Monday, December 12, 2011

Lubetkin: William Tozer, ‘Flat White,’ New Zealand Home and Entertaining, (February/March 2004): 68–73.

The Highpoint apartment building in London is still despised by many of the more conservative residents of the surrounding leafy streets of Highgate, but in the sixty-eight years since it was constructed, its admirers have steadily grown in number. Amongst these admirers is current Highpoint homeowner Linda Aitken, a New Zealander now running her own urban design practice in London. Designed by Russian émigré Berthold Lubetkin, the construction of the building was staunchly resisted by the same conservation organisation that now coordinates tours of the building during the annual London Open House week. While the building was lauded by the architectural cognoscenti from its inception, it is no surprise that the scheme met with strong objections from a borough that still prides itself on having much lower densities of residential development than other areas of London.

Lubetkin arrived in England from Paris in the early 1930s and formed the architectural practice Tecton. Alongside Peter Behrens and New Zealander Amyas Connell, Lubetkin provided the initial impetus for the British modern architectural movement. Lubetkin’s Tecton collaborator, Denys Lasdun went on to become a major figure in twentieth-century British architecture and the considerable influence of Lubetkin’s modernism is evident in buildings such as The Royal Festival Hall on London’s South Bank. Lubetkin’s Highpoint was the first major building block in this sphere of influence and is undoubtedly a seminal piece of British modernism. While the compact and sensitive interiors are reminiscent of the Villa Savoye by the Swiss luminary Le Corbusier, the clean lines and projecting balconies to the elevations recall the functionalism of the Bauhaus or the rationalism of Terragni. While not a true Corbusian roof-scape, the roof of Highpoint provides a fabulous vantage point from which to survey London. One of these views is framed almost photographically—just as in Corbusier’s Villa Savoye—with a window-like opening to a solid wall.

Born in New Zealand’s Hawkes Bay, Linda Aitken travelled to London in the early 1980s as part of six months ‘OE’. Two decades later, she now lives in London with her two sons and works as an ‘urbanist’, designing streetscapes and masterplans for English cities. ‘My anxiety about wanting to be an architect is long gone’, says Linda, reflecting upon her chosen profession and her education in town planning and urban design in Auckland and Edinburgh respectively. Her practice, Aitken Leclercq is currently working with renowned Dutch architects MVRDV on a master plan for Toxteth in the northern English city of Liverpool. It is Linda’s involvement in the design industry that makes her like-minded company for the increasing number of architects and designers who inhabit Highpoint. One of Linda’s neighbours is renowned architectural critic, Jeremy Melvin, whose apartment sits directly above hers.

Although the parents of the previous owners of Linda’s apartment had been friends of Lubetkin’s, it is clear that they did not have a particular affinity with the design of the building. As with many of the apartments, pelmets and heavy curtains had been added to disguise the sliding and folding steel windows, and chandeliers and a fake fireplace had been introduced to soften the clean modern lines of the rooms. However, most of the original features did remain intact, including steel-framed doors, custom-made door handles, built-in cupboards, ceramic tiles and cork flooring. Another revolutionary attribute of the building, which continues to be operational to this day, is the under-floor and ceiling heating. All of these original features are now protected by the Grade One Listed status of the building. An un-missable feature that Linda has added to the apartment seems strangely at home with the Lubetkin design—an enormous back-lit photograph of a Serge Chermayeff building, which fills an entire wall of the living space. Another pioneer of modern architecture, Chermayeff is best know in Britain for his collaboration with Eric Mendelsohn on the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea.

‘I think we’ve gone backwards’, says Linda, comparing the revolutionary spatial arrangements of early modern buildings like Highpoint with most contemporary architecture. She remarks that in spite of many people’s expectations, the compact, three-bedroom apartment is comfortable for her and her two sons due to its ingenious design. Moreover, with large shared gardens and a swimming pool, the building provides the closest approximation of a New Zealand environment that she can think of anywhere in London. The fact that her Highpoint apartment is drenched in sunlight during the short days of the English winter—at least by comparison to the terraced housing that dominates most of London—supports this observation.

Built-in washing chutes and service lifts to each apartment, and communal spaces on the ground floor indicate an ambition for a shared lifestyle born of the architect’s socialist ideology. The presence of maids’ quarters on the ground floor, however, suggests that these ambitions were interpreted through a bourgeois conception of this ideal, and the present occupation of the building in discreet dwellings belies this original aspiration. However, the growing population of architects, designers and architecturally aware inhabitants of the building has created a new sense of community at Highpoint. As Linda describes how she and several of her neighbours have discussed converting a small, unused ground-floor space into a communal library, it seems that Lubetkin’s social agenda for the building may yet be fulfilled.

Project images available here:

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