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Lubetkin, Berthold Romanovichlocked

(1901–1990)
  • John Allan

Berthold Romanovich Lubetkin (1901–1990)

by Baron, 1948

made available by courtesy of John Allan

Lubetkin, Berthold Romanovich (1901–1990), architect, is believed to have been born on 14 December 1901 in Tiflis, Georgia, son of Roman (Rubin) Aronovich Lubetkin (d. c.1941), engineer, and his wife, Fenya (Hassya) Menin (d. 1941?). A different place and year of birth—Warsaw, 1903—are noted in several student certificates and in Lubetkin's British passport: these were explained by Lubetkin himself as false information to eliminate an early period of cadet service with the Red Army about 1919–20. An authenticated birth certificate has not been traced. He was educated at Tenishev Gymnasium in St Petersburg and the Medvednikov Gymnasium in Moscow. His family was of Jewish origin, moderately prosperous, and well-travelled; Lubetkin had visited France, Germany, England, and Scandinavia by 1914.

Lubetkin's artistic education is believed to have begun with his early enrolment at the Stroganov Art School in Moscow about 1916. After the Russian Revolution he attended the SVOMAS (free art) studios in St Petersburg and Moscow, and the VkhUTEMAS (advanced state workshops of art and industrial art) in Moscow. He participated in several revolutionary groups, including Proletkult and ASNOVA, and came into contact with leading figures of the constructivist period, including Rodchenko, Tatlin, Malevich, Mayakovsky, Vesnin, Popova, and Gabo. This breadth of acquaintance was to be widened still further in Europe, where he would meet Klee, Grosz, Picasso, Braque, Léger, Gris, Soutine, Cocteau, Ernst May, Bruno Taut, and many others.

Lubetkin accompanied the first Exhibition of Russian Art to Berlin in 1922, and thereafter attended the Bauschule at the Technische Hochschule, Charlottenburg, and the Höhere Fachschule für Textil und Bekleidungsindustrie (1922–3). After a short study scholarship in Vienna, he moved to Poland and took his diploma in architecture at the Warsaw Polytechnic (1923–5). In 1925 he moved to Paris to continue his professional education and assisted in the construction of the Soviet pavilion at the Exposition des Arts Décoratifs, where he first met Le Corbusier. He attended the École Spéciale d'Architecture, the Institut d'Urbanisme, the École Supérieure de Béton Armé, and the École des Beaux-Arts; he also participated in the independent atelier of Auguste Perret, to whom Lubetkin later acknowledged an enduring debt of design skill.

Lubetkin maintained contact with the Russian avant-garde and entered several architectural competitions of the 1920s, including the Urals Polytechnic at Sverdlovsk and the Tsentrosoyus in Moscow. In the most important of these, for the Palace of Soviets in Moscow, Lubetkin and his team gained an award. He also worked for the USSR trades delegation in France curating a travelling exhibition of Russian goods in a demountable timber pavilion designed with the architect J. Volodko.

Lubetkin's first significant building was a nine-storey apartment block in avenue de Versailles, Paris, undertaken with Jean Ginsberg and completed in 1931. Though both designers were still under thirty, it exhibited a mature grasp of the aesthetic and technical concepts of contemporary modernism. With little prospect of further work in Paris, Lubetkin made several exploratory trips to London, where, in 1931, he was offered a commission to design a private house in Hampstead for Ralph and Manya Harari. Although this was not realized, Lubetkin was attracted by English traditions of tolerance and scientific progress, and by the possibility of making his mark in a country where continental modern architecture had yet to arrive. In 1932—with six graduates of the Architectural Association—he formed the Tecton partnership and set up a practice in London. This relocation to England, seemingly an unlikely choice for someone of Lubetkin's radical disposition, was not initially intended as permanent, but was consolidated with the rapid establishment of Tecton's reputation, and his growing misgivings over developments in the Soviet Union.

Although nominally a group of equals, Tecton was dominated by Lubetkin with his rich European experience, charismatic personality, and clear sense of artistic direction—attributes that also made him a figure of interest in contemporary English intellectual and society circles. His belief in building design as an instrument of social progress was underlaid by a profound appreciation of architecture's rational disciplines and emotive power. His Marxist convictions and his experience of the Russian Revolution implanted high expectations of architecture's role in transforming society, both through the provision of new and relevant building types—'social condensers'—and through its aesthetic capacity to project the image of an oncoming better world.

Lubetkin's buildings were characterized by clear geometric figures, technical ingenuity, and intensive functional resolution. He dissociated himself, however, from the contemporary doctrine of functionalism, and sought a deeper synthesis of human, architectural, and philosophical values. Formal composition and a lyrical playfulness differentiate his designs from much of the work associated with the international style; also unusual was Tecton's method of presentation whereby the rationale of a scheme was depicted in didactic analyses, witty cartoons, and slogans.

Tecton's output included several private houses, a series of zoological pavilions and structures at London Zoo, Whipsnade, and Dudley, a pair of apartment blocks, Highpoint in Highgate, Middlesex, and a health centre and housing for Finsbury borough council. Many of these projects made innovative and expressive use of structural reinforced concrete through collaboration with the Danish engineer Ove Arup. The penguin pool at London Zoo (1934), with its interlocking spiral ramps, and Highpoint I (1935), an elegantly planned eight-storey apartment building, brought Lubetkin and his firm international recognition, including praise from Le Corbusier, who described Highpoint as 'an achievement of the first rank' (The vertical garden city, Architectural Review, 79/470, January 1936, 10). The second Highpoint block (1938) employed a richer array of materials and controversially incorporated facsimile Greek caryatid figures to support the entrance canopy. The penthouse flat, designed by Lubetkin for his own occupation, achieved an interior sophistication unequalled in England at the time. Finsbury health centre—the first commission by a metropolitan authority of a firm of modern architects—was opened in 1938 and, in both its architectural and social programme, anticipated the National Health Service reforms of the post-war period. Tecton's works were well received when first built and have remained highly regarded; many are now protected by statutory listing, three at grade I. The zoo buildings were especially popular, with Dudley Zoo attracting crowds of 250,000 at its opening in 1937.

Lubetkin was active in several radical professional associations of the 1930s, notably the Modern Architectural Research (MARS) Group and the Architects' and Technicians' Organisation. In both cases Lubetkin contributed to exhibition projects, but the Architects' and Technicians' Organisation was more politically engaged and involved him in campaigns against government housing policy. (In 1935 Tecton had won a competition for the design of an ideal scheme of working-class flats.) Tecton's work with Finsbury was due to continue with several housing projects but was halted in 1939. Meanwhile, following the Munich crisis, Lubetkin and his team, together with Ove Arup, were commissioned to plan a scheme of air-raid protection for the entire borough population. Their proposals, involving a series of deep bomb-proof shelters, were politically controversial and eventually rejected. Lubetkin's architectural activity ceased with the onset of the war, although in 1942, following the entry of the USSR on the allies' side, he designed a memorial to mark Lenin's association with Finsbury.

In 1939 Lubetkin was naturalized and on 1 April of that year he married Margaret Louise Church (1917–1978), an assistant architect in Tecton and the youngest of three daughters of the barrister Harold Church. In the same year they moved from London to acquire and manage a farm in Upper Kilcott, Gloucestershire. This relocation is commonly misinterpreted as Lubetkin's retirement from architectural practice, but he resumed work on Finsbury's housing projects in 1943, when the council began to plan for reconstruction. Three large-flatted estates for Finsbury were completed by the 1950s, with a fourth being undertaken for Paddington borough council and completed by Denys Lasdun, a post-war partner in Tecton until the firm's dissolution in 1948.

Peterlee New Town, to which Lubetkin was appointed architect–planner in 1947, should have been the crowning achievement of his career. Designated on a spectacular site near Durham, this project to build an urban centre for the local mining community presented Lubetkin with the ideal opportunity to apply the full range of his mature skills to a commensurate social programme. But the project was flawed by prior development restrictions and the considerable technical difficulties of building over the active coalfield. Although Lubetkin argued for co-ordinated over- and underground planning, thereby permitting the coherent civic development he desired, the necessary departmental support was lacking. He left Peterlee in 1950, having built nothing. In the same year he was interviewed for the master planning of Chandigarh, the new capital of Punjab, though the commission was subsequently awarded to Le Corbusier.

These disappointments are often cited as marking the end of his career, but Lubetkin resumed private practice in partnership with Francis Skinner (formerly of Tecton) and Douglas Bailey, his deputy at Peterlee. The firm produced several housing schemes in Bethnal Green, London, details of which—notably the public staircases—display the sculptural vigour of Lubetkin in his prime. However, from the mid-1950s Lubetkin increasingly withdrew from professional attention and in 1957 considered emigrating to China. Margaret Lubetkin's deteriorating health caused them to give up the farm and move to Clifton, Bristol, in 1969. Following her death in 1978 Lubetkin began writing a personal memoir, which is still unpublished. He emerged from seclusion in 1982 to receive the award of the royal gold medal for architecture. This marked a renewal of interest in the man and his work and, in the following years, he re-entered the architectural arena and travelled extensively, giving lectures and interviews. He died at his home, 113 Princess Victoria Street, Clifton, Bristol, on 23 October 1990, survived by two daughters and a son; a second son had died in childhood following a tonsillectomy. He was cremated on 27 October.

Berthold Lubetkin (Tolek to his friends) was a man of complex character, a maverick who none the less inspired devotion in his collaborators. He was a captivating conversationalist but described himself as a 'rootless journeyman' and could be elusive in personal relations. Many details of his early life and family background remain uncertain or uncorroborated by documentary record. He had strong left-wing political allegiances and a distinguished analytical mind that ranged widely over many subjects. His intermittent writings, invariably directed from a rationalist philosophical viewpoint, combined architectural critique, social polemic, and a sardonic humour enlivened by idiomatic polyglot wordplay. His tastes—whether in art, literature, or food—were discerning, cosmopolitan, and idiosyncratic. He was of short but powerful physique with handsome features and a pronounced ‘foreign’ accent, despite his long English domicile. He is widely regarded as the outstanding architect of his generation to have practised in England, his work encapsulating the early optimistic vision of modernism at its most poetic and poignant.

Sources

  • J. Allan, Berthold Lubetkin: architecture and the tradition of progress [1992]
  • P. Coe and M. Reading, Lubetkin and Tecton: architecture and social commitment (1981)
  • J. Allan, ‘The passing of a modern master’, Architects' Journal (31 Oct 1990), 5
  • J. Allan, RIBA Journal, 97 (Dec 1990), 30–32
  • P. Moro and J. Allan, ArchR, 188 (1990), 4
  • J. Allan and M. von Sternberg, Berthold Lubetkin (2002)
  • The Times (24 Oct 1990)
  • Daily Telegraph (25 Oct 1990)
  • The Guardian (24 Oct 1990)
  • The Independent (25 Oct 1990)
  • L. Kehoe, In this dark house (1995)
  • personal knowledge (2004)
  • private information (2004)
  • G. Nelson, ‘Architects of Europe: Tecton, England’, Pencil Points, 16 (Oct 1936)
  • R. F. Jordan, ‘Lubetkin’, ArchR, 118 (1955), 36–44

Archives

  • RIBA, archive

Film

  • BBC TV, Arena (transmitted 31 March 1989), ‘Lubetkin: thoughts of a twentieth century architect’

Sound

  • BBC Radio 4, 1975: Open University arts course: History of architecture and design, 1890–1939; A305/14 Lubetkin ‘Art, ideology and revolution’; A305/27 Lubetkin ‘A commentary on Western Architecture’

Likenesses

  • Baron, photograph, 1948, NPG [see illus.]
  • Lord Snowdon, photograph, 1985, repro. in Allan, Berthold Lubetkin

Wealth at Death

under £115,000: probate, 17 Dec 1990, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Journal of the Royal Institute of British Architects
Architectural Review