Did you know that the great architect, Le Corbusier, father of Modernism, visited Highgate in 1935 and deemed one of its buildings to be ‘an achievement of the highest rank’? The man behind the achievement was Berthold Lubetkin, you’ve probably seen his other masterpiece, this time for penguins, in Regents Park Zoo – made possible by the engineering genius of Ove Arup.
Highpoint is worth a second glance, it was one of Dan Cruickshank’s selection of only eight sites which tell ‘The Story of Britain’s Best Buildings’. I am indebted to Keith Miller for the following article which ably highlights the highpoints of the story behind this most celebrated block of flats built for a middle class clientele.
In the mid-1930s, when he was at work on Highpoint II, the second instalment in an extraordinary double-bill of apartment blocks at the top of Highgate Hill in north London, the architect Berthold Lubetkin attracted the ire of local residents who felt that his modernist style was discordant with the Georgian and Victorian houses that faced and flanked the site. Among various practical tweaks to his design, he placed two Athenian caryatids in front of the new block: doughty and bosomy, less like subjugated maidens who’d backed the wrong team in the Persian War than a welcoming committee from the Highgate and District WI.
Only behind the courteous traditionalist gesture was a shrewd joke: the delicate concrete canopy over the two Grecian ladies’ heads didn’t need their support, or anyone else’s, being cantilevered out from the wall behind it; so above the classical capitals that crowned the two figures was a little blade of thin air. This passers-by found even more disquieting, so Lubetkin eventually filled the spaces in with two little square fillets of concrete.
In truth he had little need to demonstrate his credentials as a designer who retained some affinity with the timeless values of the classical tradition. Born in Tbilisi at the turn of the last century, he began his training in post-revolutionary Moscow, studying with the likes of Aleksandr Rodchenko and Lyubov Popova at a time when Constructivism was still supported by the regime. He effortlessly and instinctively thought of architecture as a meeting place for other art forms such as painting, sculpture and even music; and of engineering not as a forelock-tugging subordinate to architecture, but an art form in its own right. In fact, the brilliant Danish engineer Ove Arup worked with Lubetkin on Highpoint and elsewhere, notably the exquisite penguin pool at London Zoo – now forsaken by those philistine penguins, alas, whose appetite for high modernism proved in the long term to be limited.
Lubetkin was always more adept at setting forms dynamically in space than even illustrious comrades such as Le Corbusier. The Highpoint flats have all the hallmarks of what has come to be known as the International Style – crisp, rectilinear forms, thin planes, long ribbon windows like letterboxes, a feeling of weightlessness – but also use accents of colour, richly tactile materials such as brick, travertine, ceramic tiling and a distinctive, fish-eyed glass brick, to lift the utilitarian mood that can prevail in such projects, to play on the senses. One of the caryatids has a two-tiered base in which a sort of ogee is scooped out of an elliptical mass: the effect is almost Baroque.
The flats themselves vary in size and comfort – this was a development for the middle classes (it was commissioned by office supplies magnate Sigmund Gestetner with a mind to housing his staff there, though in practice many of the initial residents were emigres, refugees from Hitler or Stalin) – but almost all contain some element of curvature within a rectilinear envelope.
The original plans for Highpoint I show a grand piano tucked in alongside a swaying partition wall. Some have travertine staircases; some have double-height living spaces with glass curtain walls offering spectacular views to the west. In general the “public” rooms face west, and gobble up most of the space; while bedrooms and kitchens are a little cramped by today’s standards. Some occupants have put in Georgian dadoes and blousy festoons; others are clearly returning to the modernist fountainhead with a strictness that exceeds even Lubetkin’s. Flats in the building come up for sale every now and then but few long-term Highpointers will number among your neighbours, sadly.
The Mittel-european vibe of the early years persisted: Lubetkin himself lived here for a while, in a “Georgian dacha” on the roof – in truth, a spectacular vaulted penthouse, fit for a Bond villain such as Auric Goldfinger (himself named after a modernist architect, who’d built a house along the ridge in Hampstead that was not to Ian Fleming’s taste). During the war, Lubetkin moved to Gloucestershire; here, exasperated by his experiences as masterplanner of Peterlee New Town in the North-East during the late 1940s, he retired to farm pigs.