Fascinating facts

In the original designs for the Barbican estate, the external walls of all the buildings were going to be faced with little, white, marble blocks with uneven faces. That was the original plan, not the rough concrete surfaces that we have all grown to love. When these costly materials were abandoned once they reached the construction stage, Chamberlin Powell and Bon snatched victory from the jaws of defeat by going for pick-hammering of the bare concrete surfaces.

The columns were going to be coloured, polished cement.

The original plans for the Barbican estate were very sporty. In their 1955 proposal, Chamberlin Powell and Bon proposed a swimming pool and squash courts “to provide for the physical recreation of the residents”. Along with an exhibition hall, these were all going to be lumped together in a single building in the form of a truncated pyramid.

What sort of residents were the Barbican flats originally pitched at? The City asked the architects to design residential accommodation to meet “a demand among middle and higher income groups employed in the City”.

The terrace blocks are all meant to be crowned with roof gardens. Chamberlin Powell and Bon referred to “the creation of a garden city”. They were very proud of the idea that no land was lost at ground level because the roof gardens on the top of the buildings would stand in for land lost under the buildings. This was an aspiration adopted from from Le Corbusier.

The architects weren’t always following Modernist principles. According to Chamberlin Powell and Bon, the inspiration for the podium with terrace blocks above it was derived from Carlton House Terrace and the old Adelphi, historic London buildings. (Just as the layout of terraces is meant to recall the shape of typical London squares.)

Bedrooms weren’t intended necessarily to be bedrooms. The architects said, “we consider that most of the bedrooms should be designed to be furnished primarily as sitting rooms in which there is – almost incidentally – a bed.” They were specifically designing to help family members get away from each other.

Those hulking iconic towers with their rib-like balconies, which we all know and love! – that wasn’t what was originally intended at all. The architects originally designed slim inoffensive towers and referred to the “light appearance of the towers” and even poetically called them “traceried towers”. They would have looked just like many other high-rise blocks. Fortunately, they developed a more striking appearance.

The towers were originally going to be covered in a kind of shiny mesh – “a latticework of polished concrete”.

The Barbican estate as designed was not going to use lovely hardwood frames for the windows. All the windows were going to have “self-finished plastic covered window frames”.

Most kitchens have a hard-wearing plasticky kind of floor finish, and the original bathrooms have the same white tiles everywhere, including the floors. But in the original plans, the kitchen floor was going to be covered with terrazzo tiles, and the bathroom floors were going to be covered with cork tiles.

The kitchen was designed to take account of “the tendency” – apparently only a tendency, not something you’d take for granted – “to entertain without the help of servants”. Life was apparently so different in 1959. At least it was in the households of the grandees of the City.

London Wall may sound old, and it certainly has bits of mediaeval City wall alonside it. But actually it’s a completely new road built after the war, and called simply “Route 11” in most early Barbican documentation.

Cromwell was married in St Giles’s church. Milton was buried there, as was a fair amount of Sir Martin Frobisher the famous Elizabethan explorer (although St Andrew’s Church at Plymouth ended up with his heart and entrails.)

You shouldn’t miss the saints in the stained glass windows, particularly St Margaret Thatcher in the window in the end nearest the Girl’s School.

The Barbican has three towers. But two more towers 16 storeys high were planned for the North Barbican area to form a family with Great Arthur House in the Golden Lane Estate. One of them would have stood where Bryer Court now stands.

The John Trundle Court – Bunyan Court – Bryer Court blocks were originally only going to be four storeys high. The three block unit was also going to be rotated 90 degrees anticlockwise compared with the position the group occupy today.

Earlier versions of the Barbican scheme did not include a lake, but only an ornamental water feature and a kind of winding canal, like a snake in a sack, in front of Speed House.

The main feature of the scheme in 1956 was a broad walk – basically a wide pedestrian road from Lauderdale Tower to Willoughby House. This was abandoned in favour of gardens and a lake and the present layout where, instead of going through the middle, walking is mainly round the outside (which is preferable – unless you are trying to find the Girl’s School, in which case you viciously curse the architects).

The Barbican development was originally going to house the City of London School (for boys) as well as the City of London School for Girls, but ultimately it was decided to relocate the boys’ school close to the river.

Earlier plans under consideration by the City were quite school oriented. In the middle of Thomas More Garden there was going to be a “boscade” of trees around which there would be a quarter-mile long running track for the use of the schools.

The courtyard (there was not going to be a lake) on the east side of Gilbert House was going to be taken over periodically as a netball court for the girls’ school. The boys, meanwhile, were going to be jumping and pole-vaulting in a sunken grass-covered moat to the west of what is now Seddon House.

The Barbican could have had its own glass pyramid long before the Louvre. In earlier version of the scheme, there was to be a huge glass pyramid in the middle of what is now the lake east of Gilbert House. At one point they were thinking of parking the Lord Mayor’s gilded state coach there.

In earlier versions of the plans for the Barbican estate, there was going to be a huge beer garden for “outdoor refreshment” on the podium next to Cromwell Tower.

The terrace blocks were constructed on pile foundations deep into the London clay. They must have done something innovative where buildings were built over the new railway tunnels.

There was concern that the construction of the foundations of the Barbican buildings might affect the water table of St Paul’s Cathedral. They carried out investigations and found that there were no streams going through the site towards St Paul’s which might be stopped or diverted. But then they also worried that water extracted for construction might affect the cathedral, creating settlement problems like houses after a drought. I guess the structural engineers must have worked it all out.

The floor of the podium consists of large slabs, each about 150 ft². To avoid them crashing together like tectonic plates when temperature changes caused them to expand, they are all separated by expansion joints – what they call structural discontinuities – which are rendered watertight by the use of flexible water bars. I guess these are the strips of blackened rubber with their broken ends sticking you which you can sometimes notice when crossing the podium.

The terraces were constructed using the cross wall construction system. It’s not the outside walls which form the structure, but the inner walls – the walls between flats or between flats and staircases. That’s why the living room windows of flats can be completely made of timber and glass from side to side and from floor to ceiling. The depth (front to back) of the terrace blocks stretched crosswall construction to the limits. They had to supplement the crosswalls with huge beams of concrete, six foot high, right along the façades of the blocks at every floor level. You don’t know what I am talking about? That’s because, incredibly, they are invisible to us. They are those innocuous little walls on which the window boxes are placed. In fact, of course, those ‘little’ walls go right down to the ceiling of the flat below.

No one had attempted to build blocks of flats of 30 storeys or more before. The danger of what they called “overturning moments due to wind” increases with the square of the height of the building, so the effects of wind are four times as great for a 30-storey block than for a 15-storey block. This is one of the reasons for the triangular shape of the towers. Having structural walls which are not parallel means that they can’t be blown over like a set of dominos, which is what might be the case if all structural walls were lined up in one direction.

The structural engineers wanted the tower blocks to have additional external framing in the form of a triangular lattice work. In the end, they decided that would be overkill.

The City Corporation arranged for a stock of wooden railings, like the side of a playpen, to be available to occupiers with small children. These could be bolted into the sliding door openings of flats to prevent children gaining access to the balconies. (I don’t know if these are still available today.)

In the 1950s the City concluded that the labour involved in emptying refuse bins for each dwelling would be excessive. They thought they would have to provide space for the bins, and a separate lift to carry the bins to the ground floor. No one apparently thought of plastic bags.

One solution to the problem of garbage disposal under consideration was sink pulverisers. A sink pulveriser would have been a kind of grinder in the sink, like one of those woodchip machines they use for getting rid of bodies in murder movies.

Another solution considered for dealing with refuse was to have refuse chutes into the basement. The same solution in fact as the Empire chose for the Death Star. Instead of a tentacled monster, there would have been scores of wheelie bins at the bottom of the chutes and porters running frantically between them pulling full ones out before they overflowed and pushing empty ones in.

When the Garchey system was chosen for the Barbican estate, it was already in use for a development of 996 flats in Sheffield and 448 flats in Leeds. I wonder how those have fared.

The original plan for dealing with Garchey waste was to have a huge incinerator in the estate under one of the tower blocks, and then have a flue taking the smoke up to the top of the tower.

The Barbican estate was always intended as a commercial venture to make money for the City. With that in mind, the flats were marketed for rent on five year terms at full market rent.

Chamberlin Powell and Bon, the Barbican architects, had previously designed and overseen the construction of the Golden Lane estate, also built by the City, although it was then in Islington. It was later incorporated within the City’s boundaries.

The City’s plans were to have residents in the Barbican at a density of about 300 persons to the acre. The London County Council insisted that this be reduced to 230 persons to the acre as a condition of granting planning permission for the scheme.

It seems obvious today that the Barbican is a desirable place to live. But before they built it, there was serious concern whether people would in fact ever choose to live in this area. (It was, after all, still a bomb site.)

The Barbican estate was always intended to be a paying proposition for the City. Chamberlin Powell and Bon recommended that it would be reasonable to include in the development 60 shops, six public houses and four restaurants. That got whittled down to next to nothing over the course of time.

Earlier plans for the Barbican estate included a swimming pool and several squash courts.

Chamberlin Powell and Bon invented the idea of the Barbican Arts Centre in a report on the potential for development in the Barbican area which they wrote in 1955. Their ambition was limited to it being “a concert hall, theatre or cinema”. It grew from there.

The City Corporation wanted to move the Temple Bar back into the City and the plan was for it to become the grand Aldersgate Street entrance to the Barbican. Instead, they ended up with the present temporary-diversion style entrance up steps to Defoe House.

The architects were very concerned to ensure that this would be the very opposite of a suburban development. They insisted on what they called “a definite formality in the layout”: hence the terraces in groups of squares.

In earlier plans for a residential estate, the architects were referencing existing London squares and courtyards. Flats were to be approached “on foot, the flats would be approached under arcaded ways, opening onto small enclosed courtyards, as is the way in Albany or some of the chambers in the Inns of Court.” In other words, a world Dr Johnson would have recognised, but not exactly Modernist.

In earlier plans, flats were to be arranged so that they would have a formal outlook onto a public open space, but also look inwards over a private terrace. This would be a generous terrace because the architects recognised people living in flats must miss their gardens while living in flats in town. (They may have been Modernists, but they couldn’t escape their middleclass upbringing.)

One of the proposals by the architects was that the estate would be surrounded by a grass-covered, sunken moat. They saw it as separating the estate from the streets, “rather in the manner of the ditch round the Tower of London”. It would have been even harder for concert goers to get to the Barbican Centre before the performance starts.

For most of the 1950s, the discussions about turning the Barbican into a residential estate only related to the 25 acres between Beech Street and London Wall. It was only later that the North Barbican – Beech Street to Fann Street – was added, and you will note that the buildings there are oriented to line up with the direction of buildings in the Golden Lane estate, on the other side of Fann Street, not with the rest of the Barbican estate.

The terrace blocks and flats in the North Barbican area were not intended to be of the same quality as those in the south. “The character of any housing development in this area could be intermediate between the subsidised Golden Lane scheme and the good class flats proposed for the main Barbican area.”

Before the residential development became the favoured plan, the City Corporation was considering a proposal put forward by the New Barbican Committee – an outside pressure group – which involved excavating the entire 40 acre site to a depth of about 60 feet and filling it with factories and warehouses. It sounds like a dystopian nightmare. ‘Metropolis’ anyone? It must have seemed that way to the planning committee too. The plan got turned down for lack of natural light.

We customarily use the words podium and highwalk, but the architects who were pushing plans for a factory district presumably to be populated by Nibelungen used the word “ped-way”. This was only one of the bad things in a bad scheme which was fortunately dropped.

One of the City committees involved in the Barbican development was “The Corn and Coal and Finance Committee”. First the Neolithic Revolution, then the Industrial Revolution, then the Modern Era. The City Corporation has adapted to each of these novelties in turn.

The Barbican area was destined to become a commercial office development when one man turned the whole thing round and almost single-handedly pushed the City into carrying out the residential development. This was Eric Wilkins. He achieved this by a barnstorming speech to the Court of Common Council on 3 November 1955. We should have a statue to him.

One of the prime motives for considering a residential development was the concern that the lack of any voters resident in the City might lead to the government deciding it was not viable as a local authority. In 1851 the resident population of the parish of St Giles Cripplegate numbered 13,361. In 1951 the population was 28. Potentially a “Rotten Borough”. Without the population influx brought about by the Barbican estate the City might have been carved up between Islington, Camden and Tower Hamlets.

The crucial decision of the Court of Common Council whether to plump for a residential development of the Barbican or a commercial one, was won by a single vote. Only later did they realise that the motion had in fact been lost by a single vote. There had been a teller’s error. The situation was so embarrassing that it was whitewashed over and a further resolution of the Court of Common Council quietly passed on 1 December 1955 ratifying the residential development plan so that no one would notice, but at least the ‘paperwork’ would be correct.

Until the final plans, the lending library was intended to occupy space under one of the blocks of flats. But they couldn’t think of a way to make it hard enough to find, so they moved it inside the Barbican centre at the end of a staircase which cunningly doesn’t actually go to the library.

Have you noticed that the grandest set of stairs in the entire Barbican complex are below Seddon House … and they don’t actually lead anywhere! Someone must have been holding the plans the wrong way round.

When the principle of segregating pedestrians from traffic by having high walkways was agreed, the City of London Police Commissioner wanted to do away with pavements at ground level altogether, to discourage recalcitrant pedestrians from getting in the way of the traffic. “Stay on the highwalk or die”, was seemingly the plan. But obviously something had to be done for people whose cars broke down. They couldn’t just be killed like hedgehogs. Some of them might be Tory voters. So that is why you have those tiny little pavements along London Wall, grudgingly agreed to by the City of London Police.

It was not a given that the City Corporation would carry out the residential development scheme. Auctioning off the building plots to private developers was being seriously considered. That was what was done with the tower blocks built along London Wall, for example. It was only because it was decided it would be too complicated trying to write agreements splitting the private development from the public and infrastructure that it was decided that the City should do the job itself.

The glass panels in front of the window boxes on the balconies are a late addition to the Barbican design, intended to stop small children working their way between the wires and falling from balconies. More wires were also added to create smaller gaps.

The Barbican is partly modelled on Venice. The segregation of “road” traffic (in their case, canal traffic) from pedestrians who walk on pavements and bridges which cross the traffic routes. The architects concluded the system had worked admirably for centuries and there was no good reason why the same principle should not be applied equally effectively in the City. Also, it would preserve the safety of the pedestrians. There wasn’t quite the same danger in Venice from fast moving gondolas, but in London pedestrians wouldn’t have to dart in between hurtling trucks. Their far-sighted plans will all come good when Global Warming raises the Thames a few dozen feet.

The Barbican appears to be flat. But while the architects could design an acceptably flat ground area for the original Barbican (south of Beech St), when they added North Barbican quite late in the 1950s to their plans, they had to step it up 10 feet or more higher to make it flat and level. The reason is that we live in a riverine valley and Clerkenwell is essentially sloping towards the Thames.

There is no law of nature, which says that blocks have to be placed at right angles to each other, but that’s what the architects did throughout the estate. It was a deliberate imitation of residential squares in Chelsea, Kensington and Bloomsbury. The architects referred to the terrace blocks being grouped in “meandering U and Z shapes”. With regard to the Z shapes, perhaps their geometry was a little bit off. You can see, though, that the blocks round Thomas More Garden and around Speed Garden reflect the traditional Victorian idea in west London of exclusive garden squares for surrounding flats. The whole Barbican design is very Notting Hill in that respect.

You have two options. One, you design a bridge slung between tall columns hanging over cascades of water in a lake, or, two, you have a dual carriageway in a concrete box cutting across the estate from Golden Lane to Fore Street. Apparently the best choice was not obvious and for much of the 1950s the City’s Streets Department was winning the argument for the car-fume-filled concrete box. Fortunately, in contrast to what would have been the case in the concrete box, someone saw the light, and we mercifully ended up with Gilbert House.

When you go to the shops, you should try to count how many U-shapes and inverted U-shapes you notice. They are an important recurring design feature. The windows of the lower flats of Andrewes House and Thomas More House are obvious instances, as are the penthouse tops of all the terrace blocks. Even the huge ventilation grills of the outside of the Barbican Centre are in U-shaped frames.

There are some “charming” bits of class prejudice in the plans for the estate. In the code of the time, it was decided that “for reasons of management”, small flats should not be placed in the same block as the large ones. Heaven forbid you might have to make small talk with your clerk in the lift, or worse, have to offer him a seat in your Roller to the office.

Much of the podium has residents’ carparks underneath. For these car parks to be usable, the columns could not be too close together. There are generally 35 feet apart. In the North Barbican area, the spacing is about 23 feet apart. I think the difference must have been the smaller cars.

A policy decision was made about kitchens. Although Barbican flats have a lot of window space, it was decided that this should all be allocated to living rooms and bedrooms. Kitchens (bathrooms too) where to be without windows and put in the middle or back. It was felt that they would only be used for a short time each day, often after dark, so there would be no problem for them to be dependent on artificial light.

The architects were zealous about quietness. One of the big attractions of their design, so they said, was that people would be able to live with “the pleasurable sounds of active footsteps, conversation and laughter not being drowned by the noise of traffic”. They proposed that other sounds from their neighbours which residents might not find so pleasurable could be dealt with by “the choice of quiet acting sanitary fittings”.

One problem with incorporating the North Barbican area into the overall residential development scheme, which occurred quite late in the day as a kind of afterthought, was that the City had been happily granting planning permissions for developments in the area. The worst result is Murray House in Beech Street, which sticks right into the estate, so that the podium behind Ben Jonson House has to make an awkward sideways hop round it. This wretched building was designed by Frank Scarlett and completed in 1958.

On the southern edge of the estate, near London Wall, are the remains of old City walls. The most noticeable bit is “the bastion” below Mountjoy House and the bits of wall visible from Wallside. People tend to assume these are bits of Roman wall. Really, they are just mediaeval walls, for the most part. (I say “just mediaeval walls”, but that is pretty cool too.)

If you walk on the other side of the lake almost next to Barber Surgeons Hall and their Herb Garden, you will find the remains of ancient fireplaces. Shakespeare may have warmed his hands at one when he lodged with the Mountjoys.

There were British Rail and London Underground lines running under the Barbican area, mainly from Barbican station (or Aldersgate and Barbican station as it was then called) to Moorgate station. They couldn’t exactly cut these off for the decade while they built the estate. But the existing rail lines ran in a kind of curve like a bow, so what they did was construct a completely new tunnel in a straight line, like the string of a bow, and then just join the ends up when everything was ready.

The potential noise and vibration from railway and underground lines running under the estate was a potential problem. But the structural engineers were optimistic about it because they’d had the same problem under the Royal Festival Hall and solved it. One solution employed was for the tracks to be laid on rubber devices to reduce the vibration, and these seem to have been generally successful, although there are some flats where you can feel a distant rumble occasionally.

The columns were created in situ by pouring sections at a time within cylindrical containers. Something had to be done to “decorate” them, or else they would have looked like columns of bamboo as each section was added on top of the previous one. (You can still see the bamboo-like effect if you look carefully at some columns. The solution was pick hammering the finished columns which succeeded in more-or-less obscuring the bamboo effect.

The architects said that they had chosen the concrete “so that some degree of weathering produces an acceptable patina rather than objectionable discolouration”. I guess the jury is probably still out on that one. However, remember that the original plans for the exteriors were for polished concrete and white tiles. I fear that would have ended up looking like an extremely discoloured toilet pan. So, I’m content with the water-stained concrete look.

Architects just have to get philosophical. “The tiles, they said, were intended to be the colour of earth, so as to form a visual transition in colour and texture between the natural colours of grass, trees and plants and the stone grey of the buildings. Not only is it transitional visually, but it is transitional technologically – between the natural and man-made world – and historically – between the Old City and the Barbican”. They really could lay it on with a trowel, and that’s of course how the tiles were laid as well.

The City Corporation and the architects got quite carried away with the creation of a brave new world. They had the idea of introducing mechanical parking into the residents’ car parks. This would have involved cars being moved by hoists and trolleys to their parking spaces and returned the same way in the morning. They were quite enthusiastic about this. This may have been because there was an experimental system in Milan, and of course the committee had to go to Milan to carry out an inspection. I think not so many members signed up for the committee trip to inspect the Garchey refuse system in use in Leeds.

The curving underground corridor under Frobisher Crescent was intended to be lined with shops. Unfortunately, there were just no takers. It became the home of some rather overexposed offices on the inner side, and some intriguingly hidden factory units on the outer side. I wonder what they’re doing in there.

The City Corporation wanted to be able to let its new flats, so Goddard & Smith, a firm of residential experts, advised on what size would be most lettable. They discovered it would generally be the smallest flats. But City wanted “to encourage a balanced population of a truly resident nature with loyalties and interest in the City” and insisted on many more family and multi-room flats in the estate.

You may have noticed that the three towers don’t look exactly the same from wherever you look at them. They were deliberately not placed in identical relationship to each other, but are rotated on plan so that, wherever you stand, you will see towers of different widths. As Chamberlin Powell and Bon put it: “This will avoid the danger of monotonous repetition which three identical towers spaced equally apart on the same axis might present”.

Only your kitchen tap has drinking water, not your bathroom tap. Each block has tanks containing thousands of gallons of water to allow us to run baths and flush toilets. But you can’t use that to drink. Drinking water has to come from the mains direct. However, the “head” of mains water – how far it will rise on its own – is 100 feet in the Barbican. So boosted mains were necessary to get drinkable water up to flats above that height.

When the architects and the Barbican committees considered the best alternative heating systems, one of the ones they considered was open fires!

If anyone moans that their underfloor heating isn’t enough to heat their flats, the answer is that this is exactly how it is meant to be. It was only intended to be background warmth, and it was always intended that people should have their own conventional electric fires or radiators to boost it as necessary. (Many people ask the Estate Office to turn their background heating down, particularly in the bedrooms.)

Your only option for cooking is electric. There’s no gas. But actually, Chamberlin Powell and Bon recommended that all kitchens should be provided with gas as well as electricity. The City Corporation didn’t want to do that.

Entry phones were not originally going to be placed outside the buildings so residents could decide whether or not to let someone into the block. They were actually going to be installed inside, next to the lift, so that tradesmen could find out if residents were in before using the lift so that they could avoid fruitless lift journeys.

The architects carried out research and concluded that “most people prefer to occupy their time in action rather than to wait, so that it is not uncommon to find persons walking upstairs rather than waiting for a lift.” They worked out that people would wait for 100 seconds, but no longer.

The plans for the estate included a number of “large public lock-up stores” which could be used for trunks and large boxes.