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Berthold Lubetkin

Berthold Lubetkin and Tecton Group Architects

Early Life

During the early 1930s, a trickle of talented architects and designers arrived in London, usually as refugees from the spreading blight of Nazism in Hitler’s Germany. The refugees included Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, both of whom had been in charge of the famous Bauhaus at Weimar and then at Dessau, where the design principles of the International Modem Style of architecture were largely born.

Gropius and Mies went on to work in America and to become, with Frank Lloyd Wright and L.e Corbusier, the acknowledged masters of the Modern Movement. But other refugees stayed to practise in London. Among these, Erna Goldfinger (later architect of the Department of Health complex at the Elephant and Castle) and Berthold Lubetkin were particularly important. And Lubetkin designed many of the 1930s buildings which brought public attention to the Modern Movement.

Berthold Lubetkin and Tecton Group Architects

Berthold Lubetkin was born in the Caucasus in Russia in 1901. He was trained as an architect in Moscow and then there followed some wandering years in which he spent periods in Warsaw and Vienna. He settled for a time in Paris where he studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and worked for Auguste Perret, a pioneer of modern concrete structure. In his own practice, Lubetkin built an apartment block at No. 25 Avenue de Versailles, Paris in 1927.

A serious and intellectual man of strong left-wing political ideals, he moved to London in 1930 and, following the Bauhaus idea of design groups, founded a team called Tecton. Apart from himself, the Tecton architects included Anthony Chitty, Lindsey Drake, Michael Dugdale, Val Harding and, a little later, Denys Lasdun.

Tecton Group’s Works

The first major Tecton building in London was the large block of flats called Highpoint One, in North Hill, Highgate. The commission was obtained by Berthold Lubetkin himself, and it was built in 1933-35. All the trademarks of the International Modern movement are already present.

Based on a cross-plan, the building is of eight storeys, the ground floor largely void with round pillars supporting the block above and visually “floating” it.

High Point One

The walls are white-painted concrete, the windows run in horizontal bands with cantilevered balconies. The forms are clean and light, and in accordance with the principles of the new architecture of the time, they largely reflect the structure within. The manner is very similar to that of Le Corbusier’s Maison Stein of 1929 and Maison Suisse of 1930.

In 1934 Tecton was commissioned by Sir Julian Huxley, director of the Royal Zoological Society, to design a new Gorilla House for the London Zoo, The small building they produced is between the outer circle and the canal, a round drum, half steel caging half white concrete, with part of the concrete section continued upwards to form a sloping roof and a large clerestory window to light the indoors part of the house.

Tecton went on to build the North Entrance building of the Zoo, with its wavy canopy, of light reinforced concrete, and most notably the Penguin Pool (1935) on the Park side of the gardens. As with the Gorilla House, the Penguins’ enclosure is a basically simple geometrical shape treated with elegance and ingenuity.

London Zoo Penguin Pool

It is formed by a low wall of varying height, oval in plan, most of the wall a comfortable height for leaning and looking inside, the penguins have an oval pool with a low surround and two cantilevered interlocking spirals of reinforced concrete curving from higher platforms down into the water.

The Penguin Pool remains one of the most popular places in the Zoo today, but its historical importance is that the publicity resulting from its immediate success brought the new style favourably to the attention of the public. Berthold Lubetkin and Drake were the Tecton members with particular responsibility for this project and they added a Studio of Animal Art in 1938.

The year 1935 saw two other commissions for Tecton members. The terrace of four houses at Nos. 85-91 Genesta Road, off Plum Lane, Plumstead (part of Woolwich in south-east London) is a typical Berthold Lubetkin design of the time, curvy balconies and all (he collaborated with Pilichowski on this project).

The house called Six Pillars in Crescent Wood Road, Dulwich is attributed to Val Harding and Tecton and is even more interesting; two storeys of simple form with a high roof terrace above and an eccentric wing at one side.

In 1936 Tecton obtained its first commercial commission, for the original part of the Gestetner duplicator factory in Fawley Road, Tottenham. The factory has now spread immensely along that section of Fawley Road, and the 1936 frontage was finally re-built in 1978.

Another Tecton block of flats, Highpoint Two, was built beside Highpoint One in North Hill, Highgate in 1937-38. it shows some marked changes from the earlier block, being simpler in plan and less Corbusian in appearance. The entrance porch has a Lubetkin joke in the form of Caryatids which support the canopy.

Both frontages are dominated by large central panels which project slightly. Within these panels, the layout of the individual apartments can be clearly seen on the garden side, with sections of double height alternating horizontally with sections of two single-height floors. One of the members of the team, Denys Lasdun, used a similar approach and expression in a famous block of flats in St. James’s designed twenty years later.

Tecton’s Group Journey

Tecton’s last London job before the outbreak of the Second World War was uric of its largest and most successful. This was the design of the Fins-bury Health Centre in Pine Street, off Rosebery Avenue in a slum part of Finsbury (1938-39).

At that time, health centres were themselves a pioneering concept, and Berthold Lubetkin and Tecton produced a shining white symbol which still functions well today.

Finsbury Health Center design by Lubetkin

The two-storey building is on an H-plan, its white walls and band windows containing a complex of clinics, offices and lecture rooms. Its whole frontage is angled to lean forward as if to greet the public.

By the time war came in 1939, Tecton— and a few other architects such as Maxwell Fry, Goldfinger, Wells Coates and the partnership of Connell, Ward and Lucas had built a respectable number of buildings in a new manner. After the war, the flood of success came for the International Modern movement everywhere, with the huge re-building of the world’s cities in the 1950s and 1960s. But for Lubetkin the new architecture was only a symbol of the new political order that was his justification for his work.

Berthold Lubetkin and Tecton Group post-war

Tecton survived for a time, but the participants in the team left and in about 1955 it turned into Skinner, Bailey and Lubetkin. And Lubetkin himself became more and more disenchanted with the events of post-war politics and society in Britain.

The Priory Green Estate of Council flats in Collier Street, just off the Pentonville Road near King’s Cross was completed in 1951 to designs by Berthold Lubetkin and Tecton, then extended in 1958 by Skinner, Bailey and Lubetkin. The Spa Green Estate beside Rosebery Avenue, Finsbury dates from 1948-50, and the flats called Bevin Court in Holford Place off the Pentonville Road from 1953. In all these, the touch of Lubetkin and the echo of Highpoint Two can be seen.

Spa Green Estate by Berthold Lubetkin

But with the long period of Conservative rule and the evidence that modern design does not produce harmony and progress among its users, Berthold Lubetkin lost impetus and finally withdrew from life in London. He now lives quietly in the west of England, doing occasional architectural commissions locally.

In all these, the touch of Berthold Lubetkin and the echo of Highpoint Two can be seen. But with the long period of Conservative rule and the evidence that modern design does not produce harmony and progress among its users, Lubetkin lost impetus and finally withdrew from life in London. He now lives quietly in the west of England, doing occasional architectural commissions locally.