Fit For Purpose?

The once-gleaming Finsbury Health Centre has reached the crumbly age of 73, and it was earmarked for redevelopment a few years ago. Mark Walton finds out the latest prognosis for this iconic local landmark

British Modernism got itself a bad name in the Fifties and Sixties. All those post-war tower blocks and ugly council offices were supposedly built in the name of an art form that was serious, puritanical and high brow; in reality, most were just prefabricated and cheap.

Rewind to its beginnings in the early decades of the 20th century, and you find genuine motiv­ations of optimism, sincerity and social conscience. Before it became the approved style of the British welfare state, Modernism was radical and revolutionary, expressing airy reformist principles like “freedom” and “equality” in stark, geometric buildings made of concrete and glass. Pine Street’s Finsbury Health Centre, built in the late Thirties, is a rare example of this pure style.

If you didn’t know any better, you’d assume it was yet another drab Sixties building, with a crumbling exterior and faded decor, rather than a Grade I Listed piece of British social history. It was designed by Berthold Lubetkin, a Russian who moved to London in 1931 after working in Moscow, Berlin and Paris. He arrived full of Soviet idealism and co-founded a new architectural firm, Tecton. One of his most famous early commissions was the penguin pool at London Zoo – it’s Grade I Listed, too.

It’s hard for us to imagine life in Clerk­enwell in the Thirties. Choked by smog, it was one of London’s poorest areas. Malnutrition, tuberculosis and poor sanitation were rife. Perhaps unsur­prisingly, the old borough of Finsbury was one of the city’s most left wing, ruled by a Labour and Communist council that was passionate about improving the lot of the working class. The Finsbury Health Centre was part of a grand plan to build housing, libraries and public baths, and it was designed to offer healthcare that was free at the point of use – a full decade before the NHS.

While most hospitals then were Gothic and terrifying, Lubetkin’s revolutionary design was intimate and welcoming. In the centre of the H-pattern footprint he built a curved wall of glass bricks to let daylight reach the informal waiting room. With its scattered furniture and bright walls, it resembled a casual drop-in centre rather than a severe institute.

Like the entrance, the two wings of the centre were designed to maximise light. On the ground floor were TB treatment rooms, a dental surgery and a solarium; below were a mortuary and a disinfecting room. Up on the roof was a small garden and a lecture theatre.

Altogether, the centre was tangible proof of social reform when it opened in 1938, and it promoted Modernism as a polit­ical force as well as an architectural style. More importantly, this little building in Clerkenwell was a major stepping stone towards our now-gigantic NHS, which adopted many principles from the Finsbury experiment after the war.

Little wonder, then, that there’s been such fierce opposition to the idea of the NHS selling it, as proposed in 2008. Locals don’t want to lose their clinic, nor see the social vision behind it forgotten. Since a band of them started a petition a few years ago, receiving more than 2,000 signatures and support from English Heritage, there has been much official deliberation and scrutiny. Though the future of the building remains undecided, for now it is still a fully functioning local health centre. So far, so saved.