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.


Thursday 17 September 2015

An open air swim in King's Cross Pond

My second time open air swimming in London

My first attempt at open air swimming in London was at the Serpentine in Hyde Park few years ago, shortly after the Olympics, on a chilly, grey day in early September, inspired by a radio programme on the subject. I didn't stay in the water for that long, and I saw that the serious swimmers were wearing wet suits, but it was enjoyable to be swimming in big pond out in the open, with the ducks nearby, rather than in a tiled swimming pool.

Open air swimming in a temperate climate is a pretty bracing experience. If most of your swimming has been done in the tropics, this is a completely different sort of thing. Much more of a shock to the system, and no question of loitering in the water by the side of the pool having a chat with your mates. But it's good fun in a different way, and I like it in small doses.

I did plan to visit a few more of the open air swimming places in London, but didn't get round to it until last week when I was on leave, and saw a sign at King's Cross pointing to the King's Cross Pond. I returned the following day for a dip.

The King's Cross Pond opened earlier this year, and it's an art installation called Of Soil and Water: Kings Cross Pond Club by Ooze Architects and artist Marjetica Portrč. Set bang in the middle of an enormous building site, it's the first man-made fresh water bathing pond in the UK. The water is kept clean naturally by using wetland and submerged plants for filtration and purification, and without the use of any chemicals.

The site is beautifully laid out, the red, white and grey colour scheme of the built elements providing a bold contrast to the plants and greenery. Because of the natural water filtration system, there is a limit to the number of people who are allowed in on any one day, but we thought we'd chance it as we were going in the middle of a weekday, and there was no problem getting in.

16.8 C is pretty cold for me and a couple of laps was all the swimming I felt like doing, but in between it was very pleasant lounging around in the sun, strolling around, and looking at the plants. The pool and plants are a total contrast to the towers going up all around. The builders were hard at work during our visit. The juxtaposition of natural and man made elements is very appealing.

I really enjoyed swimming in the middle of a city, surrounded by construction and new buildings, in this man-made pond filled with water that was filtered and purified by plants rather than chemicals. When I was growing up in Singapore, you either swam in heavily chlorinated water that bleached your hair, or in slightly oily seawater. The biological plant-based system of water cleansing is very attractive. I wonder if it can be used in the tropics as well.

In this video, the artists explain their project:

Did I feel like I was participating in an art installation? I had such a good time I didn't think about it. Was I made aware of man's relationship with nature, and nature in the urban environment? Actually, I suppose I was. It was certainly a restorative and enjoyable experience. The Serpentine was nice, but this was better, I thought

The Kings Cross Pond is open daily, and it is sensible to book before going. It's only going to be around for about two years, so make the most of it while it lasts.

After my swim, it was off to the adjacent Skip Garden and Kitchen. Read about my visit here.

Friday 11 September 2015

We go to the gallery, where it's not a Ladybird after all

In which I go to a gallery, and find a Ladybird which turns out to be a Dung Beetle

An invitation to lunch at Dishoom in King's Cross was an opportunity for a leisurely walk there from East London, where along the way I chanced upon the Jealous Gallery.

On a table in the centre of the room was what looked like a Ladybird book, entitled We go to the gallery.

It turned out to be a hilarious spoof by Miriam Elia, an artist who was also an award-winning stand-up comic.

For those unfamiliar with them, Ladybird were a very popular series of childrens' books, in a well-known standard format, that had their heyday from in the 1960s and 70s . They were hardcover, measuring 11.5 x 18 cm, always with 56 pages so that each book could be printed from a single sheet of paper in the press. The text was on the left hand page, and on the right hand page was a full-colour   illustration. There was a series of reading primers (the Key Words Reading Scheme, which my mother used to teach me to read), as well as books covering a whole range of topics, from science and technology to history and geography.

We go to the gallery is written in the style of a Ladybird reading primer. Susan and John are in a gallery of contemporary art with their mother.

After looking through it, I bought a copy.

On my return journey after an enjoyable lunch, my eye was caught by a sign directing me to the House of Illustration, where lo and behold, there was an exhibition on Ladybird books, marking the centenary of their publication. The exhibition was immensely enjoyable, and brought back memories of many books I had enjoyed as a child.  It was fascinating to learn about the history behind the imprint, how the series was conceived, and how the publisher had employed high quality commercial artists whose illustrations were key to the style and quality of the books from the excellent video that was screened at the exhibition, and which you can see here:

On the way out, I showed my earlier purchase to the lady at the ticket desk cum shop checkout. She had heard of it but not seen it. Apparently Penguin, the current owners of Ladybird, had taken legal action against the author for violation of copyright, demanding that the books to be destroyed, and so on. We both agreed it was rather mean of them, and a bit odd since they had not objected to other items like the spoof ladybird cover postcards on sale at the shop. 

It turns out that in the original version of the book, the children were named Peter and Jane, just ike the characters in the original Ladybird readers, and the books had the Ladybird logo on them. This version had been funded through a Kickstarter campaign. Penguin objected. Eventually, after a bit of to-ing and fro-ing, the book was modified. The children were re-named Susan and John, and the imprint changed from Ladybird to Dung Beetle. There are now no legal objections to this re-designed version. The limited artist's edition sells for £20, and copies are still available from Jealous Gallery, or from the artist's website, where you can also pre-order the commercial version which will be released on 21 Sept for £8.99. 

Some images from the original version with Peter and Jane that got Penguin's knickers in a twist can be seen here.

Thursday 3 September 2015

Carrying on walking to work, even if it's a bit wet

With the right kit, one is less inclined to hop into one's car when things get a bit wet.

After a dry spell, there's been a bit of rain and mud, so it's back to having a waterproof jacket to hand when I walk to work. It's not much fun being caught unprepared and getting drenched, but this tends not to happen. Weather forecasts are reliable most of the time, and having the right kit helps.

If you carry things in a backpack, you'll realise that most of them are not waterproof, and your stuff can get wet, which is not great if you're carrying books or electronic devices. Eventually after a bit of online research I got a backpack from Ortlieb, the German manufacturer of waterproof outdoor bags. It's a "Velocity" with a capacity of 20 litres, and is designed for cycling so you can attach an LED light or your helmet to the back. It's totally waterproof, robust, and will hold all the stuff I need to take to work.

Foam strips at the back hold it slightly away from the body and stop things getting too sweaty, and it has a waist belt and chest strap which might come in useful when I get my bike fixed. Its pretty comfortable to carry, and I'm glad I got it.

There is an alternative to waterproof jackets and bags: I've also got this poncho from Rohan, which is very cleverly designed. They call it a Canopy Cape. It's made from fabric derived from flysheets used in mountain tents: very light, silicone impregnated, and water-shedding. Although it's like a poncho, it actually has sleeves.

It packs neatly into its own front pocket which becomes a zip up pouch. It slips on very easily and will go over you and your  backpack, satchel and whatever else you happen to be carrying, so you don't actually need a waterproof bag. It's well ventilated because the sides are open, held together at intervals with press studs. When you no longer need it, it stows into the zippered front pocket with all the wet bits inside so you can pop it back into your bag without getting the contents wet.

As a bonus, there are handy loops at the side and you can join two of them together to make a tent.

It's not just the rain which can make the walk problematic in this sort of weather. My route to work includes a footpath by the side of some fields, and this can get muddy if it's been raining.

For some time I've been putting my work shoes in my backpack, and walking in wellies if I think the route might be muddy. Mine are made by Aigle, and are supposed to have soles like hiking boots. They certainly seem comfortable for walking, so while I haven't done any comparative testing, I'm glad I chose them.

An option which I haven't actually used, is this pair of "festival feet" overshoes, costing £3 from Tiger, which might come in handy at a pinch.

The problem is dealing with them once I get in to work, which I haven't really thought through. They could be chucked into a plastic bag, but then they might need to be taken out again for the walk home, and so on.

There's supposed to be a Norwegian saying: "There's no such thing as bad weather, only bad dressing". I wouldn't quite agree with them, but I have found that the right "dressing" does help.