Highpoint One in the 1930s
Jan 14 - Feb 24, 2019
Highpoint One in the 1930s
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Highpoint One in the 1930s

Highpoint One in the 1930s
Photographs from the RIBA Archive

These photographs are largely a selection of images taken by acclaimed architectural photographers Dell & Wainwright as part of the public launch of Highpoint. They were originally printed as part of a special edition of the Architectural Review Magazine in January 1936. 

Highgate in the 1930s: setting the scene

In the early 1930s, the concept of compactly planned, collective apartment living was still an unusual one in England. In the already affluent and rapidly developing suburbs of Hampstead and Highgate, the middle and upper classes had remained captivated by the low-density, detached and semi-detached housing and green spaces of the earlier English Garden City Movement – epitomised by the Hampstead Garden Suburb. However, as demand for property in prime locations outside of the urban sprawl of the city grew, Highgate saw a surge of infilling and rebuilding of blocks of flats. The completion of Cholmeley Lodge in 1931 and South Grove House in 1935, for example, were a testament to the new appeal of communal living as a luxury rather than a concession, with flats taking full advantage of the elevated location and panoramic views across the city of London. 

Highgate’s reputation in1935 as, “the best and healthiest site in the whole of London” was a considerable draw to London’s new European community of Jewish, cultured and cosmopolitan émigrés and refugees from Europe. Generally accustomed to living in apartment blocks, and progressive and intellectual in their outlook, these émigrés would prove sympathetic recipients of a building based on the European theoretical principles and stripped down aesthetic of the International Style.

In general in England, ‘Modern’ Architecture was still viewed with deep suspicion as it was considered to embrace a socialist, anti-hierarchical, classless society and a ‘foreign’ sensibility. The arrival of architectural émigrés from Hitler’s Germany – including Erich Mendelsohn, Walter Gropius in 1934 and Marcel Breuer in 1935 began to change this. Berthold Lubetkin, the architect behind Highpoint, himself had arrived in Britain in 1931 following a grand tour from his native Georgia via Moscow, Berlin, Warsaw and Paris and set about forming Tecton with a group of eager young British architects who were committed to introducing the British public to the benefits of Modernism and the idea of ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ where art, architecture and interior design are all combined together into a single unified and harmonious ensemble.

Building Highpoint

Highpoint One was commissioned by Sigmund Gestetner, an office-machinery magnate from North London with a strong interest in the social role of architecture. When his original intention to build high quality, inexpensive social housing for his workers in Camden Town fell through, the brief quickly shifted to create a building that would become the ultimate prototype for the advantages of community living in high style.
With its double cruciform plan raised up from the ground on piloti, advanced monolithic concrete construction care of Ove Arup, sleek, white exterior and landscaped estate rising from the leafy lanes of Highgate Village, the building owed much to the concept of urban planning advocated by visionary European architect Le Corbusier. Lubetkin was undeniably inspired by Le Corbusier’s ‘Plan Voisin’ (1925), a technologically advanced city of concrete, steel and glass that would sweep away the dark and dingy urban sprawl and replace it with a vision of sculptural, cruciform towers all set amongst lush parkland. 
When it was completed in 1935, Highpoint was intended, Lubetkin recalled, “to have the emotional impact of the Marseillaise-marching on the town…as if to proclaim ‘Look! Another World, another society is coming!” When Le Corbusier visited Highpoint, on Lubetkin’s invitation, in 1935 he declared it, “an achievement of the first rank” and a prototype of an entirely new architecture full of promise and about to alter all of London. Such was the praise for Highpoint that it was included in the 1937 exhibition, ‘Modern Architecture in England’ at the Museum of Modern Art in New York where Henry-Russell Hitchcock described it “one of the finest, if not absolutely the finest, middle-class housing in the world”.  

Middle-Class Modernism

The “middle class” appeal of Highpoint was always essential to its existence, and for all of Lubetkin’s idealistic talk of “utility, social equality and purpose”, Gestetner was also keen to secure the 8% return he wanted on his investment.
 
It was not lost to Gestetner that all this architectural acclaim could be used for effectively publicising the flats as the height of modernist luxury. Interest in the apartments had been stimulated by exhibitions of the building in 1934, and, although Gestetner did (under some pressure from Lubetkin) let some flats at low rent to begin with to encourage a social mix, he quickly altered the original program to market Highpoint to middle and upper class tenants on the open housing market. The rents in 1936 ranged from a fairly substantial £144-175 p.a for the two-bedroom flats and £150-225 p.a. for the three bedroom flats. By contrast the working class flats at Kensal House, designed in 1937 by Maxwell Fry for the Gas, Light and Coke Company cost £25 p.a. for the two bedroom flat and £30 p.a. for the three bedroom flat. 

As hoped, the block quickly attracted an up-market clientele and there was a rush to reserve an apartment before the block was finished. It became a focal point for those described by Howard Robertson of the AA as "artists, professional men, and generally those who through taste and education...enjoy the sensitive severity and restraint of a building such as 'Highpoint'…[and its] definite aesthetic intent”. 

Early residents included a sophisticated and cultured mix including Gestetner’s own senior employees and family, actress Beatrix Lehmann, the architect Erno Goldfinger (who lived in flat 40 and then flat 3 and was renowned for his loud and decadent parties), Camden Town Group artist Albert Rutherston, Erich Mendelsohn (architect of the De La Warr Pavilion at Bexhill-on-Sea) and Michael Ventris in flat 47, who later deciphered the Minoan Linear B script – an achievement said to be comparable with the discovery of the structure of DNA. Two of Lubetkins’s former clients from London Zoo: Sir Peter Chalmers Mitchell and Geoffrey Vevers were also initial residents and Lubetkin himself lived in flat 22 for the first two years of Highpoint’s existence.

Cutting Edge Technology

It was not only the architectural notoriety that attracted people to live at Highpoint, but also the chance to live with state-of-the-art, cutting edge facilities that were nothing if not innovative, and often well ahead of their time (much to the chagrin of today’s residents). Even the most mundane details from the bathroom basins to the handles on the doors were subjected to rigorous design and consideration.

In the true spirit of Modernism, Lubetkin’s intentions were for technical innovation and social idealism. As he writes, “I should try to anticipate all peoples needs, and make those daily needs the basis of my plan. The building should be efficient and yet harmonious, comfortable, and above all easy to live in”. Le Corbusier even went as far as to praise Highpoint’s communal services as, “a liberation from domestic slavery”. 

Many years before the introduction of under-floor heating, for example, the original marketing pamphlet for Highpoint explained that, “ordinary central heating by radiators is unsightly… it makes rooms stuffy, causes cracks in wood, and, by reducing moisture in the atmosphere, it also reduces our immunity to bacteria”. The solution was continuous spiral run of pipes circulating hot water and radiating heat that were embedded in the concrete ceilings. This would, apparently, “keep the rooms at a constant temperature, without altering the quality or the moisture content of the air”. Other features were, “a special ventilation system over the windows, which changes the air completely one-and-a-half times every hour without causing drafts”; built-in refrigerators that had a central condenser in the basement, a separate system of lifts that serviced the flats and custom-designed, built-in kitchens and bathrooms. 

Interior Design

The flats themselves were never intended to be stylistically standardised but to act as functional, neutral templates for the creative, decorative imagination of their residents – described by J.M Richards in the Architectural Review in 1936 as, “the adaptability of a restrained, rational room design to any kind of furnishing. Provided the furniture, hangings, etc., are good of their kind, a harmony is obtainable with elements of any period.” The photographs shown here give examples of the eclectic taste of Highpoint’s first residents – from the ‘modern’ Artek furniture installed in the foyer and Lubetkin’s own flat, to the period furniture in the flat of the actress Beatix Lehmann or the more bohemian screens, velvets and tassels of Camden Town group artist Albert Rutherston. 

Perhaps the most venerated example of early interior design at Highpoint One was that of flat 47 – a type A (3-bedroom) apartment belonging to Dorothea Ventris and her son Michael. A committed collector of contemporary art and design, Dorothea commissioned eminent Hungarian born architect and designer Marcel Breuer to design a range of furniture in advanced modernist style to organise the space including a pair of arm chairs and matching sofa. They were made in Bristol from large, cut-out sheets of plywood for the frame and moulded plywood armrests. Their organic, curvilinear geometry represented a departure from the severe rectilinear geometry of Breuer’s earlier work on the Continent. The cut-out elements were simple and relatively inexpensive to fabricate, also representing a departure from Breuer moulded plywood furniture. He also designed a dressing table with hinged, pivoting drawers for the bedroom and a glass-topped, tubular- framed desk. All of these pieces are now part of the collection at the V&A. 

The Collective Ideal?

The public areas of Highpoint’s interior, as well as being a showcase of European Modernism were intended to provide a space in which residents could meet and sit. It was also to form a ‘promenade architecturale’ for residents and their guests to ‘parade’ through the common parts of the building and down to a garden-side tearoom (an idea adopted from the traditional Russian dacha) and out onto a terrace overlooking the gardens. Yet, unlike the more utilitarian Isokon flats designed by Wells Coates in Belsize Park a year earlier with its compact apartments and communal bar, it became apparent that Highpoint’s private, middle-class, middle-aged residents simply did not want to sit around together in the hall or tearoom discussing life and politics. It has been pointed out by both John Allan and Dan Cruickshank, that Highpoint’s early residents liked the appearance of living in a pioneering block of collective housing, but not to the detriment of their own space, and a traditional British need for privacy and quiet enjoyment.

The exhibition will take place in situ in the Tea Room of Highpoint One, Highgate, London