Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Too Good for the Workers

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Too Good for the Workers

Article excerpt

When architects unite around a cause, it is usually to save a building from ignominious demolition. When the listed structure in question, however, is the Finsbury Health Centre, even its sale is enough to bring the banners out.

Designed in 1938 by Berthold Lubetkin, with his group Tecton, the health centre was commissioned by Finsbury's Labour-Communist council on the strength both of his existing buildings--most notably, the Penguin Pool at the London Zoo--and his socialist politics. Tecton was a key member of the Architects' and Technicians' Association, a group involved both in local activism and in raising support for the Republicans in Spain. Lubetkin was a Soviet emigre thoroughly grounded in the spirit of the constructivist movement, which was then being suppressed in Russia itself.

The health centre was designed both as an experimental "social condenser", with a solarium, a roof terrace and murals imploring slum-dwellers to "live out of doors as much as you can", and also as a serious-minded attempt to counter appalling health conditions in an area where tuberculosis was rife. When queried about whether the locals found the bright, avant-garde design to be over their heads, Lubetkin said that "nothing is too good for ordinary people".

It was hugely popular: so much so, that it appeared on a Second World War propaganda poster by Abram Games, symbolising the reforms promised in the Beveridge Report, under the heading "Your Britain--Fight for it Now".

Winston Churchill was no enthusiast for modernism, let alone socialist experiment, and the wartime prime minister personally vetoed the poster (copies were produced but never displayed). …

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