There are many places of interest here, and we are very lucky that in terms of architecture alone many assets have remained intact, in particular the Georgian houses and squares, and one or two examples of outstanding modernist architecture.
This page serves to highlight particular areas of interest or particular features or buildings. This page will continue to grow over time as more content is added.
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Updated: 07 February 2013
Bevin Court and the Peter Yates Mural
Bevin Court is situated at the end of Cruikshank Street on the site of what used to be Holford Square. The square was seriously bomb damaged during the Second World War and Finsbury Borough Council seized it under a compulsory purchase order so that they could develop the site for social housing.. They employed the architect Berthold Lubetkin, with whom the borough had a long standing relationship, to design a modern block of flats which turned out to be the architect’s last major project for Finsbury.
Lubetkin is now famous as a modernist architect. He was born in Russia, studied architecture in Paris and came to London in the 1930s where he set up an architectural practice. In this area of London he was responsible for designing the Finsbury Health Centre and the Spa Green Estate as well as Bevin Court.
Bevin Court was constructed between 1950 and 1954, and was the first large scale modernist block of flats to be built in England after the war. Its unusual Y shape fits well into the square and means that none of the flats face North. There are two smaller blocks, Holford House and Amwell House which are compatible with the existing Georgian houses. There is an unusual circular entrance and the central lobby is an equilateral triangle. The central staircase is remarkable and exceptionally well designed. It consists of a series of short fights at 120 degree angles with triangular landings halfway between the floors on a single pillar. Architectural students frequently visit Bevin Court just to look at the staircase.
The building was originally supposed to be named Lenin House as the first communist leader of the USSR stayed in Holford Square in 1902, but due to the post war unpopularity of the Russians, the name of the flats was changed to Bevin Court after a local councillor, not the foreign secretary, Sir Ernest Bevin as is often suggested.
The Peter Yates Mural
Set within the curve of the entrance is a mural by Peter Yates who died in 1982. He was an artist and an architect who worked with and became a friend of Lubetkin , His mural in Bevin Court is called Day and Night Winged Bulls and is a stylised interpretation of elements taken from the heraldic arms of the London Borough of Finsbury. These arms, which were granted in 1931, depict the white cross of the order of St John, which has its headquarters in Finsbury. The water symbolises the Thames. The red circles and crescent represent the arms of the Charterhouse. The gateway is the old gate through the walls of London into the borough. The two creatures supporting the shield are the bull and the dolphin, the symbols of St Luke and St James. The dolphin wears a badge which depicts the Clerk’s Well as in Clerkenwell. The Latin inscription ALTIORA PETIMUS means “we seek higher things”.
The good condition of the mural was maintained until relatively recently, but a deterioration in the external fabric of the lobby allowed rain water to damage the surface on which the mural is painted. In addition some graffiti and a do it yourself repair added to the mural’s misfortunes. However owing to the efforts of Julia Barclay, who lives in Bevin Court and is an Amwell Society member, Peter Yates’ daughter, Sally Ann Yates, was alerted to the plight of the mural and she commissioned a report to ascertain its condition, and make proposals for its conservation and restoration. Quite a substantial sum of money was needed to save it, but fortunately the Heritage Lottery Fund came to the rescue and paid for renovation work on the mural.. The building itself has recently undergone extensive repairs and redecoration, and the central lobby and staircase have been repainted in their original colours of red, grey and cream.
Finsbury Health Centre
With the Save Finsbury Health Centre campaign in full-swing, here is some background to a Grade I Listed world-class Modernist building on our doorstep. Visit www.savefinsburyhealthcentre.wordpress.com for more info
Berthold Lubetkin was the architect of Bevin Court, which was built just after World War II on the site of Holford Square off Great Percy Street after receiving a direct hit from a land mine during the Blitz. Lubetkin was born in Tbilisi, Georgia, southern Russia, and studied architecture in Moscow and Petrograd under Rodchenko, Tatlin and A. Vesnin amongst others. He travelled to Berlin in 1922, lived in Warsaw between 1923 and 1925 and then moved to Paris where he learnt from Auguste Perret and worked with Ginsberg. Lubetkin was invited to London in 1930, where he formed the group Tecton with six graduates of the Architectural Association. The 1930s were to be Lubetkin and Tecton’s most prolific period, including work at Whipsnade and London Zoos. You can still see the Grade I Listed [unoccupied] Penguin Pool at London Zoo.
In the 1930s Finsbury was one of London’s poorest boroughs. Lice, rickets, and diphtheria were common and most residents suffered poor housing and atrocious diets. In Britain as a whole, 2,000 people per year died of whooping cough and tuberculosis killed 30,000 annually. The local council set about tackling the problems with the ambitious ‘Finsbury Plan’. The idea was to build a comprehensive health centre amid public baths, libraries and nurseries. In the end the whole plan was never executed. Nonetheless, Finsbury represents an important moment in the story of British Modernism.
The 1938 Centre incorporated a TB clinic, a foot clinic, a dental surgery, and a solarium. The basement had facilities for cleaning and disinfecting bedclothes. Lubetkin wanted people to feel welcome but never patronised. He also wanted the Centre to be like a club, or a drop-in centre. He felt that it was important that people did not feel they were walking into just another bureaucratic staging post. To this end, the reception desk was left out of the original plans, (but was added later), and furniture in the foyer was deliberately not arranged into traditional waiting room rows. People had to feel they could drop in at any time and see clinicians in a relaxed, unthreatening atmosphere. Lubetkin wanted the centre to persuade people to live healthier lives, as well as treat their ailments. Murals on the walls encouraged patients to get some fresh air. The glass bricks of the front wall were a conscious attempt to “propagandise” the physical benefits of a light, airy environment. The solarium allowed the children of Finsbury (who spent much of their early lives enveloped in a thick smog), a chance to feel the benefits of sunlight. Of this revolutionary new approach to public health, Lubetkin famously commented “Nothing is too good for ordinary people”. The interior of the Centre was bright-coloured in reds and azures which were designed to contrast with the gloom of the surrounding slums, and the expanse of glass walls on each of the wings would sparkle on sunny days- “as beautiful as the hair of a beautiful young girl in the summer sunshine”. Lubetkin shows that Modernist buildings do not have to be sombre. He saw his Health Centre as a multi-coloured beacon in the heart of the smoky city.
Lubetkin’s practice, Tecton, was dissolved in 1948 but the firm Skinner Bailey & Lubetkin continued to operate. Lubetkin was awarded the RIBA Gold Medal for Architecture in 1982. Don’t forget to look at Lubetkin’s Spa Green Estate opposite Sadler’s Wells, the Penguin Pond at London Zoo, or Highpoint, Lubetkin’s luxury block of flats in Highgate.
Photo of Lubetkin – Baron. Biographical notes from RIBA website. Notes on Finsbury Health Centre from From Here to Modernity.
St Helena Gardens
St Helena’s Garden is situated between Lloyd Square and the Margery Street Estate on Lloyd Baker Street, and is officially part of the estate. It used to be a rose garden, but became neglected and the Amwell Society asked Islington Council if they could take responsibility for its upkeep, to which the Council agreed. It is maintained by members of the Amwell Society on a voluntary basis, but we use some of our funds to purchase plants and such things as manure. The garden is very shady which limits what can be planted, so it has turned into a bit of a green oasis with the odd splash of colour. People sometimes ask about access to it, but it is kept locked to minimise rubbish and damage and dog poo, It is a garden for looking at as it can be seen very well from the footpath.
Lenin Blue Plaque