The Twentieth Century Society

Obituary: George Finch

by Tom Cordell

Above my desk I have a copy of a sketch by the architect George Finch, who died this February aged 82.  Drawn in the mid-sixties, it shows the interior of a flat. On the far side of the floor-to-ceiling windows a passing helicopter shows technology’s potential. On the balcony, nature is represented by some flowers and a bird which is happily resting on the railings. Indoors, it’s a convivial setting; we see a family about to have a meal together, next to a happily messy collection of books on the shelves. Looking the viewer straight in the eye, a smiling man announces: ‘What a lovely view’. The drawing is a vision of the future that also defines the artist. A lifelong socialist, George believed that a love of art, nature, knowledge and above all mankind would create a better world for all.

I got to know George while making the documentary Utopia London, and as we filmed together it struck me that his life in many ways measured out the birth and death of the welfare state. Born into a working class family during the great depression, George grew up in Tottenham before being evacuated to Essex during the Second World War. Just as the war kick-started the creation of the welfare state, it also gave George the chance to attend a grammar school where education put him on the path to becoming an architect.

During the years of genuine austerity that followed the war, a bankrupt Britain managed to build a universal welfare, healthcare and education system. For George this meant an LCC scholarship to study at the Architectural Association; the grant also allowed him move away from home and rent a flat with fellow students in Hampstead.

Graduation brought George a paid job working at the LCC – there was no way that his father’s bus conductor wage could have supported him through today’s unpaid tea-making internships. The LCC was then the place to be for a socialist architect, remodelling bomb-ruined London into a fair city, with good schools and – above all – homes for all its citizens. George quickly established himself in the Housing Division with notable high-rise schemes in Stepney and Whitechapel, alongside experiments with low-rise high-density housing on the Old Kent Road.

With the 1965 London local government reorganisation, George was invited by Ted Hollamby to be one of two group leaders in the architects department at the newly created London Borough of Lambeth.  At this time, government subsidies favoured the use of Large Panel System building. Using LPS to build a series of blocks across the borough, George pushed the system to its limits to create distinctive high quality housing. At Lambeth he also used more conventional techniques to build the masterful Lambeth Towers, its dancing form of three interlocked towers expressing the joy that George felt should exist in all architecture. While working at Lambeth George met a young Scottish architect, Kate Macintosh, who would be his partner in both life and work until his death.

In 1979 the election of a Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher shattered the post-war consensus which had enabled the work of a generation of socially-committed public servants like George. Mrs Thatcher and her acolytes would invert the ideals of George’s life in their quest to create a utopia for the rich. The government cash that had funded high quality housing in the post-war era was turned off. In this mirror-image world, conservation became a left-wing project. George’s buildings and their intrinsic social function now came under attack, as they occupied sites considered too valuable for ‘ordinary people’.

For George the new age meant the heart-breaking sight of his housing being sold off under Right to Buy. He sent me a clipping from the Guardian that used a photo of his LCC scheme in Whitechapel Road to demonstrate the failures of current housing policy. His pride at seeing his work in the paper was blunted by sadness that housing intended for the social good was now rented on by private landlords for profit. And it wasn’t only housing that was threatened; George was hugely relieved when energetic campaigning saved his much loved Brixton Rec from demolition.

In the last few years George’s work has become more widely appreciated, and he has had the chance to meet residents and other users of his buildings who have told him how much quality his designs have added to their lives. Filming with him at Lambeth Towers, he summed up the vision that ran through all his work:

‘I designed for everybody you know – this is the sort of house or flat I would like to live in. Everybody’s important. OK, they may be lower paid, but… all these people are very important to society.’

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

Published May 2013