Friday, 25 September 2015

Finsbury Health Centre. "Nothing is too good for ordinary people"

In 1938, 10 years before the NHS, a migrant from the Punjab and a migrant from Eastern Europe created an ultra-modern centre providing free healthcare in one of the poorest parts of London.

One of the places I visited during Open House London this year was the Finsbury Health Centre, built in 1938 and designed by Berthold Lubetkin. This was one of the most modern and innovative buildings of its day, but the story behind it is just as interesting.

Many people, especially those with an interest in architecture, will have heard of Lubetkin, the designer of the Penguin Pool in Regent's Park Zoo, and Highpoint in Highgate, but few will have heard of Chuni Lal Katial.

Katial was born in the Punjab, and studied medicine in Lahore. He worked for a while with the Indian Medical Service in Iraq, then studied tropical medicine in Liverpool, and later moved to London where he practiced in Canning Town and later in Finsbury. He was also a politician, a socialist and member of the Labour Party, and became the mayor of Finsbury in 1938, the first mayor of South Asian origin in Britain. As chairman of the Public Health Committee of Finsbury Council, he argued for an integrated health centre that would have a whole range of services under one roof, including doctors, dentists, a TB clinic, and so on. All free at the point of use. A decade before the NHS. To design and build it, he approached Berthold Lubetkin, an architect who had moved to England from communist Russia.

The building was revolutionary for its time. It was a meant to be rational, and welcoming, a beacon of health and hope in an area of slums, where people were encouraged to drop in. Sunlight and fresh air were believed at that time to be important for good health, even more so than today, so the wall of the main reception area was faced with glass bricks to let in as much light as possible. Clinics were on the ground floor for the convenience of patients, while offices were on the level above.


There were a host of modern innovations, such as moveable walls between clinics to allow for changes in use over time, what we would call future-proofing. There was sound-proofing between the floors. In the basement, along with the boilers, there were facilities for disinfecting the possessions and bedding of slum dwellers who might require this service. A flat was provided at the centre for the family to live in while their house was being disinfected.


Lubetkin's motto was "nothing is too good for ordinary people". The engineer for the project was Ove Arup, a highly skilled engineer who was later involved in projects like the Sydney Opera House. The furniture used by the patients was designed by Alvar Aalto, the world famous Finnish architect, whose furniture is still sold in high-end design shops. The reception area was designed to be welcoming and club-like, and there was no reception desk. The idea was that people would turn up and a nurse would come round to have chat with them, then direct them to the appropriate clinic.


The building was opened in 1938, but modifications during the Second World War and the trials and tribulations over the years afterwards meant that the dream of Katial and Lubetkin was never fully realised. Today, despite its Grade I listed status, the building is not in a good condition, although there are plans for its restoration.

Plants and greenery are generally desirable in urban areas, but in this particular instance, the trees seem almost to have been planted deliberately to hide the building. The glass bricks were intended to let in the light, but now some of them are blocked by the trees in from of them.

This was the reception area in 1938. Note the tables and chairs (by Aalvar Aalto)


This picture was taken in 2002, where the chairs are now in an institutional row:


And this is what it looked like during my visit. The reception area is now glassed in, to protect the staff from the patients, perhaps?

Originally there were murals by Gordon Cullen in the public areas, promoting the virtues of healthy living. These were painted over long ago, but they are still there below the paint. Perhaps one day they will be uncovered.


Some of the images have been installed, which is nice.

In front of the building, the steel fence is rusty and twisted.

At the back, tiles and glass bricks have fallen off, and the windows are rusty.

This is a building that has Grade I listed status, the same as Buckingham Palace and Tower Bridge.

A few years ago the health authority was planning to sell it off, but this seems to have been halted by campaigners. I imagine that it might have made a rather nice private clinic or luxury spa. I hope the building will be restored, as I'm told it will.  There is a proposal for this by Avanti Architects.

It was a fascinating visit, but I'm afraid it also left me feeling rather angry. It seemed to reflect the state of the National Health Service, which the current UK government obviously wants to dismantle. This poster in the waiting room proclaiming Lubetkin's dictum that "nothing is to good for ordinary people" seems like a rebuke to the our current predicament.

The Finsbury Health Centre was used in this 1943 wartime poster by Abram Games to symbolise the modern, progressive future that people were fighting for. Churchill banned it because he thought it portrayed Britain in too negative a light. Which rather fits in with how he lost the election by a landslide to Labour in the first general election after the war.

When I stared this blog I wanted to leave politics out of it. But the Finsbury Health Centre was born of a political vision, and the National Health Service of which it was the prototype is in today in peril. Sometimes, politics intrudes.


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