Alexei Zimin. How a Jew from the USSR Changed the British Empire

28.09.2022Alexei Zimin

It’s all the Jews’ fault, of course. And Communists. And Russians. 100 years ago it was the same people. The world revolution in European bourgeois optics was a hybrid of Zionism and the historical concept of the Pskov elder Philotheus: a global Jerusalem meets a global Third Rome. And in this grandiose urban project, the old universe will disappear and a New Man and World will be born, packaged in a new way.

To be fair, Jews and Russians are just tools of history. And the British are to blame for the world’s conflagration. It was their industrial revolution that invested in imperialism. It was in London that Marx discerned the proletarian, the maggot and beneficiary of the communist idea. It was in London, in 1903, that the Second Congress of the RSDLP was held, where a faction of the Bolsheviks led by Lenin was formed, which later set out on a course for an armed uprising.

In 1903, on the outskirts of the Russian Empire, in the Polish city of Warsaw, a Jewish boy, Berthold Lyubetkin, was born. He later claimed that the metric was corrected after the revolution to avoid serving in the Red Army, and that he was in fact born with the century, in 1901, in another imperial outskirt, Tiflis, Georgia. So in any case, there is a connection with the centripetal forces of history in its origin.

His father Ruben Aronovich had a very British specialty. He was a railroad engineer, so he did not live long in one place: rails and ties were driving him all over the country. Eventually he did end up in Warsaw, where he waited for the train that took him to Auschwitz, from which there were no more return tickets.

The geography of Berthold’s movements was no less intricate. He was just always in the right place. In 1917, such a place was St. Petersburg, where a young student of architecture witnessed the victory of the very armed uprising on which the London Congress of the RSDLP had been set. Then he moved to Moscow, where he started VKhUTEMAS, the citadel of what would later be called the “Russian Vanguard” – the most important cultural phenomenon of the 20th century, which influenced all aspects of life, from poetry and painting to concrete factories and the laying of central heating systems.

The status of VHUTEMAS in the world at the time was so high that a young Soviet architect with a fake Warsaw metric, arriving in Paris in the 1920s for practice, immediately received an offer to build a residential building on the Avenue de Versailles, promptly entered the circle of European modernist stars and became friends with Corbusier.

Hallfield Estate in Bayswater, London, 1950s

Of course, careers were made fast back then. The world, barely recovering from the world war and the years-long Spanish flu pandemic, wanted a rebirth – a new, bold, lively, social one. One that would replace imperialism along with the inspiring wind from Soviet Russia.

Architectural modernism sought answers to all these questions through new plastic forms (without decorative excesses, through constructivism and functionalism), new materials (glass and concrete). It will seem to us later that the world of glass, steel and concrete is like a prison. At that moment, these colors delighted the eye more than the colored mosaics of Notre Dame de Paris.

In 1931, Lyubetkin left Moscow for London. At first for work, back then architects and members of some other free professions could move around the world, but this work trip ended in emigration.

However, Berthold did not renounce his Soviet citizenship or his Communist beliefs – this was not required, which is why British reference books list him as Soviet-British under “nationality. His Soviet passport and Communist convictions would still serve him well. In the early 1950s, the Soviet Embassy conceived the idea of immortalizing the fact that Lenin lived in the Finsbury area, allocated money for it and the design of the memorial was ordered Lubetkin, who by then had become Lubetkin: the English language prefers hard sonorous sounds.

Britain in 1931 had no idea about modernism. Of course, it had its own architectural response to the storms of early-century world history, and it was thousands of miles of identical streets with pseudo-Tudor townhouses across the country. Typical townhouses – inexpensive, though not yet social housing – were a kind of reward for the world war heroes who returned home from the European front.

Another legacy of the war and revolution was the Labor Party, which replaced the old Whig Party in the confrontation with the Conservatives.

It was a time when communism was in vogue among intellectuals. Cambridge students were not rushing to the old gentlemen’s clubs, but to Communist cells, going off to fight in Spain against Franco, spying for the USSR. It was then that the famous “Cambridge Club” headed by ideological communist Kim Philby, the chief Soviet secret agent of all time, emerged.

There is no evidence that Lubetkin received any instructions from the GRU, but his professional activities were nevertheless subversive. He settled in Hampstead, north London, and joined the circle of artistic bohemia led by the essayist Herbert Reed. The dacha atmosphere and idyllic park scenery of Hampstead had no effect on Lubetkin’s aesthetics, nor did it diminish the intensity of the ethical in his outlook. The world demanded renewal, new forms, new materials, new equality. In Hampstead, Lubetkin creates Tecton, the architectural firm that changed the image of Britain.

Penguin Pool at London Zoo, 1934

However, Tecton’s first orders were not spaces for people, but environments for animals. Lubetkin is making a gorilla pavilion and a penguin pool for the London Zoo that looks like a space station.

The queue comes quickly. In Highgate, Tecton is building a block of two houses called Highpoint. Aesthetically, it’s Corbusier bitten by Surrealism. 64 Highpoint Apartments is one of London’s first distilled examples of “international style,” as its creators called their modernist current. Austerity, no embellishments, and a clear social message through the creation of shared communal spaces for residents: a swimming pool and two tennis courts, attributes that before Highpoint were only used when building private homes for the rich.

This apartment block is often listed as one of the best British buildings of the twentieth century, it has official Grade I monument status, but it is not the high point of Lubetkin’s career. Superior waited for him just south of Highgate, in Finsbury, a county ruled by Labor. Lubetkin and Tecton built a lot for Finsbury, but the most significant breakthrough was the Health Center. Finsbury Health Center is a case where ethics, aesthetics, politics, and function are linked in an inseparable knot. It is not just a building, but a living socialism of a radical character for those times.

All the key messages of modernism converge here. First: the social function. ALL Finsbury residents had access to the Center without exception (this was 10 years before the advent of the NHS, and in the public eye it was like opening Buckingham Palace’s picnic hall now and drinking Devon sparkling wine for free).

Second: the political aspect. The social good was no longer under the spell of casual charity and fragile hope. It was delivered to all without exception through the democratic distribution of taxes within the municipality.

And the third component part. The Finsbury Health Center is an architectural masterpiece. The austere stone tile façade surrounded by the chaos of London’s slums is the only possible way out. As the final journey. Pathways to Socialism. Thousands of municipal buildings in England were modeled after the Health Center. But it was not just a new structural and architectural solution – it was a symbol of the new world.

Finsbury Health Center, mid-1930s

Tecton’s next task was to rebuild the slums, but it was hindered by the war. The demand for architectural solutions has dropped to zero. Lubetkin went to the countryside and took up farming there. In the years of downtime, his aesthetics and ethics suddenly became mainstream in England from a radical statement. The first parliamentary election after the war, with a landslide victory over Churchill, is won by Clement Attlee’s Labor with the idea of a welfare state of universal prosperity, the nationalization of the energy companies and the creation of universal medicine. Many of their campaign promises were surprisingly realized, and many required new architectural solutions, which Tecton provided in abundance.

Lubetkin is actively working, building masterpiece after masterpiece: Bevin Court, Hallfield, Spa Green Estate, Cranbrook Estate. Finsbury, Bayswater and Bethnal Green apartment complexes, develops panel housing system, innovative hallways, stairways, social spaces. Tecton was a key contractor for the Festival of Britain in the mid-1050s, a celebration symbolizing the exit from the postwar depression onto the road to prosperity.

Staircase at Bevin Court in East London, late 1940s

Based on the ideas of Lubetkin and his fellow modernists, the British architectural movement of Brutalism, which deified concrete, developed. And Lubetkin himself suddenly leaves London for Bristol, where, according to his daughter, he turns into a tyrant who entertains himself by humiliating his family, plays in the casino, and occasionally receives another architectural award with wording like “for the most significant contribution to the history of mankind since the invention of the wheel.

Lubetkin found the architectural embodiment of long-standing English dreams of the public good; in a sense, he built what philosophers like Hobbes and Marx wrote about in the country that gave the world both socialism and social Darwinism.

In 1990, Berthold Lubetkin died in Bristol. The funeral went quietly, without pomp. But his cause, like Lenin’s, lives on. And it’s not a fact that he himself is dead. Who knows what other trick this Tiflis Jew turned with his metric this time.

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