Joint founder of Levitt Bernstein and housing association Circle 33, whose efforts to supply housing was inspired by Cathy Come Home
David Bernstein was born in New York in 1937. He first read architecture at the University of Cincinnati, before studying under Louis Kahn at the University of Pennsylvania.
In 1964 he moved to London with his economist wife Beverly, initially intending only to stay for a year. But they never returned to the States; together making a significant contribution to social housing and architectural education in the UK. They took positions at the Architectural Association, she as a senior registrar and he teaching, with Marco Goldschmied, Clare Lorenz, Tony Fretton, Henry Herzberg, Lyndall Scott, Gill Smith, Peter Blundell-Jones, John Stevenson, John Young and Mike Davies among those he taught.
Alongside his teaching role, David worked under William Whitfield and then Patrick Hodgkinson, as one of five assistants designing the Brunswick Centre. It was here that he met David Levitt, and once the project had completed, the two decided to set up on their own.
The pair were moved by the plight of homeless people as depicted in the BBC drama ‘Cathy Come Home’ and together dedicated themselves to creating better homes for all, establishing the architectural practice Levitt Bernstein, and housing association Circle 33 (now Clarion Housing Group), in 1968. The charity Shelter, itself newly formed, provided much of the grant funding for their initial Victorian terrace conversions, which created an abundance of good, cheap homes for people across the capital.
The pair led both organisations until 1974, when they left Circle 33 and dedicated all their time to Levitt Bernstein. Over the years, David Bernstein led a great many social housing projects across the capital for the likes of Peabody Trust, Metropolitan Housing Trust and Tower Hamlets Housing Action Trust. He always insisted on engaging directly with residents, whether on estate regeneration projects such as Chalk Hill in Brent, or smaller supported housing projects like Arlington House. Here, he introduced local artists to work with the residents, many of whom had mental health problems. For David, designing social housing was always a process of collaboration between architect and resident. He also sat on the RIBA community architecture group in the 90s.
It was David’s teaching reputation that led to the practice’s commission to design a theatre-in-the-round within the Royal Exchange in Manchester, a project that was so successful (winning an RIBA Award in 1977), that Levitt Bernstein subsequently gained a reputation for designing arts buildings. Notably, David himself went on to lead the refurbishment of the ICA.
Despite Levitt and Bernstein’s relative inexperience, the practice’s reputation as a convivial and inspiring place to work meant that it grew quickly. Particularly unusual for the time, it also had a high proportion of female architects. David was keenly involved in all aspects of running the practice, later taking the role of managing director. He was always modest and created an egalitarian culture that put people first – both staff and the users of the spaces designed.
Kind, light-hearted and full of integrity, David remained a father figure for many long after his retirement in 2003. The legacy of his social commitment remains at the practice today, where the culture and ethos also owes so much to his wonderful, open and compassionate sensibility. David died aged 80 following a short battle with cancer. His wife pre-deceased him in 2012.
Matthew Goulcher is managing director of Levitt Bernstein