Rumen Dimov, one of the students involved in Rochester Roundhouse, a runner-up in last year's MacEwen Award, considers Berthold Lubetkin's Finsbury Health Centre an inspiring and early exponent of a building for the common good
In the early 1930s, nearly 20 years before the creation of the National Health Service, two immigrants – Dr Chuni Katial (then ward councillor and chairman of the Finsbury public health committee) and alderman Harold Riley – conceived one of the first civic designs to be entrusted to an avant-garde architect in Britain.
Completed in 1938 and designed by Berthold Lubetkin as part of Tecton, The Finsbury Health Centre would have been seen as something of a luxury in the London borough at a time when the idea that ill health was more than an hereditary misfortune was just starting to emerge. As unloved as it may now seem, the grade I listed icon marked an unprecedented advance in social policy and is considered to be one of the driving forces behind the 1948 Act, which created the NHS.
Unlike some of its health centre contemporaries, FHC pioneered the ‘drop-in’ concept with its relaxed loose furniture interiors and inclusive ideas – no serried rows of benches, no hint of bureaucratic supervision – thus inspiring confidence in the public to call in at any time.
Modernist murals by Gordon Cullen and Christian Herald would encourage people to ‘live out of doors as much as you can’ and take ownership of their own health. This concept of co-operation with the community and interactive relationship between health providers and recipients was among the first such initiatives. The whole building embodies Lubetkin’s aspirations that a project should be self-evident and explicit – its open ‘arms’ and inviting entrance designed to show that the local authority is on your side.
While Lubetkin’s dream may have never been fully realised – with the building being finished just before the outbreak of the Second World War – FHC has provided care for the local community for nearly 80 years. It was narrowly saved from being sold off in 2008 and is to this day a functioning facility, albeit in dire need of restoration. As the number of projects of any demonstrable benefit across society dwindles, we can only hope it secures it.
Rumen Dimov was part of the student team at Newcastle University that completed Rochester Roundhouse