Finsbury Health Centre was one of the UK’s first purpose-built health centres and is especially unique in that it pre-dates the NHS itself.
Finsbury, like many London Boroughs in the 1920s and 1930s, suffered from poverty, overcrowding and all the resultant health problems for its residents. The Public Health (London) Act of 1936 enabled local councils to provide medical services for their poorer inhabitants, although discussions about the provision of various health and housing schemes were by this time already under way between Finsbury Borough Council Leader, Alderman Harold Riley, and the owner of the land the centre was subsequently built on, the Marquess of Northampton. Indeed, a new maternity centre had already been opened in 1927 on Pine Street, on land donated by the Marquess.
Riley had an enthusiastic supporter in Dr Chuni Lal Katial, Chairman of the public health committee, who is often credited as the driving force behind FHC’s creation. He proposed a centralised health service which would bring together the Borough’s scattered services. It was Katial who commissioned architects Tecton to design the new health centre, after being impressed by their proposed designs for a TB clinic in East Ham, presented at a British Medical Association conference in 1932.
This would become the first Modernist design ever commissioned by a public client. Tecton’s instructions were to focus on services and in 1936 they presented four design options to the council. The most expensive option was chosen, with an estimated cost of £55,000 – a huge investment by the council into the health of its constituents. The final cost of the build, including equipment, was nearly £62,000 – more than £3 million in today’s money.
Designed by Berthold Lubetkin
The lead architect for Tecton was Russian Berthold Lubetkin, whose personal motto was “nothing is too good for ordinary people”. His work was greatly influenced by his experiences of the Russian Revolution as a young man, and the progressive politics and avant-garde art that emerged during this time.
The centre was conceived, uniquely for its time, as an open access facility where people could feel comfortable to simply drop in and use the services offered there. The two wings resemble open arms and the façade of the building was designed to be honest and welcoming. The original colour scheme for the entrance hall was red for the columns, sky blue for the ceilings and chocolate brown for the floors – a huge change from the poor and drab surroundings those living in the area would have been used to in public buildings.
The needs of those working in the building were also taken into account – offices and clinics were placed in the wings, which were angled to allow as much daylight in as possible, while clinics were given moveable partition walls to maximise flexibility, and soundproofing was installed between floors. The design also reflected, at the Council’s request, the prevailing medical ideas at the time. Light and air were widely considered to have therapeutic properties, and this is why the building employs open-plan interiors, glass bricks, and many large windows.
The concrete construction was devised in collaboration with Ove Arup, who went on to engineer a number of other iconic buildings – most notably Sydney Opera House.
Sadly, the Second World War was to have a lasting impact on the building, which was only recently completed when the conflict began. While it escaped being damaged in the bombing raids on London, the precautionary sandbags piled around it cracked many of the glass bricks. The building was used as a bandaging centre for civilian casualties, so aesthetics were no longer a priority: the ducting and plumbing were moved inside the building and a specially-commissioned mural by Gordon Cullen, extolling the benefits of “fresh air night and day” was whitewashed over. These changes to Lubetkin’s design principles so angered the architect that he refused to set foot inside the building for the next 40 years.
Despite these troubles, the centre became a symbol for modern healthy thinking. It was the subject of a 1943 motivational poster by Abram Games, which depicted the building rising from the ashes of the pre-war slums. The poster was unfortunately banned by Churchill, who disagreed with Games’ portrayal of those slums.
Since the War, Finsbury Health Centre has regularly been lauded as an exemplar of both community healthcare and design. When the NHS was born in 1948, Clement Atlee’s Government looked to Finsbury as a model for service delivery for the new national service; however, post-war budget constraints meant this was never realised.
In 1970, Finsbury Health Centre was listed as a building of special architectural interest. Today, it holds a Grade 1 listed status, recognising it as a building of great architectural and cultural significance.