Architect of the Brixton Rec

George Finch, architect, born 10 October 1930, died 13 February 2013

From the Guardian: 

The architect George Finch has died, aged 82, at the height of a campaign to save his Brixton Recreation Centre, in south London, designed in 1971 and opened in 1985. It was planned as the centrepiece of a redevelopment that was to include 50-storey blocks of flats, a new shopping and commercial centre on raised walkways, and a motorway. The rest of the scheme was abandoned with the 1973 oil crisis, and something of its gargantuan craziness afflicted the long construction and subsequent reputation of Finch's sports centre.

Yet, with its range of facilities, raised over the market and including a pool so high you can watch trains on the adjoining viaduct while swimming, it became the hub of Brixton's multicultural community. Finch was keen that individual sports should not be closed off and created a large, buzzing atrium linking the facilities. This was his most complex and individual building, for it was as a housing architect that he established his career.

Finch was born in Tottenham, north London, the son of a milkman. He was encouraged to pursue a good education by his mother and this was boosted when George and his sister were evacuated during the second world war to Saffron Walden, Essex, where he attended Newport free grammar school. He had already determined to be an architect. Studying at North London Polytechnic (now London Metropolitan University), Finch found the teaching so uninspiring that he ventured to the Architectural Association (AA), condemned by his tutors as "wayward and impractical". Warming immediately to its radical bohemianism, he secured its one London county council (LCC) scholarship in 1950. The AA's utopian socialism matched his own, from which the LCC's housing division was an inevitable next step.

Finch was appointed to ginger up a team of elderly surveyors, whose repetitive scheme for Spring Walk, Stepney, had been rejected. Finch's design exemplified the best of mixed development, the dominant ideology for housing in the 1950s, with a 10-storey block of flats that gave space for old people's flats and two-storey houses, unique in central London at the time. Flats at the top of the tower had roof gardens. It was followed by work on the Suffolk Estate in Haggerston, an early low-rise, high-density scheme, again with houses as well as flats.

The halcyon days for LCC housing ended with the reorganisation of London government in 1965, when responsibility for most house building passed to the boroughs. Finch joined the new architect's department created at Lambeth in 1963 by Edward Hollamby, also from the LCC. Hollamby adopted a pre-cast system for six tower blocks on landmark sites to relieve the borough's most urgent needs, while his department explored low-rise solutions and refurbishment. Finch made a detailed study that refuted system-building's claims to be quicker and cheaper than conventional construction, but he contributed to the heavily articulated towers, giving them a distinctive profile and setting them at angles he described as "dancing around".
Lambeth Towers, London, deisgned by George FinchFinch’s masterpiece was Lambeth Towers,opposite the Imperial War Museum, London. Photograph: James O Davies/English Heritage

Cotton Gardens in Kennington Lane, completed in 1968, was the most distinctive. Finch's masterpiece was Lambeth Towers, a one-off design opposite the Imperial War Museum, 10 storeys of flats set over a luncheon club and doctor's surgery, inspired by the work of Moshe Safdie and built at the same time as Safdie's Habitat blocks for the Montreal Expo of 1967. Each flat was individually articulated within a cranked concrete frame that maximised the tight site, creating a strong, square patterning that evoked Piet Mondrian's paintings.

Finch left Lambeth when the Brixton Recreation Centre received planning and financial approval and, a keen thespian and set designer, he formed a partnership with the theatre architect Roderick Ham. As a result of the 1970s recession, only the Derby Playhouse and Wolsey theatre, Ipswich, were realised, while schemes for Westminster Pier and Riverside Studios in Fulham, developed with Will Alsop and John Lyall, proved abortive.

From 1973 until 1978 Finch was head of design in the school of architecture at Thames Polytechnic (now Greenwich University), and then worked with Bob Giles as Architects Workshop in Docklands, where Hollamby was now in charge of redevelopment.

In the late 1960s Finch had met the young architect Kate Macintosh, then working at Southwark, whom he later married. They developed second careers in Hampshire, Finch as a consultant (from 1987) to the county council and later in partnership together. He advised on the rehabilitation of the county's older schools and added library and drama facilities. He also worked on historic buildings, adapting All Saints, Lewes, in East Sussex, into a theatre; a school in Dulwich, London, into housing; and Chelsea town hall, London, into a library. An adventure playground in Southampton designed with Macintosh won an RIBA award in 2005.

Finch's background, training and passionate socialism gave him a real desire to build for ordinary people, to bring dignity and pleasure into their lives. His great personal warmth and humanity shone out in his work which, with that of Macintosh, was celebrated in a documentary film, Utopia London, in 2010.

He is survived by Kate and their son, Sean; and by five children, Alison, Emma, Sarah, Adam and Jonny, from his first marriage, to Brenda, which ended in divorce.

guardian.co.uk Copyright (c)



Kate Macintosh. Photograph (c) Emma Calder Oct 2012

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