North and south podia, Barbican Estate

“In broad principle the flats South of Barbican are mostly of the larger type suitable for family use while in the Northern area all the flats are of the one or two room type serving in particular single people.”

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

There has always been a historic and a physical distinction between North and South Barbican. Historically, the Barbican was intended to be built on the bomb site south of today’s Beech Street. (The quote refers to “the flats South of Barbican” because Barbican was the ancient name of part of the road later re-named Beech Street.) All the plans from the 1940s through to the mid-1950s ignored the north. In fact, when the Corporation finally applied for planning permission for the development in 1958, the north was still not included.

There is a physical division. There are two podia. The south podium encompasses the South Barbican area surrounding the lake. The north podium contains the terrace blocks behind the Barbican Arts Centre. The two podia meet roughly along the line of Beech Street. To extend the estate to the north, it was necessary to start the north podium three meters higher to take account of the gradual slope of the Barbican site towards the south. The podium is 21 meters above “datum” in the south Barbican and 24 meters in the north. In practice it’s about 6 meters above ground level round most of the estate.

If you look at a birds-eye map or plan of the Barbican, you will notice that the terrace buildings on the north podium do not follow the ‘grid’ of the South Barbican, but instead follow the ‘grid’ of the terraces of the Golden Lane Estate on the other side of Fore Street to the north (which was the City Corporation’s and Chamberlin Powell & Bon’s first excursion into urban housing) .

The three towers and the Barbican Centre which lie along the ‘fault line’ knit the two parts. Shakespeare and Cromwell Towers have entrances at both ‘ground’ levels. Access to the library in the Barbican Centre as well as to the Conservatory is from the north Barbican podium level.

The podium comprises open areas around and under the blocks, such as Beech Place, and also the system of walkways which encircle the site and continue into the commercial developments to the south (London Wall) and the east (Moorgate), which were being built at the same time as the Barbican itself.

In the south west of the estate, Seddon Highwalk and John Wesley Highwalk are covered ways under white round-arched roofs. The height of some of the roofs suggest we must have been a nation of pygmies in the 1960s. John Wesley Highwalk runs to a glazed brick service tower containing steps to Aldersgate Street.

The podium between Ben Jonson House and Bryer Court is rudely interrupted by Murray House, which they had to build round because work had begun on it before the north part of the future Barbican was incorporated in the Barbican Plan. It was designed by Frank Scarlett and completed in 1958. It is described by Pevsner as “a stone faced and curtain walled office block on Beech Street”. It must be a very unattractive place to work, right in the middle of a tunnel, with walls right in front of the windows.