Space

“The disposition of the space between buildings and its detailed treatment are of vital importance. The way this open space is handled can either echo or deny the particular design intention which, in some places, may be to link groups of buildings and spaces enclosed by them or, elsewhere, to give expression to their separate and distinctive character. The raising of some of the terrace blocks on columns – allowing space to flow, as it were, beneath these buildings – is a device employed to express continuity between different parts of the layout and to avoid what might otherwise be, in a high density scheme of development, blunt and oppressive enclosure by buildings forbidding in scale.”

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

Chamberlin, Powell & Bon recognised that open space was not an absolute good. “Imitation of London squares” explains how they planned the terraces in groups to create enclosures, to give residents a more homely scale, similar to the effect of traditional London squares. Now they had to balance enclosure with space.

Concert-goers, struggling across the great plains in front of Shakespeare Tower from the Barbican tube station to the Barbican Arts Centre on a cold February evening with a bitter gale howling round them, may well mutter curses against the architects into their upturned coat collars. But the architects were not free agents.

As a condition of planning permission, the London County Council required that the Barbican scheme had to include “the provision of amenity open space to a standard of 1.5 acres per 1,000 population” and “a system of elevated pedestian walkways integrated with that proposed for the non-residential part of the Barbican area” – in other words, London Wall. The new estate had to include 9.3 hectares of open space, including 5.25 hectares of landscaped gardens, the lake and the conservatory.

For the most part, the handling of open space was inspired. Chamberlin, Powell & Bon created the two gardens and the lake between them, all of which is sunk below ground level. The tiled surface of the North podium (between Ben Jonson House and the back of Shakespeare Tower) flows round small gardens which break up the potential monotony.

The device of having many of the terraces of the South Barbican raised on columns so that people can walk beneath them and see beyond them was also an inspired idea, in my opinion.

This was all intended. As Chamberlin Powell & Bon proposed in their 1959 Report:

“The continuity of paved terraces extending under buildings and the areas of planting or water which link and define the open spaces make a significant contribution to the unity of the whole; the careful detailing of the hard and soft surfaces of the open spaces will add point to their form and contribute greatly to the delight of the scheme for those who are to live there.”