Berthold Romanovich Lubetkin (14 December 1901 — 23 October 1990) was a Russian émigré architect who pioneered modernist design in Britain in the 1930s. His work includes the Highpoint housing complex, London Zoo penguin pool, Finsbury Health Centre and Spa Green Estate.
He was born in Tiflis (now the capital of Georgia) into a Jewish family. His father, Roman Aronovich Lubetkin (1885, St. Petersburg – 1942, Auschwitz) was a railroad engineer. Lubetkin studied in Moscow and Leningrad where he witnessed the Russian Revolution of 1917 and absorbed elements of Constructivism.
Lubetkin practiced in Paris in the 1920s in partnership with Jean Ginsburg, with whom he designed an apartment building on the Avenue de Versailles (number 25). In Paris he associated with the leading figures of the European Avant Garde including Le Corbusier. He continued to participate in the debates of Constructivism, designing a trade pavilion for the USSR in Bordeaux and participating in the Palace of the Soviets competition, for which his entry was shortlisted.
Emigrating to London in 1931, Lubetkin set up the architectural practice Tecton. He joined the Communist Party of Great Britain in the same year. The first projects included landmark buildings for London Zoo, the gorilla house and a penguin pool. Lubetkin and Tecton set up the Architects and Technicians Organisation in 1936. Tecton were also commissioned by London Zoo to design buildings for their reserve park at Whipsnade and to design a completely new zoo in Dudley consisting of twelve animal enclosures and was a unique example of early Modernism in the UK. All of the original enclosures survive, apart from the penguin pool, which was demolished in 1979. According to the 20th Century Society: 'Encapsulated in the playful pavilions at Dudley is a call to remember the higher calling of all architecture, embracing not just material needs but also the desire to inspire and delight.'
Tecton's housing projects included private houses in Sydenham one of the UK's few modernist terraces and most famously the Highpoint apartments in Highgate. Highpoint One was singled out for particular praise by Le Corbusier.
Eventually, Tecton’s plans for a housing and health centre development in Finsbury had its 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. 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.
The Labour Party council in the Finsbury were major patrons of Tecton, commissioning the Finsbury Heatlh Centre, which was completed in 1938. Lubetkin and Tecton's achievement in Finsbury was to unite the aesthetic and political ambitions of Modernism with the radical municipal socialism of the Borough. The health centre resolved the tension between three key modernist ideals. First: a social function; universal access to healthcare free at the point of use for the borough's residents (a decade before the NHS). Second, the political; no longer was social good to be achieved through charity or hope, instead it was provided by a democratically elected and accountable municipal authority, funded through local taxation. And third, the element which made Tecton's work unique, the aesthetic. The building's tiled facade shone above the surrounding slums, its rational conception asserted the ideal of a socialist future as the rational endgame to progress; in Lubetkin's words the architecture "cried out for a new world". Lubetkin's modernism – 'nothing is too good for ordinary people' – laid down a challenge to the class bound complacency of thirties Britain. But Tecton's plans to replace Finsbury's slums with modern flatted housing were stopped by the onset of war in 1939.
Paradoxically the war would move Lubetkin's work from the radical fringe to the mainstream. As the fighting progressed, the British government became increasingly committed to the idea of building a fairer society when peace
The post-war Labour victory was built on the promise of modernism as pioneered by Tecton. The Finsbury Health Centre became a model for the new National Health Service. To confirm the significance of Lubetkin's vision, Aneurin Bevan the Minister of Health laid the foundation stone to Tecton/Finsbury's Spa Green Estate in winter 1946.
For most of these projects Lubetkin and Tecton worked closely with Ove Arup as structural engineer. Arup's innovative concrete 'egg-crate' construction at Spa Green gave each flat clear views unobstructed by internal pillars, and his aerodynamic 'wind roof' provided a communal area for drying clothes and social gathering.
In 1947 Lubetkin was commissioned to be master planner and chief architect for the Peterlee new town.
Lubetkin returned to Finsbury to complete (in collaboration with Francis Skinner and Douglas Bailey) his final project for the Borough, Bevin Court. Initially named Lenin Court the housing scheme was to incorporate Lubetkin's Lenin Memorial. Post-war austerity had imposed far greater budgetary constraints than in the showpiece Spa Green Estate, forcing Lubetkin to strip the project of the basic amenities he had planned; there were to be no balconies, community centre or nursery school. Instead Lubetkin focused his energies on the social space. Fusing his aesthetic and political concerns he created a stunning constructivist staircase – a social condenser that forms the heart of the building.
But the scheme marked a shift in British housing policy. To save costs, Lubetkin successfully made significant use of prefabricated floor and wall components. Less beneficially, the diminished social provision forced on the architects by the reduced budget would be repeated with far worse consequences across post-war Britain. And also beyond the control of the architects was a political statement. Before the building was completed the Cold war had intensified and as a result the scheme was renamed Bevin Court (honouring Britain's firmly anti-communist foreign secretary Ernest Bevin). In defiance, Lubetkin buried his memorial to Lenin under the central core to his staircase. To this day it underpins the social heart of the building, perhaps waiting for a more promising future.
Tecton's work would also be a major influence on the Festival of Britain. However Lubetkin's efforts to gain employment with the London County Council (the authority with responsibility for building the Festival) were rebuffed.
Frustrated, Lubetkin spent increasing
Lubetkin eventually moved to Bristol where he lived with his wife. He campaigned in later life to protect the views of Brunel's Clifton Bridge; for Lubetkin, Brunel epitomised the spirit of technological progress which had first attracted him to England. In 1982 Lubetkin was awarded the RIBA Roayal Gold Medal. He died in Bristol in 1990. Lubetkin was the subject of a Design Museum exhibition in 2005. His daughter, Louise Kehoe, published an award-winning memoir in 1995 which included previously unknown details of Lubetkin's early years.
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.
In 2009 East Durham & Houghall Community College, based in Peterlee, named its theatre after Lubetkin in honour of the vision he had for the town. The Lubetkin Theatre was officially opened by his daughter Sasha Lubetkin on 5 October 2009. At the opening Sasha Lubetkin said: “I’m immensely proud that this beautiful theatre has been named after my father and that his work is remembered in spite of the brutal way it ended. He had such dreams for Peterlee, he wanted to turn it into the miners’ capital of the world. His respect and admiration of the miners made him want to create something really special that didn’t exist anywhere else but unfortunately that wasn’t possible."