Including north Barbican

“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

These images demonstrating how buildings in the proposed Barbican estate would enjoy sunlight at different times of the day don’t include Ben Jonson House or anything else north of Beech Street. And this is in the 1959 version of the scheme.

When Chamberlin Powell and Bon were first commissioned in 1955 to prepare a proposal for residential development of the Barbican area, their remit related to a site of about 25 acres round the church of St Giles’s, Cripplegate, which was considered to be the only suitable area for housing of any size within the City boundaries. This included most of the land from modern-day Beech Street to London Wall, but it did not include the land from Beech Street to Fann Street (where the Golden Lane Estate starts). In other words, the 1955 plan excluded the North Barbican area. 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 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 the road nowadays all called Beech Street.)

In their 1955 report Chamberlin Powell and Bon did point out that the Ministry of Housing and Local Government had suggested the development for housing purposes of the area north of Beech Street up to Fann Street (the boundary with Golden Lane estate) and east to Whitecross Street. This area had also been largely cleared by bomb damage during the war. As they said:

“The possibility exists of creating a residential development… which could form a link between the Golden Lane housing scheme (although of a different character) and the Barbican area.”

Note the “of a different character”. As you will see housing in the North Barbican area was not anticipated to be quite the same quality as in the South Barbican.

As Chamberlin Powell and Bon commented:

“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.”

By the time Chamberlin Powell and Bon were commissioned to make further proposals in 1956, their terms of reference add expanded to include the land between Beech Street and the Golden Lane estate.

The reason for now thinking of expanding the estate north was that the City Corporation wanted to integrate more schools into the scheme. Since space had to be allocated to them, but this was partly made possible by adding the North Barbican area (Beech Street to the Golden Lane Estate) to the development.

The North Barbican area always seemed to remain an afterthought or a necessary evil in the City Corporation’s mind. Even in 1959 when the final scheme was being created and the North Barbican area had been included in the conception for several years, the instructions to the architects was:

“… to prepare a revised scheme for the development of land north of Barbican, east of Aldersgate Street and south of the city boundary, having regard to the needs of the main development south of Barbican and, if so instructed by the committee, to prepare such detail proposals as may be required in this area.” [my underlining].

Chamberlin Powell and Bon reported that the North of Barbican area was derelict, “although one new building, Murray House, has been erected since the war.” They had to live with that and build round it. It sticks up between Ben Jonson House and Bryer Court.

The prejudice, if I can call it that, against the North Barbican was apparently baked into everyone’s thinking. Chamberlin Powell and Bon’s report continued:

“While the areas south and north of Barbican are designed as one unified layout without any physical distinction the form of the housing in the two areas are slightly different, since it serves a different need. 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.”

The South was to be the family home area and the North was to be bed-sitter-land. But why should all the studio flats be grouped together out of the way in the North? Goddard and Smith, a firm of surveyors who were residential experts, gave their reasons, which are passed on by Chamberlin Powell and Bon in their report to the City Corporation.

“Firstly, Mrs Goddard and Smith have given their opinion that for reasons of management. Small flats should not the preference be situated in the same blocks as the large ones. Secondly, we have in mind that a proportion of the tenants of the smaller flats will be younger than the average for the development and therefore only able to afford lower rents. Since the area is most remote from the centre of the City and borders the Bunhill Fields area of local authority housing, the rents here might be expected to be a little lower than in the south than in the area south and therefore appropriate for the siting of small flats.”

One can understand the argument about the flats being further away from the City and closer to social housing and therefore commanding slightly lower rents. But the first argument is really saying that people with expensive flats would not want to be rubbing shoulders with the little people in their pokey flats.

When the residential development of the Barbican finally took place, distinctions between the North and South continued.

There is a physical division to start with. There are two podia at different levels and that is due to the topography of the site. 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 two podia meet roughly along the line of Beech Street.  The podium is 21 meters above “datum” in the south Barbican and 24 meters in the north. In practice the podium is about six meters above ground level round most of the estate.

There is a large-scale architectural difference as well. The lines of the buildings in the north part of the Barbican follows the grid of the Golden Lane Estate further to to the north on the other side of Fann Street, not the grid of the buildings round the lake in the south.

Finally, even the buildings were different. In the south, the terrace blocks are mainly on columns so that you can walk beneath them. That is not the case in the north except for the part of Bunyon House over the slope and some ways through Ben Jonson House. Otherwise north Barbican buildings sit fully on the ground.