Chamberlin, Powell & Bon

History of the firm

In 1951, the City of London launched a competition for designs for their proposed Golden Lane Estate. This was intended to be a residential complex for 900 residents on land next to (what was later to be) the Barbican estate. Chamberlin Powell and Bon each separately submitted designs. They had a pact that if any one of them won the competition, they would all work on the project together. When Geoffry Powell’s design won the competition in 1952, they set up an architectural practice together to build it, which they called Chamberlin Powell & Bon. The firm’s address (at least in its later days) was 1 Lamont Road Passage, King’s Road, London SW10.

Chamberlin Powell & Bon soon established themselves as one of the leading architectural practices in post-war Britain. It was an innovative practice for the time: architects, engineers and surveyors worked together in the same office. They were heavily influenced by Le Courbusier and the principles of Modernism.

There were many architectural firms which specialised in council housing. But Chamberlin Powell & Bon were not one of them. Apart from the Golden Lane estate and the Barbican, their main focus was on university buildings. From 1959 into the 1970s they worked on a scheme for the reconstruction of the campus at Leeds University and they designed several buildings for the University including laboratories and lecture blocks, halls of residence and libraries. In 1962 they began work on New Hall, Cambridge.

I have not found out much about the later life of the practice – life after the Barbican. The firm received the bronze medal from the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1956 and 1957, the Ministry of Housing and Local Government medal in 1965, the Civic Trust commendation in 1973, and the RIBA Architecture Award in 1973 and 1974. Frank Woods and Charles Greenberg became additional partners during the life of the practice, but I do not know when.

In 1985 the firm name became Chamberlin Powell Bon & Woods. Powell is recorded in Who’s Who as having retired from Chamberlin Powell & Bon and become a consultant of Chamberlin Powell Bon & Woods in 1985. Chamberlin had already died. There is no reference to Bon becoming a consultant in the new firm or when he retired.

I also haven’t found out what happened to the practice in the end.

Where they Modernists or Brutalists?

Chamberlin Powell & Bon are called Modernists and/or Brutalists, and criticised for not being enough of one or the other. But these are labels attached by academics after the event. I don’t think Chamberlin Powell and Bon regarded themselves as paid up members of any one party.

There is no doubt that Chamberlin Powell and Bon regarded themselves as followers of the Modernist tendency in architecture, and they were admirers of Le Corbusier. Whenever they were able to do it, they introduced Modernist elements and decorations into the Barbican Estate.

But fundamentally, they were architects following a brief set down by the City, and constrained by financial limits.

The City planners and the pro-residential Barbican faction at the City were also enthusiasts for the latest architectural developments, because their aim was to attract the middle classes, who were assumed to have some appreciation of the latest trends.

But ultimately the Barbican Estate is not a Modernist conception. If anything, it owes much more to historical London features such as the traditional London squares – in fact, Chamberlin Powell & Bon’s 1959 Report to the City said as much. The Le Corbusian elements, such as the penthouse domed windows, are hardly fundamental to the Barbican design. The most iconically Brutalist element – the concrete exterior – was a late amendment. Originally, the buildings were all to be clad in white marble.

Chamberlin Powell and Bon were pragmatic architects, attempting to create the best they could, taking up innovative designs and ideas as they went along, but not fanatical adherents of any one ideology.