The Grade I-listed Finsbury Health Centre (1938) in Clerkenwell, London, is a revolutionary building designed by the Russian émigré architect Berthold Lubetkin and his Tecton practice. It encapsulated progressive post-war politics a full decade before the establishment of the NHS, which it was a model for.
The building had universal free access and its programme was arranged to suit the needs of the patients rather than the staff. The London Borough of Finsbury’s socialist ideals fused with Tecton’s design principles – the building was politically and architecturally progressive.
The low-lying structure, with its tile and glass-brick facade, light-filled lobby and easily navigable rational layout, acted as a kind of beacon of the future. Lubetkin wanted murals inside to persuade people to live healthier lives, and to get fresh air – the nanny state at its most benign. The interior was bright red and azure, which contrasted markedly with the surrounding slums. The building was part of the Finsbury Plan to have public libraries, baths and health centres throughout the borough, but it was the only building to be completed. Budgetary constraints and the Second World War intervened. It’s still in use, but the exterior is now somewhat dilapidated after years of inadequate maintenance.
Lubetkin set up Tecton in 1931. It had a group style: modernist but in a baroque, decorative manner rather than brutalist. His other well-known buildings include the Penguin Pool at London Zoo (and to a lesser extent the revolving Gorilla House), the Highpoint towers in Highgate and the Spa Green Estate in Clerkenwell. Tecton’s influence can also be seen in some of the structures of the Festival of Britain in 1951. Lubetkin himself gave up architecture following the wranglings over his plan and design for the new town of Peterlee in County Durham, a commission he was offered following the success of the Finsbury Health Centre.
At the time of its opening, the Manchester Guardian – referring to Lubetkin as a “clever Russian ferro-concrete engineer and architect” – said that “a strange new bird of brilliant plumage has settled down” amid the “grey-brown” slums of Finsbury, and it does appear to have its wings outstretched, even if these days they are clipped. “There is indeed no precedent for its conception or planning,” the Guardian went on, before concluding that, “If ever justification were needed of the essential sanity and adaptability of modern functional architecture, this building gives it.”
Any low-rise building on such a prime site is vulnerable to redevelopment. In 2008 Islington primary care trust announced that it planned to sell the building, prompting a passionate campaign to keep it as a health centre, rather than see it converted into a restaurant or gym (visit savefhc.org.uk for details). Martin Klute, chair of the Islington health scrutiny committee, says, “The overwhelming evidence is that closure cannot be justified on healthcare, financial, fitness-for-purpose or planning grounds … the cost of disposing of the building … would be more or less the same as the cost of restoration and refurbishment.”
A Commons debate in June failed to elicit a strong defence of the centre from the health minister, and English Heritage is urging the primary care trust to spend money on immediate vital repairs. It’s all a far cry from Lubetkin’s famous maxim, “Nothing is too good for ordinary people.”
Finsbury Health Centre