Venice in Concrete (The 1959 Scheme)

‘The intention underlying our design is to create a coherent residential precinct in which people can live both conveniently and with pleasure. Despite its high density the layout is spacious; the buildings and the space between them are composed in such a way as to create a clear sense of order without monotony. Uninterrupted by road traffic (which is kept separate from pedestrian circulation through and about the neighbourhood) a quiet precinct will be created in which people will be able to move about freely enjoying constantly changing perspectives of terraces, lawns, trees and flowers seen against the background of the new buildings or reflected in the ornamental lake.’

Chamberlin, Powell & Bon, Architects “Barbican Redevelopment” April 1959

After 1957, Chamberlin, Powell and Bon were commissioned to prepare a detailed scheme for what is now the entire Barbican estate. (Their previous commissions had been confined to the south Barbican area south of Beech Street).

In 1959 Chamberlin, Powell and Bon produced their report. (It is in the form of a fairly lavish book, with sketches, plans and photographs, which can be found on the shelves of the Guildhall Library). We know that, before producing the report, the partners travelled extensively, sometimes with members of the Barbican Committee. They visited Italy to view new housing developments in Milan, theatres in Verona and the City of Venice.

In 1958 they toured European architectural sites and visited Stockholm, which had extensive pedestrian walkways and podia, and which was seen as a possible model for the kind of city the architects had in mind. Italian architecture influenced them. Christof Bon had worked in Italy with Ernesto Rogers, a well-known modernist architect, before joining the practice.

They planned three, 40-storey, polygonal towers along the south side of the street named Barbican (now absorbed into Beech Street), each to be placed on a different axis. Long terrace blocks were grouped in ‘U’ and ‘Z’ shapes which enclosed parts of the layout. To some extent, this arrangement was intended to recall the traditional London squares of Kensington and Bloomsbury. But most of the long blocks in the south Barbican were to be raised on columns, so that the enclosures would not be oppressive. The use of a podium level allowed 2,000 car parking spaces to be provided under the development and it allowed the development to be built over roads, so that residents would not have to negotiate busy roads or be disturbed by traffic inside the estate. They took Venice as their model for a city where foot and service traffic is completely segregated.

Chamberlin, Powell and Bon’s scheme certainly delighted Nicolas Pevsner, who wrote that their plans: “give us the rhythm of road and precinct, of low and high, and the punctuation by towers which visually the City needs – and not only visually, but to satisfy all the senses of those who spend most of their lives in the City”.