. I enjoy the colourful sunsets over London with its clear lines of sight to King’s Cross and the city. I enjoyed taking people on the convoluted trek up to the staircase which presents them with different aspects of the city. I like the communal walkways and the interconnected living we have with our neighbours.
Interior of Bevin Court apartment, courtesy of the copyright owner Rajiv
Rajiv works in the NHS which he describes as, ‘full of dilapidated, chaotic and uninspiring spaces. Lubetkin’s health centre was pioneering but I wish that more spaces would be made that would creatively address the needs of those that use the building the most; its STAFF. By meeting the needs of the workforce, in providing a comfortable, functional and relaxing environment, this ultimately promotes their ability to offer good patient care.’
We asked Rajiv if he has a favourite building, and he’d love to visit Wright’s Fallingwater. As a Londoner we asked him to recommend the best spot for a drink and view in his city and he described the rich experience of standing on the terrace of the Royal Festival Hall, five storeys up, overlooking the Southbank, with a bottle of wine.