Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Finsbury Health Centre - not off the critical list yet

The Twentieth Century's Society's small exhibition at the Royal Academy, 100 Buildings 100 Years, (on until 1 February 2015) includes Lubetkin and Tecton's Finsbury Health Centre to represent 1938.

Listed  at Grade 1 and one of the most important modernist buildings in the UK, it has had a troubled recent history, and is on English Heritage's Buildings at Risk register.

Most of the other buildings in the exhibition are illustrated with a photograph, either historic or recent, but this one was shown with a computer-generated image credited to Avanti Architects, who have worked on the restoration of the building over the years, and whose former director John Allan, author of the definitive monograph on Lubetkin, has been instrumental in the campaign to save it.

If you go and look at the real thing you can see why they didn't use a current photograph.  Some aspects of the present state of the building would have been a depressing sight in what was generally an uplifting exhibition...

The building itself is clearly in need of love and money.  It is particularly sad to see the state of the front railings and the ugly and insensitive signage which contribute to the visitor's first impression. Money is no doubt tight, but sorting out the front wouldn't cost that much. (The planting looks better tended, but has always looked as if it belongs somewhere else entirely.)

We don't need castles as much as we used to, but they seem to get plenty of money spent on them. We do still need health centres.  This building should be kept in its present use and restored as a priority case for any national funding that may still be available to restore buildings at risk.  A trust has been formed to secure its future, and it seems there is hope of a positive outcome after years of uncertainty and neglect.

It is not hard to imagine a scheme whereby the owners would get rid of it and it would be lavishly restored to its former architectural glory, but as the HQ of a design company or whatever.  For a building whose social and historic importance matches its architectural importance, that could be a fate worse than death.  Lubetkin, I can't help thinking, would rather have seen it crumble to dust.

As with many early welfare state projects, the story of Finsbury Health Centre can be read as one of faith in the future.  There are plenty of people - professionals and lay people - who care deeply about this building, so one should be optimistic about its chances.  When it was shiny and new it was a beacon of hope serving a inner city working class population many of whom who lived in slums and suffered from poverty and poor health.  Today it sits looking tatty, at the heart of a now wealthy area with possibly more design professionals per square metre than anywhere else in the planet.  If this building can't be sorted out, what hope for buildings at risk in more benighted places?

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