A Hidden Treasure In Bevin Court

When designing Bevin Court, a post-war block in Islington, central London, Soviet émigré Berthold Lubetkin envisaged its staircase as a ‘collision zone’, eliminating hierarchies and encouraging interaction between residents. Combing Marxist ideals with Modernist elements, and rising above a magnificent Peter Yates mural, the results is not just a functional architectural feature, but the centrepiece of the building.

Being woken up by a riotous dawn chorus isn’t something that many people would associate with central London living. For the residents of Bevin Court, however, that’s the reality on summer mornings. Hidden away behind the Georgian streets if Islington where it nudges Bloomsbury, this Modernist piece of social housing, completed in 1954, occupies an oasis of wildflower ‘meadows’, poplars and veg- filled allotments.

However, at the core of the building, the real surprise through each floor as if in a vortex, with all the rhythm and sculptural qualities of its Constructivist roots. ‘Any Staircase,’ said its architect, ‘is a sort of machine to climb up or descend, but it is also a display, it is a dance.’

The architect in question was Berthold Lubetkin, a Soviet émigré who worked by the maxim, ‘Nothing is too good for ordinary people.’ For the people of Finsbury, as the borough then was, Lubetkin had been commissioned to design new housing on the bomb- damaged site of Holford Square. Originally asked to retain the square’s layout, Lubetkin had to design something radically different in the face of post-war austerity and budget cuts. His answer was a central block 118 apartments in three wings radiating from the staircase drum in a Y shape. 

This triaxial formation ensured that no wing faced only north, and each flat benefited from maximum light. Open sides on each staircase landing brought fresh air and views of St Pancras and beyond. 

The mural has been recently renovated, and Lubetkin’s original colour scheme returned to the whole space; a buttery yellow for the entrance, and the undersides of the staircase painted red, emphasising its dynamic geometry. It’s is the attention that buildings of this era haven’t always been given. 

 

Nowadays Modernism is trendy’says long- term resident, Craig Ford, ‘but when I found my maisonette there were no estate- agent photos of the main building or the staircase.’ A menswear brand manager and self-confessed Modernism ‘nut’, Craig bought one of the blocks few ex- council housing units 14 years ago. The previous owner had ‘Victorianised’ it with ceiling roses and coving, but Craig stripped things back to Lubetkin’s clean lines and added some Modernist touches of his own- painted accents if a Corbusian pink, and a strip of yellow glass above the front door, inspired by the Eames House in Los Angles.

‘Modernism is all about public places.’He enthuses, ‘Because of the way it’s designed, you see people coming and going- you get to know people.’

 With his central staircase hall, Lubetkin had not only created a machine and a display, but also a ‘collision zone’ whereby people are encouraged to interact, and perceived social hierarchies could disappear.

Cara Mulroy