Convinced that architecture was a tool for social progress, Russian-born BERTHOLD LUBETKIN (1901-1990) was one of the European émigrés who championed modernism in mid-20th century Britain and whose built projects include the Highpoint housing complex, London Zoo penguin pool and Finsbury Health Centre.
Looking back on his life in his seventies, Berthold Lubetkin summarised it as being “born into one world, tested in another and abandoned in a third.” The first world was pre-revolutionary Russia where he grew up. The second was the birth of the modern movement in 1920s Paris and 1930s London. The third was conservative Britain after World War II in which Lubetkin, one of the country’s most prolific architects in the pre-war years, did feel abandoned.
Despite the disappointments of his later years, Lubetkin accomplished a great deal when being “tested” in his second world. He arrived in London from Paris in 1931 to discover a new generation of young architects eager to experiment with the ideas of the continental modern movement. As co-founder of the radical Tecton group, he was able to design and build a succession of radical housing projects in the 1930s, from a modest terrace to the de luxe Highpoint apartment block, and to move on to intellectually ambitious public schemes from zoos to the Finsbury Health Centre.
Like so many of his peers, Lubetkin’s work ground to a halt during World War II and his post-war career never regained its lost momentum. He completed a number of public housing schemes, but felt increasingly frustrated by bureaucratic intervention and inadequate budgets. The final defeat came in the late 1940s when he was appointed architect-planner of the new town to be built at Peterlee in County Durham only to offer his resignation from what could have been his most exciting challenge after months of conflict.
Born in what he later described as “the back of beyond” in Tiflis, Georgia in 1901 to a liberal Jewish family, Berthold Romanovich Lubetkin spent his childhood moving around Russia as his father’s business expanded with holidays spent travelling in Europe to visit relatives. Cultured as well as cosmopolitan, his parents encouraged his intellectual interests. When Lubetkin left school in 1917 on the eve of the Russian Revolution, they helped him to move to Moscow to enrol at a private art school.
Lubetkin and his art school friends were inspired by the Revolution and the “Heroic” early years of Bolshevik rule. When their art school closed, they enrolled in the SVOMAS system of free workshops, which offered free art training to everyone over the age of 16. Influenced by his teachers Rodchenko and Popova, and the work of their fellow constructivists, Tatlin and El Lissitzy, Lubetkin experimented with sculpture. Struck by the constructivist concept of the “artist engineer”, who used industrial techniques to produce socially useful objects, he investigated design and architecture. For the rest of his life, Lubetkin remained devoted to the constructivist belief in technology and architecture as tools of social transformation.
By 1922, he left Russia to work as an assistant on an Exhibition of Russian Art in Berlin. Young and obscure though he was, Lubetkin was charming and resourceful. He swiftly befriended avant garde artists and writers such as Paul Klee, Thomas Mann, George Grosz and K?the Kollwitz. He considered studying at the Bauhaus, but decided that it had little to add to his SVOMAS experience, and enrolled instead at the Berlin Textile Academy to study under the art historian Wilhelm Worringer, a specialist in carpet design. Grounding aesthetics within social history, Worringer’s lectures had a lasting influence on Lubetkin. “It was an attempt to trace regularity in terms of preconceived pattern,” he observed, “and, in showing systematic arrangement to pass finally from observation to vision.”
Lubetkin also used his time in Berlin to study modern construction techniques, particularly reinforced concrete, which were considerably more advanced in Germany than Russia. In 1923 he moved to Poland to study architecture at Warsaw Polytechnic and in 1925 moved to Paris to complete his studies at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Lubetkin arrived there for the opening of L’Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes where he discovered Le Corbusier’s Pavilion de L’Esprit Nouveau describing it as “cool, laconic and elegant in its self-assured intellectual simplicity”.
At the Ecole des Beaux-Arts he insisted on joining the radical atelier led by Auguste Perret, the progressive architect famed for his experiments with concrete and who, ten years earlier, had taught Le Corbusier. The son of a builder, who considered construction to be as important as architecture, Perret instilled his students with intellectual rigour in the search for order and inner logic. As in Berlin, the charming, young Russian socialised with artists and intellectuals such as Fernand Léger, Jean Cocteau and Le Corbusier. Surviving on a government stipend, Lubetkin worked as a freelance translator and as a market porter at Les Halles. At one point he was reduced to selling the gold dentures he had found in a trunk in the attic of the apartment he was renting until his neighbour, the circus artist Roland Tutin, asked him to design the set for the Club Trapèze Volant, a nightclub intended for fellow circus artists but which became a fashionable haunt for the avant garde.
Club Trapèze Volant established Lubetkin as a promising young architect and in 1928 he and a student friend - Jean Ginsburg - were commissioned by the latter’s father to design an apartment block at 25 Avenue de Versailles. Heavily influenced by Le Corbusier’s purist villas, the nine storey building was sophisticated and assured, incorporating many of the latest construction materials and techniques in a bold version of the glacial International Style.
For the first few years after Lubetkin left Moscow he intended to return, but by the end of the 1920s he felt disinclined to live in Stalin’s increasingly repressive regime. In 1931 he was offered a commission to design a house in London for the wealthy Harari family and decided to move there. Lubetkin arrived to find that the architectural establishment was largely conservative and immune to the modernist fervour that had swept across continental Europe. Traditional materials were still used for most large buildings, although reinforced concrete was becoming increasingly common in small structures such as shops, garages, factories and warehouses. Moreover a handful of academics were championing the modern movement, notably Howard Robertson at the Architectural Association, as were the young writers and photographers working for the Architectural Review magazine.
The optimistic Lubetkin was convinced that Britain’s engineering and scientific heritage, egalitarian exercises like the 19th century Garden City Movement and, what he confidently expected to be the demise of the landed aristocracy, would foster the rise of modernism. His optimism was shared by other émigrés arriving in London from Europe: his fellow Russian Serge Chermayeff, Hungarian-born Ern? Goldfinger, the German-born Erich Mendelsohn and the former Bauhüsslers, Walter Gropius, László Moholy-Nagy and Marcel Breuer. They influenced young British-born architects, such as Maxwell Fry, Jane Drew, Francis Skinner and Denys Lasdun.
Less than a year after his arrival in London, Lubetkin joined forces with a group of these young architects including Skinner and Lasdun, with Godfrey Samuel and Lindsay Drake, to form a group named Tecton, an abbreviation of Architecton, the Greek word for architecture. Lubetkin’s command of English was still slight, but his young collaborators were awed by his intellect and sophistication. They opened a tiny attic office and struggled to find commissions, while the Trad v. Rad debate divided British architecture, and Lubetkin made his name by writing articles and giving speeches as a rad.
The first Tecton commission was a Gorilla House at London Zoo in Regent’s Park. Odd though the project may seem, the architectural possibilities were fascinating, not least as Lubetkin was able to indulge his fascination for incorporating movement into buildings by designing sliding and revolving screens, to create a controlled environment to protect the gorillas from human infection. He built the house in his favourite form, a circle, as a Corbusian machine à habiter for animals. Determined to build the circule in concrete, Lubetkin contacted the Parisian civil engineers, Christiani & Nielson, who referred him to their London representative, a brilliant young Dane, Ove Arup. Sharing Lubetkin’s zest for experimentation, Arup made an inspired contribution to the Gorilla House and they began a lifelong collaboration.
Tecton also won a series of housing commissions. When Lubetkin returned to Moscow in 1934 for the First All-Union Conference of Soviet Architects, he felt so dispirited that he returned to Britain, where his prospects seemed more robust. On the voyage back he met a radical young architecture student, Margaret Church, the granddaughter of a founder of the Tate & Lyle sugar group, which whom he would fall in love and, in 1939, marry.
On the Gorilla House’s completion in 1934, Tecton was commissioned to design a Penguin Pool for London Zoo. Lubetkin conceived it as a stage set with walkways for the waddling penguins in the favourite constructivist form of a double helix and a spacious pool where they could show off their speed and grace when swimming. Structurally he and Arup achieved a coup in the wafer-thin cantilevered walkways, which illustrated the sculptural qualities of concrete. Tecton was then invited to design two zoos: the first at Whipsnade in Bedforshire, where Lubetkin also designed a series of bungalows, including one for himself, and the second at Dudley in Warwickshire.
In 1935, Lubetkin was offered an opportunity to develop his ideas on housing on a more ambitious scale by designing a de luxe high rise apartment complex in North London, which was to define a new ideal for urban living. The complex was to offer every amenity that its wealthy modern residents required, and the brief extended to designing or specifying every element of the building, from hinges to wash basins. Highpoint One conformed to the Le Corbusian principles of housing construction, down to the pilotis which raised the first floor above the ground. Arup applied his favourite technique of monolithic and slab reinforced concrete and introduced a system of climbing shuttering, which was common in civil engineering, but hitherto unused in housing. Heating, refrigeration and as many other functional facilities as possible were designed to be communal. When a neighbouring plot of land became vacant, Tecton returned to design an adjacent block at Highpoint Two, which was even more luxurious than One. He and Margaret made their home there and furnished it with wooden sofas and low chairs made to their own design from specially imported Norwegian yew, sand-blasted pine panelling and custom-built mobiles made by the sculptor Alexander Calder.
A year after starting work on Highpoint One, Tecton was appointed to design a new Health Centre next to Sadler’s Wells theatre in the Clerkenwell area of London. It was the first time that a progressive architectural group had been awarded a municipal commission in Britain and offered an important opportunity for Lubetkin to publicly use architecture as a catalyst for progress to change people’s behaviour. He was determined that the design of the Health Centre would encourage the public to become healthier, from the “sunny and airy effect” of its glass brick fa?ade, to the cheerful murals painted on the walls by Gordon Cullen which adjured visitors to “live out of doors as much as you can” and to benefit from “fresh air night and day”.
When the centre was completed in 1938, Finsbury Council invited Tecton to devise a visionary Finsbury Plan to rebuild the borough after the demolition of its squalid 19th century slum housing. The councillors were committed to pursuing progressive solutions to the borough’s problems, but when World War II began the following year, Tecton was diverted towards a less ambitious, but sorely needed project – the design of air-raid shelters.
Architectural commissions disappeared during the war. The 39 year-old Lubetkin, who only two years before had been feted in New York at the opening of the Exhibition of Modern Architecture in England at the Museum of Modern Art, left London for a centuries-old farmhouse in the Gloucestershire countryside where he and Margaret would live until 1962. They transformed it into a working farm and, during the war, looked after a succession of hippos, chimps and other exotic animals which were evacuated from London Zoo.
After the war Finsbury Council asked Tecton to resume its work there, and the practice designed a series of public housing schemes, notably the 1943-1950 Spa Green Estate and the 1943-1957 Priory Green Estate. In both projects Lubetkin was able to apply many of the ideas developed for the luxurious Highpoint apartments to inexpensive council housing. Tecton disbanded in 1948. Having expected to be charged with rebuilding Britain after the war, the members were disillusioned by the conservative climate of post-war commissions. Lubetkin completed the estates with Francis Skinner and Douglas Bailey, even though Priory Green descended into exhausting battles with the council over its inadequate budget. More public housing commissions followed: the 1946-1954 Holford Square Housing in Finsbury; the 1946-1954 Hallfield Estate in Paddington; and the 1951-1957 Dorset Estate in Shoreditch, but none had the vigour of Highpoint or Spa Green.
Lubetkin’s great hope for his post-war career, his appointment in 1947 as the architect-planner of the new town of Peterlee for 30,000 residents on the coalfields of County Durham, ended in disaster. “It is a dream of our time,” he had written optimistically in 1948. “In the midst of national austerity, we are going to build a new town, lock, stock and barrel.” The topography was inspiring, the social need for the town compelling and Lubetkin was assured of the support of the National Coal Board, the government and the local authorities. He flung himself into the intellectual challenge of redefining the modern town, only to find his vision mired in red tape and bureaucratic opposition. In 1949, Lubetkin offered his resignation, all his work wasted.
Lubetkin exiled himself in Gloucestershire and, although he continued to develop ideas, schemes and, occasionally, built projects, he bitterly saw himself as having been “abandoned” in the third stage of his career. After his death his daughter Louise Kehoe wrote a harrowing account of the influence of his anger and disappointment on his children. Until his death in 1990, Lubetkin remained equally bitter about the state of architecture and used the speech he gave in 1982 when awarded a Gold Medal by the Royal Institute of British Architects to vent his views: “A society that openly professes that the present is expendable and the future unintelligible begets artists who have to scream to be noticed and remembered for a quarter of an hour.”
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1901 Berthold Romanovich Lubetkin is born to a liberal Jewish family in Tiflic, the capital of Georgia.
1917 Leaving school in St Petersburg, Lubetkin goes to Moscow to enrol at art school. After the Revolution his art school closes and he joins the new Bolshevik art school system of SVOMAS free workshops.
1922 Travels to Berlin to work as an assistant on a state-sponsored Exhibition of Russian Art. Studies under Wilhelm Worringer, a scholar in the history of carpet design and aesthetics, at the Berlin Textile Academy.
1923 Moves to Warsaw for two years of architectural studies at Warsaw Polytechnic.
1925 Arrives in Paris to complete his study of architecture at the école des Beaux-Arts, where he joins Auguste Perret’s radical atelier.
1927 Commissioned by a neighbour, the circus artist Roland Tutin, to design an acrobatic set for a circus nightclub the Club Trapèze Volant.
1928 Starts work on the design of a new apartment building at 25 Avenue de Versailles with a friend, the Polish-born architect Jean Ginsburg.
1931 Moves to London with a commission to design a house for the Harari family.
1932 Co-founds Tecton as a radical architectural group with younger architects including Francis Skinner and Denys Lasdun. Tecton wins its first commission to design the 1932-1934 Gorilla House at London Zoo in Regent’s Park, which marks the start of Lubetkin’s collaboration with the Danish-born structural engineer Ove Arup.
1933 Starts work on the second London Zoo commission, the 1933-1934 Penguin Pool. Appointed as architect of the 1933-1935 Highpoint One apartment block in Highgate, north London.
1934 Appointed as architect of the new 1934-1935 Whipsnade Zoo at Dunstable, Bedfordshire, where Lubetkin also designs a series of bungalows.
1935 Finsbury Council commissions Lubetkin and Tecton to design the 1935-1938 Finsbury Health Centre. Tecton begins two year project to design a new zoo at Dudley in Warwickshire.
1936 Starts work on the design of the 1936-1938 Highpoint Two.
1937 Begins the design of the Busaco Housing Estate in Finsbury, which will be completed after World War II as the 1943-1957 Priory Green Estate. Lubetkin is feted at the opening of the Exhibition of Modern Architecture in England at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
1938 The Finsbury Health Centre opens and Lubetkin is commissioned to devise an urban plan for the reconstruction of the borough. Starts work on the construction of the Sadler Street Estate in Finsbury which, like the work on the Busaco, is disrupted by the war and then resumes as the 1943-1950 Spa Green Estate.
1939 Marries Margaret Church and, his projects suspended with the outbreak of World War II, they move to a Gloucestershire farm.
1943 Resumes work on the Sadler and Busaco housing estates in Finsbury, now the 1943-1950 Spa Green Estate and 1943-1957 Priory Green Estate.
1946 Begins the development of the 1946-1954 Holford Square Housing project in Finsbury and the 1946-1954 Hallfoield housing estate in Paddington.
1948 Appointed architect-planner of Peterlee, a new town for 30,000 residents in County Durham, only to resign the following year. Tecton disbands and Lubetkin completes his housing projects with Francis Skinner and Douglas Bailey.
1951 Starts work with Skinner and Bailey on the design of the Dorset Street Estate in Shoreditch.
1982 Awarded a Gold Medal by the Royal Institute of British Architects.
1990 Death of Berthold Lubetkin.
Design Museum + British Council
John Allan, Lubetkin: Architecture and the Tradition of Progress, RIBA Publications, 1992
M. Reading, P. Coe, Lubetkin and Tecton: An Architectural Study, Triangle Architectural Publications, 1992
Louise Kehoe, In This Dark House: A Memoir, Viking, 1996
John Allan, Morley van Sternberg, Berthold Lubetkin, Merrell Publishers, 2002
For more information on British design and architecture go to Design in Britain, the online archive run in collaboration by the Design Museum and the British Council, at designmuseum.org/designinbritain
Design Museum + British Council