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Thursday
Jul182013

Books: Reshaping British Architecture

By Michael Webb

Berthold Lubetkin: Architecture and the Tradition of Progress. John Allan. Artifice, $59.95

In this greatly enlarged edition of a book he created 20 years ago, John Allan explores the career and influence of an émigré from the Soviet Union who introduced conservative Britons to the marvels of modernism. Allan is a director of Avanti Architects in London, and he specializes in the restoration of mid-century modern buildings. As a graduate student he met Berthold Lubetkin (1901-90) and their two-decade friendship kindled his admiration and this exemplary tribute.

It’s an extraordinary story, compellingly told. Lubetkin, who was born in Georgia, was caught up in the turmoil in Russia following the Bolshevik coup d’etat, whose leaders first encouraged and then suppressed experimentation. He moved back and forwards from Moscow to Berlin and Paris, finally settling in London in 1931. Britain was smugly insulated from the wave of innovation that was sweeping over Europe and Lubetkin played the same role as early Christian missionaries—bringing enlightenment to the heathen.

His first successes were with animals in progressive zoos, and the restored Penguin Pool in the London Zoo is a widely beloved classic. Later he designed a health center that has been sadly neglected but is still a model of its kind, as well as the best prewar apartment towers. In the idealistic aftermath of war, he designed innovative social housing, stretching the meager budgets to include staircases that rival those of Borromini. One of the estates was named for Lenin, with a bust supplied by the Soviet Embassy in London. A decade later, that feature fell victim to the Cold War, and two letters in the sign over the portal were changed, making it a memorial to (Ernest) Bevin, Britain’s feisty foreign secretary. Lubetkin was made chief architect of Peterlee New Town, where his visionary ideas were sabotaged, putting an end to a brilliant career

Allan’s first text was a graceful summary: now, words and archival images occupy five times as many pages, and the book has become a scholarly reference work, investigating context and designs in meticulous detail. The historical material is fascinating and there’s a section of new color photos that show how well many of the buildings have survived. However, invaluable as this study will be, its design falls short. The type is small and closely spaced and the layout feels cramped, in contrast to the airy elegance of Merrell’s 2002 edition. Lucid writing makes up for the compression.

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