Venice and the Podia

“The best example of a city where foot and service traffic is completely segregated is Venice where all supplies are carried to the city on canals, while pedestrians walk on pavements which cross the canals by bridges. This segregation has worked admirably for many centuries and there is no good reason why the principle should not be applied equally effectively in the City of London.”

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

So the Barbican is modeled on Venice. Hey! What are you laughing at?

Chamberlin, Powell & Bon, Architects set out the benefits of a residential precinct: “preserving the safety of the pedestrian and freeing the movement of road traffic”, allowing pedestrians to “move about without an anxious awareness of fast moving vehicles and in circumstances where conversation is not drowned by traffic noises” and ensuring for the residents that “during the night a state of quiet should exist undisturbed, as far as possible, by the noise of commercial motors”.

Two words familiar to Barbican residents came into use: “podium” and “highwalk”. Mercifully “ped-way” (a word presumably invented by a planning committee) was soon dropped. “Podium” is normally used for the raised stage on which an orchestra sits. In the Barbican, it is the raised stage on which an entire village-within-a-city sits. It became a fundamental design element of the proposed development.

Although the use of the words overlap in practice, ‘podium’ is best reserved for the areas round and under buildings, which, though higher than surrounding land, appear to be the ground once you are on it. ‘Highwalk’ is best used only for the bridge-like narrow paths round the outer edges of the Barbican and across the bridge.

Building the Barbican on a podium had a number of advantages. Traffic and trains pass unnoticed underneath the estate. Beech Street, which runs right through the estate, has effectively become an underground tunnel. Windows of the lowest flats in blocks overlooking perimeter roads, as in Andrewes House, are still well above street level.

The added benefit for the architects was that a podium meant land could be used twice. Banishing vehicular access and parking to the basement – in fact, street level – left more room for building space and pedestrian access on the surface. The podium increased the effective ground area from 15.2 hectares to 23.5 hectares.

There are in fact two podia. Until very late in the day, the Barbican scheme meant proposals for the area between (what is now) Beech Street and London Wall. This is the South podium. Shortly before the architects’ report of 1959, the northern area as far as the Golden Lane Estate was also included. The whole site slopes gently southwards towards the Thames, so the extension meant that – in order to keep all parts of the estate level – the two parts had to be “stepped” and the north podium is some 10 feet higher than the south podium.