A vision still worth fighting for

Jonathan Glancey hopes a north London monument to Modernist ideals will be restored to full health
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The Independent Culture
Winston Churchill was beside himself. The year was 1943 and some Bolshevik in the Army Bureau of Current Affairs had commissioned a poster from the designer Abram Games depicting Finsbury Health Centre (the future) shining in all its socialist glory in front of a murky London scene (the past) depicting malevolent slums, a small boy with rickets, graffiti intoning "disease" and the spectre of an early grave in the guise of a gravestone. "Your Britain," said the inflammatory poster. "Fight for it Now."

Churchill banned the poster, saying it was a "disgraceful libel on the conditions prevailing in Great Britain before the war.... The soldiers know their homes are not like that."

The soldiers knew differently, which is partly why in July 1945 Churchill lost a general election that brought Clement Attlee, the Labour Party and those who had created Finsbury Health Centre into power with a parliamentary majority of nearly 150 seats.

Finsbury Health Centre is hard at work today providing primary health care to the people of what remains a poor residential district of central London. A building where the aesthetics of revolutionary Soviet Constructivism meet the principles that inspired the welfare state and the National Health Service, it remains the single most complete expression of the social and architectural ideals of the Modern Movement in Britain.

Today the building, designed by Berthold Lubetkin's Tecton group, engineered by Ove Arup and completed in 1938, is listed Grade I. This has not stopped it from falling into disrepair. In fact, until Avanti, an architectural practice led by John Allan, Lubetkin's meticulous biographer, was able to restore parts of the health centre recently, this monument to the noble ideals of a social movement anathema to today's market-potty politicians had been left to the mercy of climate and age.

Allan was given £350,000 to restore what he could of a building that needs a further £1.5m spent on it. What he has done is first class, yet his superb restoration of a third of the building only highlights the poverty of the rest. If you go and look at Finsbury Health Centre, you will see a building that mirrors Abram Games's poster: the part that Allan has restored is a Thirties vision brimming with new life; the rest belongs to the world of the little boy with rickets.

Money is hard to come by, not just because the NHS is short of funds but also because private donors who indulge the visual arts, architecture, opera or fashionable causes are noticeably shy when it comes to supporting such painful reminders of human imperfectability as physical and mental health care. The health centre needs patrons as altruistic as those who brought it into being 60 years ago. It needs money now.

Its survival is remarkable, the fact that it was built at all astonishing. In the Thirties, when the average Englishman could expect to live to 59, Finsbury was one of the country's poorest boroughs. It was also one of the unhealthiest. Children living in private-sector slums were prey to lice, rickets, TB, bronchitis and pneumonia. A lack of sunlight, in and out of homes, aggravated vitamin D deficiency fostered by poor diet. A fragmented and costly system of health care did little to alleviate Finsbury's chronic condition.

Socialist councillors of what was often called "the People's Republic of Finsbury", led by Mayor Riley, produced the "Finsbury Plan", which called for the construction of a comprehensive health centre at the heart of a proposed complex of public libraries, swimming baths, a market and day nurseries for the children of working mothers - all in sight of the big striped brick Italian church of St Peter's. In the event, only the health centre was built, commissioned by its director, Dr Katial, an Indian emigr, from Tecton, which had drawn up designs for an ideal health centre in 1932. Dr Katial had seen the drawings at an exhibition and, having never met Lubetkin, invited him to design the building. Planning began in 1935 and the centre was opened three years later.

Nothing quite like it had been seen before in Britain. Not only was the architecture revolutionary, but the range and standard of healthcare services the centre offered seemed almost miraculous. Here there was a TB clinic, a foot clinic, dental surgery and solarium for the borough's sun-starved children. In the basement, clothes and bedding could be brought in to be cleaned and disinfected. The centre also included a lecture theatre, offices and a mortuary.

Its purpose was salutary, yet it was, from the start, a delightful building, approachable, light, colourful and relaxed. Lubetkin designed it so that it would have the feel of a club, a place where local people would be drawn and feel welcome but never patronised. In this setting they would be helped and learn, through a far-reaching health education programme, to look after themselves.

"The health centre," said Lubetkin years later, "had many technical innovations and was subjected to the most rigorous study as regards services and flexible planning, to the extent that we risked losing all sight of an architectural character and producing a building that wore a frown. The centre's opening arms and formal entrance were a deliberate attempt to introduce a smile into what is a machine."

But a machine coloured sky blue and Tuscan red (this was never a monochrome building), decorated inside with murals by Gordon Cullen and furnished with glamorous custom- designed chairs and lamps, was quite unlike any other machine-for-living (or delousing) anyone in Britain had known. Quite simply, Lubetkin, Dr Katial, Mayor Riley and the Metropolitan Borough of Finsbury gave us a brand-new building type. It was to Finsbury that the architects of the London County Council turned10 years later when they began work on the Royal Festival Hall (or RFH1, in the new South Bank jargon), still one of the most likeable Modern buildings in Britain.

"Nothing," said Lubetkin, "is too good for ordinary people." A photograph of the architect, who died in 1988, by Snowdon, on the wall of the lobby of Finsbury Health Centre reminds visitors both of the ideals that led to the construction of this remarkable building and to Allan's exemplary restoration work. Lubetkin's slogan, however, can also be read as an indictment of the fact that we have allowed this building to fall so far from Thirties grace (when even the Spectator praised both the design and the ideals that nurtured it).

"I'd call the health centre an icon of social deliverance," said Allan. "It introduced ordinary English people to new ideals formulated in a new, convincing and accessible architecture.

"Many new ideas were realised here, such as moveable partition walls that make the interior flexible, curtain walling on the outside [the only other pre-war example is the Peter Jones department store at Sloane Square] and services - plumbing, wiring and so on - that were both an integral part of the architectural design and very accessible."

Neglect has meant that when Allan began face-lifting the centre in 1991, he had to work hard to discover original materials and colours. Over time, the building had lost its subtle colour scheme under coats of crude white render, while its pioneering curtain wall looked dull and grubby. The glass panels set in the teak frame of the curtain walls were originally copper coloured and, in Lubetkin's words, meant to "shine like a girlfriend's hair". Thanks to Allan and Avanti, they are every bit as lustrous today, at least on one one side of the building.

In a country of deregulation, rising incidences of TB, high unemployment, low wages and an increasing divide between rich and poor, Finsbury Health Centre reminds us that this type of building is as relevant today as it was when commissioned by men and women for whom public service were two words to be proud of. Today, the health centre is a beacon of commonsensical ideology and glamorous yet workaday architecture, in a sea of trashy new vernacular-style offices and homes where the one only apparent motive for their design is profit.

When fully restored it will, in the long run, prove to be far more profitable than the fast-buck buildings rising around it. In years to come, Finsbury Health Centre will still shine, while the architecture of the Eighties encroaching on it will be the stuff of rickets and death in the wartime poster that so irked Winston Churchill.