According to the Oxford English Dictionary (2nd edition), “podium” (plural “podia”) means a raised platform. It also means a projecting lower structure round the base of a higher structure such as a tower. The word has also come into general use as a projecting raised area at the base of a tower block. A combination of these definitions describes what we have in the Barbican.
According to the Chairman of the Improvements and Town Planning Committee at the time the estate was being considered: “The fundamental purpose of the Scheme was the protection of the public, the saving of human life, the removal of traffic congestion”. One of the most modern concepts was the idea of elevated walkways. The enthusiasts were very enthusiastic. According to one Council member: “Once people were up on the walkways there was no need for them to come down at all – until they wanted to go home”. Another said: “Young girls could be seen dashing across the traffic in Cheapside – it was a wonder they were not killed. The future would bless the Court if they approved elevated walkways”.
The podium covers so much of the estate that, once you are inside, it is effectively ground level. This new pedestrian level, which is generally 6 meters above street level, extends over 4.8 hectares of the site, in the form of terraces, linked by narrower high walks. The podium seems to be even higher when you lean over one of the balustrade edges to look at the lake or the gardens, which are in fact not at ‘ground’ level but several meters below it.
The Barbican Centre famously has many levels which no-one can follow, but its ‘ground level’ is the below-ground level of the lake and the gardens. This adds to the apparent separation of estate and Arts Centre.
In fact, most buildings in the south Barbican area exist at both levels. Just as the traditional terraced London house has a “ground” level at the front onto the street, and a basement which in fact opens at a different “ground” level onto the garden at the back, so most south Barbican terraces have a “ground floor” entrance on the podium, and “basement” flats which magically become garden or lakeside flats. Thomas More House has fine looking flats overlooking the gardens, and Andrewes House has split level flats almost at the level of the lake.
There is a further major split of levels between the north and south Barbican podia. Since the land slopes down to the river, to keep the estate dead flat the podium had to be ‘stepped’ and the north podium had to be built a few meters higher than the south podium. The north part of the Barbican also follows the grid of the Golden Lane Estate to the north (which was the City Corporation’s and Chamberlin Powell & Bon’s first excursion into urban housing) rather than the orientation of the Barbican’s southern half. The three towers and the Barbican Centre which lie along the ‘fault line’ knit the two parts. Shakespeare Tower has 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.