Long live Lubetkin’s republic
Tecton’s Spa Green Estate, a legacy of 1930s radical housing policy in north London, has been sensitively restored to pay homage to its original ambitions, reports James R Payne
Lubetkin and Tecton’s Spa Green Estate has seen several piecemeal attempts to restore it before its grade II* listing in 1998. Its historical importance is assured by its close links to the Russian émigré architect’s nearby Finsbury Health Centre, the built manifesto of the pioneering social and healthcare reforms of the “People’s Republic of Finsbury”. The long defunct north London borough is today part of Islington, but in the thirties the radical socialist council set out to improve the ward’s desperate housing and health conditions. Period photos of the white tile-clad health centre depict a modernist angel of hygiene among the sooty brick slums, and it became a symbol of the promised post-war welfare state illustrated in Abram Games’ wartime propaganda poster, “Your Britain… Fight For it Now.”
Designed before the war but only finished in 1949, Spa Green is arguably the most successful of three innovative modernist housing projects built by Lubetkin’s firm in Finsbury. The demob-happy Tecton crew packed as many technological innovations as it could into the three buildings, with the conviction that the modernist experiment of its luxurious pre-war Highpoint flats could be applied to social housing.
Two eight-storey blocks of 48 flats each, Tunbridge House and Wells House, are placed like suitcases either side of a communal square on the lower south side of the triangular site. The four- to five-storey Sadler House, containing 33 flats, kinks into the north corner of the site behind the Georgian terraces of St John Street. Mature plane trees have concealed the buildings so successfully in their gardens that from Sadler’s Wells Theatre the impression is of a pleasant park integrated with the small public gardens upslope on Rosebery Avenue.
Spa Green could certainly be described as a desirable address, even though two thirds of flats remain council-tenanted. The original features have been painstakingly restored over the past few years, and the living standards of the flats improved to meet government decent homes standards. This comprehensive refurbishment has been undertaken by Homes for Islington, an arm’s length management organisation encompassing the old council architect’s department and the project client — manager of 30,000 council and leasehold properties in the borough. Homes for Islington’s role as architect and client is perhaps propitious given the complexities of mediating between heritage bodies demanding a faithful reinstatement of the estate and residents requiring modern and functional homes.
The aerofoil canopied terrace on the roof of Tunbridge House scientifically designed by Tecton for drying clothes is unfortunately closed to residents. From this vantage point, Homes for Islington project manager Mike Rees indicates another of his projects, a giant wind turbine mounted on top of tower block Kestrel House. Homes for Islington is in the process of renovating other less distinguished estates to decent homes standards, but as architect Paul Tobin explains, Spa Green was significantly more expensive.
The process started in 2004 with the drafting of listed building management guidelines, which involved close consultation with the very active tenants’ association, research of original documents, and some on-site detective work. By the turn of this century, the tiled end elevations and balcony fronts replaced in the eighties were grubby, and the original colour scheme had been lost beneath coats of magnolia and brown paint. Although no colour photos existed of the estate as new, a 1951 article and paint analysis provided clues to the once vibrant colour scheme.
Spa Green has none of the image problems of later exposed concrete finished estates
Ove Arup’s innovative “egg-crate” structure of concrete cross walls and slabs gave Lubetkin the freedom to indulge in what some critics have dismissed as facadism. On the more public outer elevations of the Tunbridge and Wells blocks, living and service rooms are veiled behind rhythmically patterned facades, with coloured planes set at varying depths within the brown stock brick skin facade. These colour fields betray Lubetkin’s early constructivist influences and study of textiles and carpets. Recessed balcony walls have been painted their original slate grey and deep Indian red; the protruding white tiles of the balconies and panels framing the facade have been cleaned and replaced where necessary; and recessed ground walls of blue engineering block have been carefully stripped of gloopy magnolia. The intensity of the reds, yellows and blues around entrances and ground floor storage areas has surprised some residents. The darker red interior of the ramped entrance loggia of Wells House and the communal stairways certainly helps to dispel the institutional feeling of this most unloved part of the average council block.
On the quieter side facing the communal gardens, a more regular facade of bedroom windows set within a brick skin is punctuated by grouped checker patterns of hit-and-miss vents to communal stairways. The steel dowels holding the brick squares in place had started to fail, and brick slips covering slab edges had come loose as the concrete contracted over time. The facade’s different materials have been stabilised, repaired and cleaned, while the thin steel sections of the original steel Critall windows were replaced like-for-like with double-glazed units. The thin projecting concrete window reveals were repaired and treated with a protective concrete paint, with some heads or cills recast.
English Heritage and the conservation officers were keen to preserve original interiors, with Tecton’s highly intricate and compact kitchen designs especially prized. Residents’ kitchens were surveyed and classified into 12 separate cases, from pristine originality to complete replacement. During the 18 months on site contractors worked around tenants, and Homes for Islington was careful to provide hot plates and running water. Built-in cupboards and moulded stainless steel units with Garchey sink refuse disposal systems were rebuilt bespoke by an on-site joiner. Designs were adjusted to ensure modern fridges and washing machines could be integrated, and the tiny amount of worktop increased. Tobin notes how advanced and well built the flats were for their time. “In the post-war period, they seemed to invent everything from scratch, including the kitchen sink.”
The buildings are surprisingly well insulated, although clearly the improvements fall far short of any recladding solution that might have been employed had not the authentic exterior been judged to be of architectural interest. Sadler House, with its more radical staggering of recessed balconies and bedrooms along its serpentine facade, presents a condition where insulating an exposed slab would alter the appearance. In the contradiction between conservation and energy conservation, the former wins.
Spa Green has none of the image problems of later exposed concrete-finished estates, rightly or wrongly associated with social degradation and prefabricated concrete panels vulnerable to progressive collapse. You couldn’t film a dystopian film here, thank you very much. No Singin’ in the Rain kickings or firemen burning books, it’s just too nice. Nor has it followed the trajectory of more rigorous brutalist projects that have been despised but then (sometimes) rediscovered. Its thirties origins make it less aspirational — there is a faint smell of boiled cabbage and long forgotten struggles for survival, while outdoor balconies are for utility and “fresh air”, not leisure.
The tenant management association ultimately hopes to reinstate the central garden, now dominated by a car park, independently of Islington Council and Homes for Islington. Spa Green remains exceptional for its success at an urban level, managing to combine the idea and scale of the London street and square with the modernist object in the park landscape.
Photos by Morley von Sternberg