Building the Golden Lane Estate

The brief

The terms of the 1952 competition were to come up with a design for 940 one, two, three or four room flats at the maximum possible density of 200 residents to the acre. Each block had to have a basement storage area.

Powell’s design

Powell’s design for the competition contained 12 terrace blocks, one 11-storey block, and a community centre, in a formal layout. When the competition was held in 1952, the land for the estate did not extend as far as Goswell Road, so Powell made a virtue of the original lack of street frontage and created an inward-looking estate, with terraces grouped round a series of courtyards. The pre-war road pattern was erased. Powell’s design took advantage of the basements left by the former buildings to produce a series of varied levels, with sunken courtyards and gardens areas.

Changes to the design

The plan was altered considerably and the layout became less symmetrical, but the design’s underlying principles remained unchanged. There were a number of reasons for changes.

  • The original site was extended in 1955 when the City also bought the land up to Goswell Road.
  • The rules on the height of blocks of flats was changed, allowing Great Arthur House to be built higher than originally proposed.  In fact, increasing the height of Great Arthur House and the number of small flats it could contain became essential when the London County Council imposed limits on the density of buildings as against open space in any development.
  • The original plan contained a very defined pedestrian walkway running north to south to the east of Great Arthur House with regular terraces on either side. The final layout was much less rigid.

The terrace blocks

The terrace blocks are 10 blocks, almost all aligned east-west, round four traffic-free courts of differing sizes. Although many of the blocks are – and appear – very similar, the architects attempted to give each of them a distinctive appearance so they would not look mass-produced. They have load-bearing brick-faced cross walls. In between there is blue or red opaque glass cladding.  Some have perforated concrete balconies.

Great Arthur House

Great Arthur House is a 16-storey tower, aligned north-south, and it is the centrepiece of the estate. It was the tallest block of flats in London (and the UK) when it was built. It contains two stacks of concrete balconies on each side, and has golden yellow glass curtain walling. So much colour was a novel and dramatic part of the design. The main feature of the tower is the curved concrete structure on the roof, containing the building’s water tanks, which was compared to ‘a concrete aeroplane’. The roof was also given a pergola and water garden for the benefit of residents on the upper floors.

The bastion

One surprising feature in the hard rectangular landscape is the round bastion at the northern end of the site, looking like a concrete sheep-fold, which was an original part of the design.

The later parts of the estate

The final phase of building was on the Goswell Road front. Crescent House, which was completed in 1962, is in quite a different style from the buildings which preceded it on the estate. Its reliance on concrete anticipates the Barbican estate which the architects were already designing. Crescent house may have been designed by Michael Neylan, who worked as an architect at the firm.

Distinguishing earlier from later blocks

The pre-1957 blocks are characterised by their coloured opaque glass cladding. Colour is a notable feature of all Chamberlin, Powell and Bon’s important early works. The most dramatic example is the bright yellow walling of Great Arthur House.

The Chamberlin Powell & Bon philosophy

There are a number of distinctive features of Chamberlin, Powell and Bon’s philosophy of urban planning, many of which are also employed in the Barbican Estate (which was on the drawing board by 1954).

  • A wide range of facilities, not just housing, on the site.
  • Obliterating the original road pattern from the site.
  • The estate looking in on itself.
  • Courtyards set out in formal grids.
  • Combinations of terraces to create private internal space.
  • Terraces with regular rhythms of windows.
  • Terraces on Corbusian pilotis.
  • The spaces and the relationship between the buildings seen as important.
  • The differentiation of public spaces and private residential areas.
    Towers to reduce ground density.
  • The use of coloured panels. (This was also a feature the Barbican design till the early 1960s, when textured concrete replaced them.)
  • The use of bush-hammered concrete. This was used on the facades of Crescent House (completed in 1962) and later replaced the original plan for marble facings on the Barbican buildings.

Anti garden suburbs

Chamberlin Powell & Bon were quoted in the Architectural Association Journal, April in 1957, as saying: ‘There is no attempt at the informal in these courts. We regard the whole scheme as urban. We have no desire to make the project look like a garden suburb’

Influences on the Golden Lane Estate

I am no architect so I am passing on the views I have read.

  • Double height stairwells and double height spaces over the balconies are indebted to Le Corbusier’s preference for provision of high spaces for living areas.
  • Stylistically, it is contemporary with Sir Basil Spence’s listed work at the University of Sussex in Brighton, though it is more varied in its materials. Both have as their sources Le Corbusier’s Maisons Jaoul in Paris and Stirling and Gowan’s work at Ham Common.
  • Le Corbusier’s Unite d’Habitation of 1947 was an early influence, with its use of coloured panels to add interest to the facades, roof sculptures, and double height spaces in living areas.
  • Le Corbusier’s later brutalist works Haut Ronchamp and Maisons Jaoul later displaced Unite d’Habitation in influence.
  • Great Arthur House references the roofscape of Corbusier’s Unite d’habitation in Marseille and Berlin. The Barbican committee visited in 1958.