David Bernstein, a pioneer of high density social housing, has passed away aged 80
David Bernstein, who has died aged 80, was one of five assistants who worked for the architect Patrick Hodgkinson on the design of the Brunswick Centre, near St Pancras station, London. The project was the first large-scale scheme that proved that housing could be built at high densities without tall tower blocks. According to the Guardian, it was initially planned as luxury shops and flats; Bernstein’s task in 1966 was to adapt the flats as low-cost housing for the London borough of Camden, after the developer miscalculated the rental income. A fellow assistant was David Levitt and the two architects resolved to practise together.
As an American who had arrived in London in 1964, he saw through fresh eyes the problems of neglected, overcrowded properties in the city. In the Notting Hill area the poor quality housing was the legacy of the local agent Peter Rachman and it had a major impact on Notting Hill’s West Indian community. Bruce Kenrick had been similarly moved in 1963 to form the Notting Hill Housing Trust, whose chief executive, John Coward, encouraged Bernstein to contact another new charity, Shelter, launched at the moment when Ken Loach’s television play Cathy Come Home brought Britain’s housing crisis to public attention.
Bernstein founded the Circle 33 Housing Association with Levitt and their wives in 1968, and used his architectural talents not to build eye-catching designs like the Brunswick Centre but to create good, cheap homes, mainly through conversion work following a grant from Shelter.
For its first six years, the architectural practice Levitt Bernstein (also formed in 1968) concentrated on social housing for Circle 33. “We found there were too many clients between us and the people who were to live in the housing we were doing, and we wanted to get closer,” Bernstein explained in 1977. The Housing Subsidies Act of 1967 had made it slightly easier for housing associations to get government grants, and Bernstein and Levitt spent their time surveying and converting Victorian houses, and managing their rents.
Bernstein’s beliefs owed something to Jane Jacobs, whose The Death and Life of Great American Cities in 1961 challenged the rebuilding of great cities with modern blocks (exemplified by the Brunswick Centre), and more to his experience of inner London, blighted by a planned motorway “box” or redeveloped with blocks that ignored their residents’ needs. The reaction to modernist orthodoxy reflected the radical zeitgeist of 1968. Circle became one of Britain’s largest housing associations, since 2016 part of the Clarion Housing Group.
The Levitt Bernstein practice was a conventional partnership but profits were shared. In encouraging egalitarianism, Levitt and Bernstein recognised their own youth and inexperience and, explained Levitt, wanted to make it “a nice place to work”. Graduates arrived with portfolios of political tracts rather than drawings, but by 1977 they had 40 staff, including a high proportion of female architects. A scheme from that year was Hart Hill Lane, 33 sheltered flats for elderly people and 10 family homes in Luton.
David was born in New York, the son of ambitious Jewish parents, Sol Bernstein, who worked for Miller Bros hats, and his wife, Diana. He read architecture at the University of Cincinnati before in 1962 he took Louis Kahn’s master class at the University of Pennsylvania. The same year he married Beverly Liden, an economist of Lutheran extraction whom he had known since high school. His parents were unhappy with the match and in 1964 the young couple determined on a fresh start and moved to London. They never returned.
Both joined the staff of the Architectural Association, David to supplement his income working for William Whitfield and then Hodgkinson by teaching, while Beverly quickly rose to the rank of registrar and developed a new career as a planner. They were exceptionally close, with David retiring early to spend time with Beverly when in 2003 she was diagnosed with cancer. She died in 2012.
He is survived by his brother, Edward, a niece, Lisa, and a grandniece, Aviva.