Finsbury Health Centre – An Idealist’s Modernist Dream

There is something quite intriguing about the way modernism seems to fit perfectly with certain building types. Indeed, some architecture movements do tend to find a niche and that’s mostly to do with governments contracting certain practices to do public buildings and then a trend emerges. A good case study would be the USSR where brutalism seemed to be the de-facto go to style for everything governmental. Whether it was city halls or plain old gargantuan mammoth structures to reflect the might of the empire during the cold war, the Russians loved themselves some concrete (much to my amusement and delight). That’s another topic that we’ll go into some other time hopefully.

Warner House

Warner House

Yesterday I was wandering the beautiful streets of Clerkenwell and Finsbury, an area that has been a playground for modernist architects (alongside all of North London) since the movement emerged. And while the British government of today is very reserved and lacks any sort of ambition (and frankly has no cash), the days of post WWI and WWII Britain were all about grand statements. Governments built entire new cities from scratch in attempt to tackle London’s massive population bubble (Milton Keynes, WGC, High Wycombe etc) – I’ve written extensively about this here. And modernism was the weapon of choice at the time, hence we are now blessed with an abundance (though not merely as enough as I’d like) of mid-century delights dotted throughout London. So as I was walking in search of the recently renovated Warner House (which I eventually found and admired for about 15 minutes as passers by wondered what the hell I was so interested in), I stumbled across one of the most amazing buildings I’ve yet to come cross in this fair city.

Revolutionary architecture - redeveloping a slum

Revolutionary architecture – redeveloping a slum (c20 society)

Tucked in a small corner between Pine Street and Vineyard Walk, just as you exit the amazing and as I was about to later find out same architect designed ‘Spa Fields’, you get a peak of the elegant ‘Finsbury Health Centre’. At first I was immediately taken a back by the symmetry of that marble tiled facade with the beautiful grid patterned glass block windows. I’ve never seen this type of front before, not in London, it was quite inspired by the work of Le Corbusier, but not fully. Really, it was it’s own thing. Then I took a step back, and suddenly a new angle emerges, now you can see the beautiful interplay between a central structure and the extension wings on each side, they’re like a hand holding a pearl gently afraid to let go. As the sun shines, the marble and glass tiles reflecting positive energy, I start to contemplate the building’s almost sultry curves. They gently twist and turn as the details of the balcony and the first floor start to emerge. Now you know it’s not quite Le Corbusier! You can just imagine how unbelievably cutting edge this was at the time. I would say it still is as sadly today’s architecture lack any sort of ambition or vision (again, another topic for another day).

I’m so intrigued, I need to find out more. So I start doing some research, and my suspicions are immediately ratified. This was indeed part of a governmental project for the area between WWI and WWII, it was a bid by the socialist Labour run local council of the time to regenerate the entire area through its socialist vision (Finsbury was a slum those days – imagine). Those of you who don’t quite know, this part of London has always been staunchly leftist. Every anti-cuts pro-unionist movement that ever materialized in the city had its roots from the area stretching from the aptly named Red Lion square to Clerkenwell, and from Upper Street down to Bloomsbury. These are the red and proud areas of London (at least they were before the super gentrification of the 90s and 2000s). And through modernism, the vehicle for social change was set.

The architect chosen to take on this massive project was none other than Berthold Lubetkin, the man widely accredited with making modernism mainstream in the United Kingdom. His practice Tecton was a government favorite, designing everything from the now legendary Penguin Pool at the London Zoo, to the amazing Highpoint I tower in Highgate. And through the FHC, Lubetkin was able to mobilize modernism’s social function by providing free health care to all. Furthermore, he achieved another of modernism’s goals, providing upscale dreams (through concrete) to the underprivileged. And this was no charity, thus a political goal was also struck, a government owned and operated universal health care centre. What more can an aspiring modernist architect ask for?

Gentle curvature keeps window tiled symmetry perfect.

Gentle curvature keeps window tiled symmetry perfect. (Avanti)

It was therefore such a devastating loss to this part of London when WWII started and all of Tecton’s plans for the area were thrown in the bin. Luckily Finsbury Health Centre was well and kicking by that time, and so was the amazing ‘Spa Fields’ next door.

A part of me can’t help but wonder what if WWII didn’t ravage London, would we now have an area that is completely modernist?! Dreams indeed, but one thing is for certain, no architecture movement has quite managed to fulfill its social and political goals like modernism has. Call it elitist and you fail, because although 50s and 60s villas and mansions through America’s west coast are staunchly modernist, European social housing, just as modernist, refutes this. Call it oppressive and fascist and you fail, because just as governmental as it was (a certain Oscar Niemeyer pops to mind), it was also the vehicle for rebellion against governments, just look at Bauhaus. The real question is, how calm the quality of architecture and design has deteriorated so rapidly in the past 4 or 5 decades?

Though the building is indeed Grade I listed, the highest possible protection in the UK, it is suffering on the outside and can indeed use an uplift. In 1995 Avanti finished a partial rework of the interior, but as a recent case study by c20 reveals, in order to preserve the future of this building some pertinent work is needed. Let’s hope that the government or local council manages to set aside some cash for this so that it can continue to serve all its intended functions, socially and aesthetically. One thing lives on though, and that is Lubetkin’s ideal: “nothing is too good for ordinary people”.

The Day I Climbed The Egg – Beirut

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The Egg - c. 1995

The Egg – c. 1995

Affectionately known as ‘The Egg’ by the locals, this is all what remains from what was once an architecturally ground breaking multi-purpose complex in Beirut, designed by the modernist genius that is Joseph Philippe Karam and built c. 1965 – called ‘Beirut City Center’ at the time.

On a recent trip to Beirut, I made it one of my must do goals to climb up the Egg (legally or illegally – had to be done). And so I did!

The complex was a concatenation of office and residential space, combined with a mall on the 1st three floors that could be reached by escalators from the ground.

The hollow, soap like structure was actually the complex’s multi-purpose performance space, mostly used as a theater and a cinema. It was built around the time when Arab cinema was at its golden age and Beirut was the pioneer of the dream sequence technology. Be it actors, technicians, studios or just good old cinemas, where Beirut went the Arab world followed. As the old saying went: “Shot in Egypt, made famous in Beirut”.

After the civil war broke out, the complex, situated right on the ‘Green Line’ that separated east and west Beirut, suffered extensive but certainly repairable damage. Shortly after the war ended however (in the mid-90s), the Ministry of Finance bought the lease of the land and destroyed the main building with the aim of rebuilding its own ministry premises. The plans were later abandoned but not without leaving ‘The Egg’ as the only remaining structure of a once ground breaking plaza.

Ever since then plenty of plans have come and gone and the structure has been threatened several times. Lebanon’s laws on architectural heritage are lax, and they hardly ever protect modernist and art-deco era 20th century era buildings. The focus tends to be on much older buildings leaving a country with a wealth of modernist structures in danger of losing some of its most important assets.

And so here I am on a hot summer day in June. I make my way up, one broken step at a time. I am not the first person to do this, in fact in the late 90s all the way until quite recently the space was often used as an art gallery, impromptu theater and sometimes as a good old raving spot. But having been sealed off since 2007, I was pleasantly surprised that this time the barriers were removed.

A few short hops and hikes, and a dirty suede shoes later, I made it. The incredible smooth concrete finishing was right there, riddled with bullet holes of various sizes and idiosyncratic graffiti. Those curves in all their beauty, the iron clad pillars holding this alien like structure, all there. This was urban raw Beirut as I’ve come to fall in love with it ever since I was born. The city of dreams, resistance, resistance to resistance and where icons are made and crushed.

My trek up the Egg was magical, sad and wildly invigorating. I learned that man-made structures, through our own perception of our reality as humans, become an almost indispensable intrinsic part of our internal psyche. They are so closely weaved with our identity, our culture and what we come to call our home. That was the day I got close to the structure that I’ve always admired and drove me to obsession as a young kid – just ask my parents who had to constantly deny that it was an alien space ship that had landed in Beirut and no one is allowed in because the government is protecting it.

Public perception of modernism in Lebanon is unfortunately quite mis-guided. The abundance of these buildings from the early 20th century all the way to the mid-80s meant that they have become part of the Lebanese urban landscape and in no way seen as endangered. But they are dwindling and are being eroded by the day to be replaced by soulless blocks of bland stone bricks that have little design quality and are built with little care about their surroundings.

Back in the Egg I stare out of its well crafted big square ad-hoc windows. I’m seeing the massive construction boom that Beirut is currently undergoing as the city becomes a play ground for real estate realtors, developers and mega rich property investors. And then in the middle of all this commotion a lovely derelict church, Mar Mansour, stands there idly and powerfully in the face of a briskly changing landscape. It too is undergoing its own battle for survival. Such is the case in Beirut, a place where only the strongest and fittest (but also the most corrupt) survive and I ponder what this place will look like in a decade from now. Twenty years ago this was a decrepit pit hole of rubble and destruction, now it is one of the most expensive square miles in the world.

Recently some civil society and architecture groups have managed to bring this issue back into the forefront and The Egg in many ways is the symbol of this fight. Lose it and very slowly but surely, we will lose all of Lebanon’s modernist history. Win it and we might, just might, have a chance at preserving the dreams and identities of not only the men who designed and built an era, but the countless people whose lives have become defined by these familiar buildings that have become as Lebanese as Tabouleh.

Beirut continues its phenomenal growth

View from the Egg: Beirut continues its phenomenal growth while some struggle for survival