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  • Lubetkin's High Point

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    Lubetkin's High Point

    continued

    Le Corbusier, who, at Lubetkin's invitation, visited the project on completion, admitted that "for a long time he had dreamed of executing dwellings in such conditions for the good of humanity," describing Highpoint I as "an achievement of the first rank, and a milestone which will be useful to everybody."

    Client Sigmund Gestetner, director of a large office-machinery company in north London, had originally intended to develop residential apartments for members of his workforce. However, following pre-letting promotion, market values quickly exceeded norms for low-cost housing, and the units were largely appropriated as desirable middle-class flats.

    Modernist Ideals Made Real

    Highpoint illustrates dramatically the Corbusian town-planning proposition, whereby the accommodation is concentrated into a densely planned structure and raised off the ground by piloti, thus releasing the maximum remaining area for communal facilities and recreational landscaping.

    Unlike so many later flawed attempts in the typical post-war municipal housing estate, this modern ideal really is achieved at Highpoint, where the gardens are beautifully planted and maintained, and incorporate tennis courts, children's play areas, a squash court and a swimming pool.

    The ground floor is arranged freely around the grid of piloti that support the rectilinear carcass of accommodation above. The narrow site frontage dictated a longitudinal development, so with characteristic grace, Lubetkin orients the entrance on an oblique axis in order to bypass the first stair tower and arrive opposite the center of the building.

    This equalizes the significance of the two cores, which are, in fact, symmetrical in the upper-level plan. The promenade architecturale continues at the far end of the hall down to a tea-room, which leads to steps and an arabesque ramp into the gardens.

    Apart from its functional elegance, this ground-floor composition was also intended by Lubetkin as a lyrical abstraction to contrast with the repetitive order of the flats above. These are arranged in a double cruciform, four apartments radiating from each staircase, which ingeniously receives borrowed daylight from two diagonally opposite corners, the other two corners containing service lifts.

    "The ground floor extends like the magnificent surface of a lake," wrote Le Corbusier after visiting Highpoint in 1935.

    Innovations and Disappointments

    An advanced system of construction was devised by Ove Arup that avoided intrusive framing and used a system of climbing formwork that enabled the monolithic concrete carcass to be cast without conventional scaffolding.

    The interior fitting-out is also full of consideration and innovation, with even the most mundane details subjected to rigorous reappraisal. The sliding folding windows used in the living rooms are particularly ambitious, allowing the whole sash range to be folded and slid to the end of the window opening, turning the room into a virtual balcony.

    Everything from a bath lip to a door escutcheon was interrogated with the same rationalizing scrutiny. The apartment interiors, notwithstanding the pervasive rationality, happily accommodate a variety of tastes in decor and furniture that could be regarded as quite contrary to the architectural ethos of the building generally.

    Highpoint I's pioneering reputation has always outshone its compromises: the ninety-degree overlooking of adjoining flats; the odd arrangement of service terminals, which made it necessary in some cases to enter a neighbor's flat in order to read the electric meter; poor acoustic and fire separation in the service lifts; and a high-maintenance envelope that has needed onerous repair over the succeeding years.

    Perhaps most significantly, from Lubetkin's point of view, the intention that foyer areas should function as a sort of social forum never came to fruition. Neither, for that matter, has the roof terrace a key element in Le Corbusier's theory of modern building ever been fully exploited, furnished, or planted as originally intended.

    Nonetheless, Highpoint I has remained Lubetkin's single most acclaimed work, becoming so much the flagship of the British Modern Movement that he was to find it difficult to advance without critical dissent.

    Other than the fact that it came first, what makes Highpoint I different from a thousand white apartment blocks from Sydney to San Francisco is Lubetkin's unerring architectural judgment and the Englishness of its setting. The dark window frames leave the facades to read as an abstract statement of planes and cutouts, the balcony fronts with their lyrical shadows providing a single counter-motif.

    One has only to visualize the consequences of, say, painting the window frames white, or extending the balconies beyond the window openings or giving the balconies themselves solid ends, to appreciate how crucial is Lubetkin's discipline to the overall sense of lightness and precision.

    Little wonder this vision touched the heart of so many architects. But its enduring success depends on a vital "ecosystem" of moderate density, adequate privacy, ample services, effective management, and consistent maintenance.

    The neglect of such essentials explains the gulf between Highpoint's apotheosis of modernity and the brutalized inheritance of so many post-war housing estates. The familiarity of failure should not, however, obscure the validity of the ideal when properly applied, and Highpoint remains the first and still the most compelling vindication of Le Corbusier's vision of the "vertical garden city" ever achieved in England.

    John Allan is a practicing architect and a director of Avanti Architects, in London. He is a leading authority on Lubetkin, and has been involved in the restoration of several of his buildings.

    This article is excerpted from Berthold Lubetkin, copyright © 2002, with photography by Morley von Sternberg and a foreword by Richard Meier. Available from Merrell Publishers Limited, price $60, hardback, and at Amazon.com.

     

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    ArchWeek Image

    Highpoint I, in north London, designed by Berthold Lubetkin, completed in 1935.
    Photo: Morley von Sternberg

    ArchWeek Image

    The lattice screens at the junction of the spine and wings, originally open, were soon enclosed to create valuable floor space. Projecting balconies are reminiscent of Aalto's 1929 Paimio Sanatorium.
    Photo: Morley von Sternberg

    ArchWeek Image

    The foyer remains a definitive 1930s space but is invariably underpopulated, revealing the disparity between Lubetkin's aspirations for a "social condenser" and the reality of a bourgeois condominium.
    Photo: Morley von Sternberg

    ArchWeek Image

    Ground floor plan, with angled foyer and servants' rooms, at Highpoint I, by Berthold Lubetkin.
    Image: Courtesy Merrill Publishers Ltd.

    ArchWeek Image

    Typical upper-floor plan of Highpoint I, with the larger three-bedroom flats.
    Image: Courtesy Merrill Publishers Ltd.

    ArchWeek Image

    Detailed study of the smaller of the two main flat types shows the beautiful clarity of Lubetkin's planning.
    Image: Courtesy of the collection of Francis Skinner

    ArchWeek Image

    The shallow bedroom cupboards neatly conceal the spine beam while providing storage with slide-out clothes rails.
    Photo: Morley von Sternberg

    ArchWeek Image

    The double-width apartment entrance conveys a sense of generosity, enhanced by the oval column on the center axis. "Like a Greek column," judged Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe, "this gives significance to the space in which it stands."
    Photo: Morley von Sternberg

     

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