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A radical outsider

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Berthold Lubetkin by John Allan. Photography by Morley von Sternberg.Merrell, 2002. 144pp. £29.95

Berthold Lubetkin (1901-1990) was one of Britain's greatest 20th-century architects, but despite a couple of television documentaries, a controversial exposé of his family life, and the listing of no less than 25 of his buildings, he has yet to receive the public recognition that his radical reinterpretation of Modern architecture deserves.

Lubetkin, indeed, was always an outsider.

A European intellectual, his architecture - theoretically based, politically and socially engaged, technologically innovative, but at the same time metaphysical and even jocular - defied easy analysis, and was blinked at uncomprehendingly by many of his more conservative and prosaic English colleagues.

His use of facsimile Greek caryatids for the porte-cochère of Highpoint II (1938) represented 'a plague on both your houses' blast against those Modernist colleagues whom he deemed too obsessed with style and function to the exclusion of the more lyrical possibilities of Modern architecture, and against diehard traditionalists who were appalled to see Classical elements used in such a revolutionary manner.

Similarly, his withdrawal from the architectural limelight in 1950, disillusioned by his experience at Peterlee New Town, where his aim of a coherently planned and compact settlement was threatened by officialdom with dilution into subtopia, only served to add further to his maverick status.

The vicissitudes of Lubetkin's career were exhaustively and superbly analysed by John Allan in his heavyweight 1992 biography, and doubtless some might fear that this new book is simply one of those condensed versions beloved of editors desperate to fill the pages of weekend reviews. Such fears are groundless.

On the contrary, this well-produced volume, with a lucid essay by Allan and an illuminating inventory of Lubetkin's extant buildings - which benefits from Allan's first-hand knowledge gained in restoring several of them - admirably fulfils its intention to make Lubetkin's work more accessible.

Allan is particularly good on the often neglected post-war buildings showing that, unlike some other pre-war British Modernists, Lubetkin was far from a spent force after 1945.

Special mention must also be made of Morley von Sternberg's photographs that constitute a large part of the book. Lubetkin set great store by, and was particularly fortunate in, his photographers - Dell & Wainwright's images of Highpoint I, John Havinden's of the Penguin Pool at London Zoo, and John Maltby's of the staircase at Holford Square have all become classics of the genre. Even if it were possible, von Sternberg has wisely resisted the temptation to replicate their views, and his photographs well convey the fluid, sculptural plasticity of Lubetkin's work (pictured is Bevin Court).

After receiving the RIBA's Royal Gold Medal in 1982, Lubetkin was rediscovered and became for a brief period something of an architectural guru. It is to be hoped that this book will play a part in introducing his work to a new generation of architects, inspired afresh by his contention that architecture should not be an epitaph for a vanished yesterday but 'a metaphor of the world to come'.

Robert Elwall is curator of the RIBA photographs collection

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