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A brave new world

A new exhibition at the Wellcome Collection recalls post-war social housing with a conscience. Angela Cobbinah mourns its passing

15 February, 2019 — By Angela Cobbinah

A section of Lubetkin’s Spa Green Estate showing off its faience tiling finish. Photo: Angela Cobbinah

WHEN Russian-born architect Berthold Lubetkin famously said: “Nothing is too good for ordinary people”, he really meant it. His Spa Green Estate in Finsbury emerged out of the wreckage of the Second World War as an example of public housing at its best in which quality materials and well-proportioned rooms, designed to capture maximum sunlight, were essential components.

Anticipating the ideals of the NHS by a decade, he had already applied the same principles to the nearby Finsbury Health Centre, where clinics included a solarium and a chiropodist for sun-starved, ill-shod locals, as well as a waiting area that featured sleek, reclining chairs by Finnish designer Alvar Aalto. The entire project was commissioned by the borough council despite the fact it was the most expensive of the proposals submitted.

Lubetkin is one of the pioneering architects featured in Living With Buildings, a thought-provoking if disjointed exhibition by the Wellcome Collection that examines the link between the built environment and social wellbeing, getting straight to the point with Oliver Twist: “Nothing effectual can be done for the poor in England until their dwelling places are made decent and wholesome,” writes Dickens in the book’s preface.

Charles Booth’s poverty maps and Jack London’s images of the “human wilderness” of the East End are displayed to reflect the public unease that had already prompted carefully planned suburban developments like Bedford Park in Chiswick – advertised as the “healthiest place in the world” – and model villages for factory workers, including Cadbury’s Bournville.

By the turn of the last century housing had well and truly entered the public realm, accelerating in the post-war era as a key part of the welfare state’s cradle-to-grave vision. This coincided with new building methods that allowed the construction of high-rise blocks – those “streets in the sky” that were given full expression in France by celebrated architect cum social reformer Le Corbusier.

In a section titled Healing Buildings, we are given a tour around Peckham’s Pioneer Health Centre and the aforementioned one at Finsbury, heart-of-the-community endeavours showcasing the transformative power of architecture through a judicious use of colour, light and space. The “starchitects” behind centres run by cancer charity Maggie’s – among them Frank Gehry and Norman Foster – work on the same principles with positive results, as expressed by patients in a specially commissioned film.

Berthold Lubetkin. Photo: savefinsburyhealthcentre.wordpress

That is the good news. The bad news is what happens when such bold ideals are turned on their head. Tellingly, aside from the two Maggie’s centres at Dundee and Manchester, there are no contemporary designs of publicly built homes or hospitals worthy of any mention. While council house building has all but dried up, an out of control market is doing its best to destroy what’s left.

Two short films in the exhibition focus on the 29-storey Aragon Tower, a once-neglected eyesore on the 1970s-built Pepys Estate in Deptford. Rather than get to grips with the chronic lack of maintenance, Lewisham Council removed the tenants and sold it off to Berkeley Homes in 2002. Now dubbed Arrogance Tower by locals, it has been transformed into luxury flats, sold at premium prices for their stunning views over the River Thames.

Balfron Tower in Poplar suffered a similar fate. An early example of large-scale public housing, the 26-storey block was built in 1965 by Ernö Goldfinger, another Modernist architect who decided the best way to test-bed his design and get feedback from residents was to move in for a while with his wife. Although the estate would later acquire a forbidding reputation, reportedly inspiring JG Ballard’s dystopian novel High Rise, in a film by Rab Harling former tenants look back on it with affection, saying it was deliberately run down to make way for its sale to property developers in 2007.

In the eponymous book accompanying the exhibition, Iain Sinclair, assuming his usual lofty and acerbic tone, does not beat about the bush, describing the demolition of a council block on the Barbican’s iconic Golden Lane Estate by private house builders Taylor Wimpey as a “land grab sanctioned by the Darwinian rapaciousness and clubable gangsterism of the City”.

In his peregrinations around London and beyond, Sinclair touches on how council housing has become part of the deteriorating social fabric. But skimping on design and materials, chronic disrepair and lack of engagement with residents occurred “long before the manifest horrors of Grenfell revealed municipal short-termism verging on criminality”, he writes.

The backlash against what came to be considered as “brutalist monstrosities” led to a number of blocks being blown up in the 1980s and 90s, as revealed by a sequence of photos taken by Rachel Whiteread in Hackney. Others like Grenfell were refurbished with new cladding. Living With Buildings ends here with the tragedy of the 2017 fire, a “stark and urgent reminder of the importance of providing safe and secure housing”.

Whether or not the exhibition is about health and architecture or the ills of gentrification – it swings from one to the other with no clear join – it has clearly hit a nerve and footfall is busy.

People are painfully aware that in the midst of a massive housing crisis luxury flats lie empty but continue to be built. The sell-off of council estates located on prime land in the name of regeneration is another sore point. And one wonders why, these days, the kind of decent homes so lovingly crafted by Lubetkin and co are only available to those with very deep pockets.

• Living With Buildings: Health & Architecture is at the Wellcome Collection, Euston Road, NW1, until March 3
• Living With Buildings – And Walking with Ghosts. By Iain Sinclair, Profile Books, £14.99

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