Modernist marvel: a socialist dream and a slice of history
PUBLISHED: 15:30 20 March 2017
Noga Photo Studio
This historic housing block was revered by the modernist masters when it was built, and it’s back on the market for a modern price tag
Picture this; gloomy clouds of depression hover over London, unemployment is at an all time high and as dole queues grow, more pins are added to the great drawing board of the Welfare State as National Governments try desperately to resolve the bubbling crisis. The Great War is relegated to the back of your mind as rousing headlines reach our shores warning of a renegade group stirring up trouble in Germany.
This is 1930s Britain. Yet even in the throes of the Great Depression there were a few points of respite from the tumult. Consumer goods were more plentiful than ever before; cars, televisions and vacuum cleaners were bought on hire-purchase, Humphrey Bogart filled the big screen and the salty seaside air called you away for a holiday.
Inside the home, change was brewing. With three million new electricity equipped homes, the inter-war period was a boom time for building. Gone were the Gothic spires of Victorian homes, away with the Queen Anne Revival’s delicately feminine lines, the aftermath First World War necessitated a new style, a more analytical and rational approach to building for a city half flattened by war.
Nearly a century on, Modernism is very much back in vogue. In the past few months we’ve featured a modernist Camden mews house and a renowned 1950s Highgate housing estate. Now a new flat in the famed 1930s modernist block Highpoint I is on the market, and it’s not the first time we’ve got all excited about that block.
Designed by Berthold Lubetkin, who was also responsible for housing estates in Clerkenwell and Islington, not to mention the famous penguin pool and gorilla house at London Zoo, the apartments were designed for local workers. Hailing from Georgia, the immigrant architect and his firm, Tecton, designed buildings that became iconic, thanks to their trademark asymmetry and cubic shapes in minimal, open plan designs. Like many buildings of the tradition, Highpoint I features reinforced concrete, flat roofs and large, regular window patterns.
After the turbulence of the Great War and Russian Revolution, Modernism was conceived as the answer to transforming society. Lubetkin was a staunch supporter of the socialist movement. His work rejected ornamentalism and the example set by history in favour of abstraction, and became emblematic of the challenge to rigid class inequality. On completion of his Finsbury Park Health Centre, he said: “Nothing is too good for ordinary people.”
The first of two apartment blocks so named for being found at London’s highest point, Highpoint I was finished in 1935 and has ever since been celebrated for its introduction of the modernist style for London’s residential buildings. The leader of the Modernist movement Le Corbusier himself praised its design and construction.
The property was listed Grade I in 1970, by which point Brutalism well and truly dominated as the prevailing style of public housing.
If this brief history lesson has not been convincing enough to warrant an online wander through the hallways of this hallowed historic residence, then the flat itself surely will. A three bed property on the upper floor of the building, the apartment has one reception room and access to a communal garden watched over by a private balcony. Highpoint I benefits from a porter, pool and tennis court and enjoys a convenient Highgate location.
Abstracting ourselves for a moment from the dour days of 1930s Britain and the beacon of light that Lubetkin’s work represented, the architect would most likely be turning in his grave at the modern price tag of his once social housing project. At a cool £1,150,000, the cost of an apartment in Highpoint I is far removed from the few hundred pounds an average home cost in London’s inter-war market. That said, Lubetkin’s homes didn’t come with state of the art furnishings, fitted wardrobes or freedom from the threat of impending Nazi occupation.