John Allan reviews the career of this enigmatic émigré
‘A reckoning or public estimation’, says the dictionary on reputation, with its distinct implication that it may differ from reality. Lubetkin is a good example.
How many people still think he was a communist refugee driven to inhabit an alien culture, the doyen of English Functionalism who achieved international fame with a few dazzling icons in a brief burst of interwar creativity, only to become a pig farmer in 1950 following the rejection of his plans for an unbuildable city of towers at Peterlee, on the east Durham coalfield?
It is a potent legend, made no less so through being partly cultivated by Lubetkin himself. But it’s not the whole truth.
The huge upheavals in ideology and politics that from the early 1930s propelled many key figures of modern architecture − Mendelsohn, Gropius, Breuer, May, Meyer, Stam, et al − across cultures and continents, did not for Lubetkin involve a reluctant migration to England. On the contrary England, which would become his domicile for the next 60 years, rather suited him.
His youthful plan upon leaving Russia in 1922 had been to get the necessary technical education in Europe to equip him to return home and take his place in building the first socialist society. But by the time he was ready to return 10 years later, Stalin’s USSR presented an altogether different prospect.
In England, Modernism had yet to arrive, and he was exotic, free, sought after and could make his mark on a clean canvas. Its scientific advances and progressive labour movement offered further attractions, all suggesting, in his own words, ‘a country about to change its rules − open, tolerant, friendly and seemingly just waiting for advice’.
It was an immigré’s wishful expectation as he would later admit − yet it underpinned the formation of his partnership Tecton and the soaring optimism of their prime works − the Penguin Pool, Highpoint One, Finsbury Health Centre. It was indeed the reputation created by their immediate acclaim that would then impose limits on Lubetkin’s architectural licence.
Notwithstanding Tecton’s compelling exegeses, loyally published by the Architectural Press, it was not the functional resolution (however exemplary) but rather the humanist values and social commitment of these radical projects that constituted his core message, his insistence that modern architecture’s task extended beyond merely demonstrating its own operational duties.
Yet they fitted the Functionalist template so plausibly Lubetkin had only himself to blame if they were recruited to the fledgling local crusade. Little surprise then that his reputation took such a dent on the completion of Highpoint Two with its notorious caryatids and the wilfully exotic decor of his penthouse apartment.
Indeed, if you can date the first major divergence of Lubetkin’s reputation from his own reality to a specific moment, it is the winter of 1938 and the critique by Anthony Cox in AA magazine Focus II. The second Highpoint block with its ‘formalist’ preoccupations was castigated as a betrayal of the movement’s iconoclastic mission.
Alas, Lubetkin’s lesson was three decades too early. Such explicit reminders of a building designer’s compositional responsibilities, of the capacity of architecture to carry metaphor and metabolise history, would have to wait another 30 years before the audience was ready.
Penguin Pool, London Zoo (1934)
Highpoint I & II (1935-38)Finsbury Health Centre (1938)
Spa Green (1950)
Russian Revolution (1917)
Founding Tecton (1932)
Royal Gold Medal (1982)
‘Architecture can be a potent weapon, a committed driving force on the side of enlightenment, aiming however indirectly at the transformation of our present make-believe society, where images outstrip reality and rewards outpace achievement’
But then the attack came not from within the Modernist tradition but against it, with the shrill summons to ‘complexity and contradiction’ and the egregious debaucheries of Postmodernism that this would legitimise.
Meanwhile Lubetkin’s continuing exploration of his expressive themes in the architectural treatment of the later housing projects − in Finsbury, Paddington and Bethnal Green − would only further damage his contemporary reputation, virtually redacting his contribution from the received narrative of British architecture, despite the vastly more productive output of his postwar career.
Yet the evident popularity and successful rehabilitation of Lubetkin’s social housing schemes, not to mention their extensive statutory designation, now provides ample vindication of his original intentions and their value. And so to Peterlee, and the tenacious canard of Lubetkin’s unrealisable fantasy of a ‘city of towers’, apocryphally justified in this instance by his alleged claim that ‘miners were used to travelling in lifts’.
Such were the technical complexities and administrative challenges of that assignment it is unsurprising that such grossly oversimplified explanations for his premature departure in 1950 (only two years after his appointment as architect-planner) became necessary. Too many official faces had to be saved.
But close study of the real story reveals that Lubetkin’s Peterlee was indeed feasible, that it involved only three tall buildings (and just 12 storeys at that) to define a flexible evolving town centre which itself would entail minimal loss of coal while helping to diversify the local economy and create a New Town of architectural distinction.
What it also required, however, was a degree of departmental cooperation in the coordination of over- and underground working that would allow the pattern of residential development to avoid ‘suburban scatter’ and achieve the compositional order that Lubetkin so ardently desired to reflect the solidarity of the mining community. But such ambitious integration the various official agencies were either too unimaginative to understand or insufficiently motivated to undertake.
The ensuing debacle aborted what would surely have become his crowning achievement and abruptly terminated his public career. Now he would become ‘Lubetkin the hermit’ − despite his continuing and prolific architectural activity in the new firm Skinner, Bailey & Lubetkin.
Yet so complete was his disappearance from professional reportage that the publicity surrounding the Royal Gold Medal award 30 years later in 1982 suggested the reincarnation of a missing person presumed dead.
His sudden octogenarian rediscovery prompted another sort of selective amnesia. The lost decades were overlooked and a new simplified reputation was created. Lubetkin, author of those defining icons of English Modernism, was now the sole surviving socialist crusader of the Heroic Period whose defiant disappearance into rural obscurity just when things became toxic preserved the myth of a prelapsarian untainted Modernism.
It made a grand story and touched the hearts of the numerous audiences that he addressed in his last hectic years of celebrity. But it wasn’t true either.
There is a Gatsby dimension to Lubetkin’s adventure. The youthful dream of an imminent radical future first intimated in the heroic years of 1917 had carried him through Berlin, Warsaw and Paris, to England, to Peterlee, indeed almost to China, where he contemplated migrating in the late ’50s.
But his dream was already behind him, in Moscow and Petersburg with their revolutionary parades and Constructivist tribunes. It was that inspirational if frustrated vision which fuelled his prodigious creativity with its enduring lessons in architecture and social practice, and its poignant commentary on Modernism’s waning sense of purpose and hope. Lubetkin’s ‘reputation’ may continue to captivate − but his real story is much more compelling.
The second edition of John Allan’s Berthold Lubetkin − Architecture and the Tradition of Progress is available from Artifice Books on Architecture
Stacey Knights · See more work on her website