Too good for the workers

Observations on architecture

When architects unite around a cause, it is usually to save a building from ignominious demolition. When the listed structure in question, however, is the Finsbury Health Centre, even its sale is enough to bring the banners out.

Designed in 1938 by Berthold Lubetkin, with his group Tecton, the health centre was commissioned by Finsbury's Labour-Communist council on the strength both of his existing buildings - most notably, the Penguin Pool at the London Zoo - and his socialist politics. Tecton was a key member of the Architects' and Technicians' Association, a group involved both in local activism and in raising support for the Republicans in Spain. Lubetkin was a Soviet émigré thoroughly grounded in the spirit of the constructivist movement, which was then being suppressed in Russia itself.

The health centre was designed both as an experimental "social condenser", with a solarium, a roof terrace and murals imploring slum-dwellers to "live out of doors as much as you can", and also as a serious-minded attempt to counter appalling health conditions in an area where tuberculosis was rife. When queried about whether the locals found the bright, avant-garde design to be over their heads, Lubetkin said that "nothing is too good for ordinary people".

It was hugely popular: so much so, that it appeared on a Second World War propaganda poster by Abram Games, symbolising the reforms promised in the Beveridge Report, under the heading "Your Britain - Fight for it Now".

Winston Churchill was no enthusiast for modernism, let alone socialist experiment, and the wartime prime minister personally vetoed the poster (copies were produced but never displayed). But in 1948, ten years after the centre was constructed, many of Finsbury's ideas were applied on a national scale to the newly founded National Health Service. Aneurin Bevan was even moved to lay the first stone at Tecton's nearby Spa Green Estate.

This is not obscure history - Finsbury is widely acknowledged as a model for the NHS. So Islington Primary Care Trust's determination to sell off the health centre seems a wilful insult to a great legacy of the welfare state. Islington PCT claims £9.8m is needed for refurbishment, but the pressure group Architects for Health strongly disputes this figure. John Allan of Avanti Architects, a firm that has restored many Tecton buildings, says: "The unfavourable comparisons being made between the costs of retention and the redistribution of services and new building appear inconclusive at best."

The private finance initiative agenda of sell-off and shoddy new-build seems to be behind the decision. Labour politicians, including Chris Smith and Jeremy Corbyn, have backed the Save Finsbury Health Centre campaign. If it fails - and the sell-off will probably go to a judicial review - the Peckham Health Centre, an experimental project contemporary with Finsbury, shows a possible future. It is now a gated community of private flats, in the middle of one of the poorest areas in Europe.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The New Depression