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A Jewish Architect’s Secret, Hidden In Plain Sight

Architect Berthold Lubetkin was renowned for his modernist 1930s designs. He was a Russian émigré in England, but he had a secret: He was Jewish.

Lubetkin built symbols of that secret into one of his most famous buildings, but their significance was not understood until after his death. Professor Deborah Lewittes (Bronx Community College) tells the story in her book, Berthold Lubetkin’s Highpoint II and the Jewish Contribution to Modern English Architecture.

Lubetkin’s design of Highpoint I, a 1935 London apartment complex, was revolutionary.  The sleek concrete building had a flat roof, innovative communal areas and strips of connected windows that opened accordion-style to maximize light and air. Windows and balconies aligned in geometric patterns on the white exterior. Architectural historian Henry-Russell Hitchcock called it “one of the finest, if not absolutely the finest, middle-class housing in the world.”

In 1938, Lubetkin built Highpoint II. The most “glaring” difference between the two buildings was “Lubetkin’s use of classical caryatids” instead of plain circular columns. Caryatids are sculptures of draped female figures originating in ancient Greece. The Greeks “took the married women of (the town of) Caryae into slavery,” Lewittes said. Statues of the “fallen women,” used as architectural supports, became symbols of “past sins” and “vengeance.”

Lubetkin’s incongruous use of classical figures, copied from statues at the British Museum, spurred debate. Was it game-playing, kitsch, irony, decoration? Or was Lubetkin retreating from modernism with this historical reference and other tweaks to the Highpoint design?

By 1939, Lubetkin had moved to a farm in the country. His seclusion, Lewittes wrote, “contained within it the full, active catastrophic knowledge” that Nazis were murdering millions of Jews. Among them: his parents, who perished in Auschwitz.

Lubetkin’s daughter later discovered a postwar photo of her grandparents’ Warsaw home. Prominent in the ruins were caryatids.

Lubetkin “deliberately” misled researchers into thinking the caryatids on Highpoint II were something he’d seen in his student lodgings, as well as a tribute to the British Museum’s “vast cultural legacy,” Lewittes wrote. But in a “private way, he was declaring his past and his origins. The caryatids were a cover, but far from silent.”