As I have gone on at some length here about the hidden radical histories of King’s Cross, I ought to attend to the eastern side of the station, the area now in the Borough of Islington (always a more progressive Authority than Camden). A tour around a couple of Berthold Lubetkin’s social housing schemes (which are dotted along the Pentonville Road) would do the theme some justice, I thought, but alas Entschwindet und Vergeht has beaten me to it. No matter - his piece is excellent, and introduces the inter-relationship between the architect, the revolutionary and the city.
The presence of Lubetkin and Lenin in this area of London repeats itself. Lenin himself moved to London from Switzerland in 1902, to continue editing Iskra from Clerkenwell Green. (Note to drinkers: he was a regular in the Crown, though you are more likely to share beer-space with baying media types these days.) Although Lenin moved back to Geneva that same year, he returned to London for subsequent Congresses of the Russian Social Democratic Party. In 1905, he and Nadya Krupskaya stayed at 16 Percy Circus, just off the Pentonville Road, where a Travelodge now stands. It is now the site of what E&V correctly describes as the sole “sanctioned memory” to Lenin: a blue plaque.
Lubetkin grew up in Russia while Lenin was exiled in London, and was an eyewitness to the Revolution in 1917. In 1922 he left the USSR to travel Europe, roused by the revolutionary call to bring Art into Life. Absorbing Constructivism, Classicism and Le Corbusier, as well as industrial technique, he arrived in England and immediately set up Tekton, the first architectural practice to be commissioned by a politically accountable body: the Metropolitan Borough of Finsbury.
The marriage of Tekton with Finsbury offered Lubetkin the opportunity to apply the models developed at Highpoint and elsewhere to public health and social housing. The pre-NHS Health Centre (see here for background and some contemporary photos) is Lubetkin’s most famous pre-war Finsbury creation, and after 1945 Tekton built three decisive social housing schemes in the Borough: Spa Green, Priory Green and Bevin Court.
Bevin Court is metres away from Percy Circus, and Lubetkin chose to honour Lenin with a memorial: a piercing likeness set against a plush scarlet backdrop, and bordered by a curving frame. Bevin Court was originally going to be an “entire town planning unit,” made up of a school, restaurant and community centre, but the exhausted economy of the late 40s put paid to Lubetkin’s plans, and he decided to build housing on Holford Green rather than a mixture of buildings around it. (Lubetkin had wanted to call it Lenin Court, but in the Cold War era of the late 1940s it was decided that the then Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, might be a more suitable inspiration.) Its checkerboard design was a way of turning the repetition inherent in mass housing into something aesthetically appealing, and his biographer John Allan has suggested that the motif may have arisen from Lubetkin’s earlier studies of carpet design.
Apart from the Lenin memorial, the Court is most famous for its stairs. John Allan claims that “only in the central tower that connects the three wings of Bevin Court is the pervasive sense of austerity annihilated by the sheer force of Lubetkin’s sculptural imagination; the spectacular staircase dances skyward upon a series of tricorn mezzanine perches threaded up a single central pillar.”
There is a secret history to be unpicked from these postcodes - of Lenin, and of revolutionaries before and after - and its traces can still be found. Lubetkin was forced to take drastic action when National Front thugs vandalised his memorial, and unilaterally buried it underneath Holford Square. Where is it? Does the gaze of its subject remain as acute as ever? Is it Lenin's fixed eyes which give King's Cross its subterreanean defence against gentrification? Or will the developers finally win out?