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Islington Tribune - EXCLUSIVE by TOM FOOT
Published: 23 January 2009
Finsbury Health Centre, celebrated around the world for it's groundbreaking design and concept
Finsbury Health Centre, celebrated around the world for it’s groundbreaking design and concept
The £9m question... Are you big enough to save our health centre?

Decision-makers warned verdict on future of pioneering building is awaited worldwide

HEALTH chiefs have been warned by an architect who helped restore Finsbury Health Centre that they will spark international anger if they push through plans to abandon the building.
The Grade I-listed building is celebrated around the world, it is argued, not simply for its groundbreaking design but for the way it embodied the ideals of public service 10 years before the National Health Ser­vice was founded.
Seventy years after the pioneering centre, design­ed by Russian visionary architect Berthold Lubet­kin, opened in Pine Street, it is threatened with closure as NHS Islington claims it must be sold to a private developer because of high refurbishment costs.
For Islington architect John Allan, who supervised the partial restoration of the centre in the mid-1990s and who is also Lubetkin’s biographer, a key part of the building’s significance would be lost forever if the NHS professionals are forced to leave.
He has made a personal plea to the board of NHS Islington to stand up for this “special case” when they decide its future on Thursday.
He said: “Probably everyone wants to say they have special pleading rights but, damn it, if the first building that anticipated the NHS by 10 years is not regarded as a very, very special thing then what is?
“And if you then add in the personalities involved, being designed by this Russian immigrant who remains widely regarded as the leading architect of his generation, working with Dr [Chunilal] Katial, who would later become the first non-white mayor of a metropolitan borough, in the most inauspicious circumstances... To ach­ieve that and then to say it just has to be dealt with like any other bit of NHS property, it is simply not good enough.
“There are people all around the world who know about Finsbury Health Centre. The decision is happening in front of an international audience.”
He added: “Key buildings, I mean these real milestone buildings, that move the whole discussion forward, they don’t come about very often. Finsbury brought together, as no other building of its era had done, the three key components of the modern movement: the social, architectural and technical agendas.”
He added: “If it was occupied by some private health operator it might still look the same but a crucial ingredient of its raison d’etre would be lost.”
The centre opened in 1938 after Dr Katial and Alderman Harold Riley, the radical Labour mayor of Finsbury Borough Council, commissioned Lubetkin and Tecton to design Britain’s first publicly owned health centre.
For the first time, doctors worked alongside other health professionals. There was a TB clinic, a solarium and podiatry and children’s services under one roof. The building was designed with light shining through into the entrance and huge “murals of hope” fronted the walls.
The model influenced Labour politician Nye Bevan, a leading figure in the founding of the NHS a decade later. Lubetkin described the building as a “megaphone for health” and proclaimed on its opening that “nothing was too good for ordinary people”.
But while Lubetkin became a champion of public service and community spirit, he lived much of his life behind closed doors.
Mr Allan said: “He was effectively a recluse when I met him in 1970 and I would see him maybe twice a month for almost 20 years. I spent 20 years talking to Lubetkin about his life and work, including the health centre.
“I know it was one of his most fulfilling achievements.”
NHS Islington has doubled its original estimate of the cost of refurbishment, to £9.5million. Its chief executive, Rachel Tyndall, has used the high figure to justify selling the building.
She has said it is “not worth the money” and that her job is solely to provide health services for patients and not maintain Grade I-listed buildings.
Mr Allan said: “It sounds a reasonable argument but we must understand that in this case the heritage and social service issue are one and the same thing. The building is quite capable of being restored and upgraded.
“Where there is a will there is a way and there simply is not enough will here.”
The results of a public consultation, which has drawn more than 3,000 responses and an 1,800 petition, will be discussed at a board meeting at NHS Islington headquarters in Goswell Road from 9.30am on Thursday.
Mr Allan said: “What I hope is that there is one person who is big enough to realise you don’t have to do the wrong thing just for fear of losing face. Their stock would soar if they would only say: ‘We hear you, we understand you, and we will hang on for a bit and see what we can do.’ They would have the whole community behind them.”

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