1955 Scheme for the Barbican Estate

“A dense chequerboard of low blocks and small courtyards”

A comment on the 1955 plan in “The Buildings of England”, Nikolaus Pevsner and Simon Bradley

Chamberlin Powell and Bon were asked by the City’s town clerk to propose a scheme for creating “a self-supporting residential estate in the Aldersgate – Cripplegate area”. On 3 June 1955 Chamberlin Powell and Bonsent the town clerk a 21 page report, signed by Peter Chamberlin, setting out their proposals. I’m giving you a synopsis of this report, but I’m quoting particularly important or interesting passages.

Summary of the 1955 scheme

The main items in Chamberlin Powell and Bon’s 1955 proposal were:

  • flats at a density of 300 persons per acre. (The London Council later forced this to be reduced to 230 persons per acre.)
  • the plan only related to the South Barbican, not the North Barbican area from Beech Street to the Golden Lane Estate.
  • the flats to be in buildings four-storeys high and grouped in small enclosed courtyards and also some towers.
  • 60 shops to serve both the residents and some of the daytime population of the City.
  • 2000 garages
  • six public houses and four restaurants
  • a swimming pool and squash courts, to provide for the physical recreation of the residents, in a building shaped like a truncated pyramid
  • new buildings for the Guildhall School of Music and Drama including a small concert hall and theatre
  • a small exhibition hall
  • there should be a moat round the estate like the Tower of London
  • St Giles Cripplegate to be the focal point of the estate and restored for use for concerts.
  • Temple Bar by Wren which had been relegated to a park outside London should be brought back to form the Aldersgate Street entrance to the estate. (This was rejected, but Temple Bar was returned to London in 2003.)

This 1955 plan conceived the estate as a pedestrian precinct – an idea which survived to the end – but with a couple of crucial differences. Two thirds of all the flats were going to be in buildings only four stories high. The buildings were going to be designed so that they would be reached under or through “arcaded ways opening on to small enclosed courtyards, reminiscent of Albany or some of the chambers of the Inns of Court”.

It was envisaged that the proposed exhibition hall, swimming pool and squash courts, would all be lumped together in single building which took the form of a truncated pyramid.

Land under consideration

In contrast with the Kadleigh plan, which dealt with an area of about 40 acres, extending south as far as Guildhall, CPB were looking at 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 (or the Golden Lane Estate starts). In other words, the 1955 plan excluded the North Barbican area.

Financial implications – 300 persons to the acre

Chamberlin Powell and Bon assumed that the main obstacle to the development would be financial – mainly the high cost of purchasing the site. So this 1955 report concentrated on ways of dealing with this. They had two main solutions. The first was to create flats at a density of 300 individuals per acre of site, to generate a lot of rental income. The second solution was to  introduce a lot of shops, restaurants and garages into the site for the residents which they hoped would also be a source of income to offset the purchase and development costs of the project.

“We have therefore been studying the possibility of developing things this site at as high density as possible, consistent with the preservation of essential physical amenities. The maximum density normally permitted under the County of London plan is at the rate of 200 persons to the acre. We have in mind a density of about 300 persons to the acre, which we think is a reasonable figure for the City, and one which is not higher than was customary in good class residential districts in central areas before the War.”

It was going to be a “virtuous circle” in which a high density of residents would lead to a high demand for shops, restaurants, public houses and garages which would in turn people residents to take flats.

Would anyone choose to live there and what would they expect?

They then turned to the issue – which must have been a big question mark at the time – would people even want to live in new flats in the City?

“To erect a block of flats in a commercial district in the hope of attracting tenants prepared to pay a full economic rent would now no doubt be very much of a gamble.”

They pointed out that there were no amenities in the area – unless you counted St Giles’s church.

“People prepared to pay as much as 1/5, or even more, of their income for the rental of their house, expect their money to purchase, indirectly, certain amenities not confined within the actual walls of their home.”

The predominantly commercial area would be “very unsympathetic to gracious living”. (There was a lot of talk in reports and brochures about “gracious living” as being the subtitle of the Barbican estate.)

“On the other hand, the 25 acres under consideration offer the opportunity to create a residential neighbourhood for about 7000 people, which is sufficiently large to to justify the inclusion of open space, shops, recreational facilities and to permit a layout fully sympathetic to its purpose. In short, on this site it is possible owing to its size to create a district residential in character and with an identity of its own, surrounded by the quite different – but complimentary – busy commercial life of the city. We are therefore confident that if carried out on the scale envisaged there would always be a demand for flats in the sort of environment which could be created around the church of St Giles.”

They were so right.

The architects had then looked for possible comparable developments which might give an indication about the appetite of people to live in such flats, and also the rents might be achieved. Unfortunately, there haven’t been many recent developments, and rent controls meant that there was no evidence of what the market might pay. The best example they could come up with was Dolphin Square, which was put up in the 1930s and was built in the neighbourhood, Victoria, which at the time was not considered at all desirable from a residential point of view. They pointed out that it was designed to house about 3000 people and flats were fully occupied within quite a short time.

“The example of Dolphin Square is interesting insofar as it provides evidence of a large-scale economic housing enterprise which has proved to be very successful despite being undertaken in what must have appeared to be, at first sight, an unpromising neighbourhood”.

They turned to consideration of what sort of flats should be provided in the Aldersgate – Cripplegate area.

“We have in mind that most of these flats should be of the two room, three room, and four room types with a smaller population of one room and five room types”.

With reference to the revenue-producing commercial elements which the new neighbourhood would need:

“We obtained all the advice we could and decided that it would be reasonable to include 60 shops, 2000 garages, six public houses and four restaurants.”

That, of course, proved to be a vast over-estimate. The estate when completed ended up with one shop, one public house and no restaurants.

How did they arrive at the number of 2000 garages (really car parking spaces).

“This link estate is expected to cater for the needs of people from the middle and upper income groups, and it is therefore not unreasonable to assume that most prospective tenants either possess cars, or, in the near future will do so”.

They added that a large part of the garage accommodation could be provided as an open space, which could double up as car parking for the nearby city office workers.

They noted that the Dolphin Square estate included a swimming pool and several squash courts and they recommended that the Barbican estate should include them also. In fact, the detailed plans for the estate included a swimming pool until almost the final version.

Urban character

So far as the overall feel of the proposed neighbourhood was concerned, they recommended:

“It is essential to bear in mind that the proposed development, being actually within the square mile of the City, should be urban in character although residential, and should at all costs avoid the appearance or the suggestion of suburban development which would be so inappropriate.”

They were keen to produce exactly the right feel for the new estate. But they recognised it would not be easy.

“The creation of a truly open feeling in the estate is not easy, but we suggest that the following methods of detailed treatment could continue to create this most elusive quality. A definite formality in the layout should be attempted as opposed to the informality so characteristic of much contemporary ‘open’ planning.”

The first seedlings of the Barbican Arts Centre

There was also the question of “mental recreation” to consider. For this, CPB came up with what was quite possibly their most influential suggestion!

We have also given some thought to the possibility of providing for mental recreation. The entertainment centre of London, although quite accessible, is located in the West End and the several thousand residents of an Aldersgate–Cripplegate estate might well feel the need of something more local in character and nearer to their homes. The inclusion within the estate of, for instance, a concert hall, theatre or cinema, although ideal, could not be justified commercially. Knowing, however, that the Corporation functions in many different capacities and has a variety of activities in its control, which is administered for the public benefit, not only out of rate funds, but also out of its private resources, it occurred to us to enquire whether some of these interests could be provided for in the present development with advantage to them, and, at the same time, with the object of providing an amenity characteristic of the City and desirable for the successful development of a residential estate”.

They knew which levers to push. This was the beginnings of a proposal for the Barbican Arts Centre.

They then introduced yet another bright idea which was to suggest that the three schools in the City, with crumbling buildings, but also be moved into the proposed residential estate. They were careful not to unduly overstep the line on this.

“There is, of course, a natural corollary between schools and housing, which is a matter for the Corporation to consider and not within our terms of reference. Clearly, as an illustration of what might be done, however, we have assumed the inclusion of new buildings for the Guildhall School of Music as we feel that, if sited next to the church of St Giles, it would not only be appropriately situated, but would also contribute in no small measure to the cultural life of the residential estate”.

Then back to their best idea: an arts centre. They pointed out that if the Guildhall School of Music was to be moved into the estate, it would necessarily contain a small theatre even possibly concert hall.

“The small concert hall is, of course, essential to the School of Music. As with the theatre, it could serve the dual purposes of the school and the residential estate to the benefit of both. Although live drama and music are not usually able to be self-supporting, it is possible, as the resident population would provide a potential audience, that the opportunities for professional shows on a limited scale would be sufficiently frequent to justify the expectation of a useful financial contribution from the letting of the theatre and concert hall.”

They had previously appealed to the ambitions and deep pockets of the City; now they were trying to play up a possible financial benefit.

The moved on to the question of other schools but seem to be taking the view that that might prove too costly. But then they were quickly back again to culture and the arts.

“With further reference to the provision of amenities, both needed by the city and appropriate to the the development in question, we understand that small exhibitions are held in the city from time to time, for which it is not always possible to find adequate accommodation. We suggest that to satisfy this need a small exhibition hall night, with advantage, be provided near to the centre of the proposed housing estate.”

You can see how they were imagining combining all these elements into the Barbican Arts Centre of the future.

Next they suggested moving Temple Bar into the project. They were tapping into what appears to have been a pet project of the City for some time: moving back into the City the Temple Bar gateway, designed by Wren, which had been in the City from 1672 to 1878, but which was now mouldering in a park outside London. 

The concert hall the theatre, the exhibition hall, Temple Bar, these: would add a certain ‘cachet’ to the whole enterprise”.

While they were on the subject of a possible arts centre:

“Incidentally, it has occurred to us that, if the inclusion of a small exhibition hall should be considered desirable, the state coach, which is usually only to be seen at the Lord Mayor’s Show might form a permanent exhibit.”

Layout of the flats in the estate

CPB turned to consideration of the layout of the residential estate. The first issue to consider was that the residential estate would be only part of a larger comprehensive redevelopment of the City area, and it would be necessary to blend the two parts: housing and offices. They referred to the fact that the City had already come to a provisional conclusion about office buildings to the south of possible housing area, involving several tall office blocks along the route of the projected route 11 – the future London Wall. To blend the two types of development, they recommended creating towers within the estate to match the four proposed office blocks along Route 11.

“If corresponding towers of flats were built on the  Aldersgate–Barbican boundaries of the residential estate. this ring of high buildings would, in a simple and obvious way, give immediate coherence to the whole development and would provide an essential part of a unified solution.”

CPB’s ideas on how the blocks of flats should be laid out was very different from the way it was eventually done.

“About two thirds of all the flats are planned in buildings within four stories in height. This very residential scale, compactly laid out, would contribute to the urbanity of the whole. 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.”

The views and aspects from the flats were also going to be rather different from how the scheme eventually developed.

“Each flat should have a formal outlook onto a public open space and also should look inwards over a private terrace. The absence of gardens is a loss felt by many people living in flats in towns and a generous terrace, which can be enlivened with planting, may go far to make up for the absence of the garden.”

A moat like the Tower of London

CPB were perhaps carrying the castle wall motif of the Barbican a bit far when they proposed that the entire estate should be encircled by a moat!

“The concentrated development of the three-storey flats and the tower blocks as proposed would permit the inclusion of a reasonable amount of open space. This could take the form of a grass covered sunken moat stretching around the perimeter of the site from St Giles’s churchyard, north of ironmongers Hall, up Aldersgate Street, along Barbican and Beech Street as far as the brewery, thus separating the residential development from the busy traffic streets rather in the manner of the ditch round the Tower of London. Out of this open space the towers rise as well as three low rectangles of flats.”

The pyramid

In the middle of the whole estate they proposed a truncated pyramid, which was designed by Bon.

“To the east of the central square, we propose that the principle of terraced flats should be carried a stage further to form a truncated pyramid, which would contain the swimming pool, squash courts and top-lit exhibition hall.”

Entrance to the Barbican

CPB had a rather more dramatic plan for the entrance to the Barbican than we have. This was to be opposite Barbican tube station.

“We consider that an appropriate and dramatic setting would be provided if this monument [Temple Bar] could stand freely as shown, thus forming the Aldersgate entrance to the estate for pedestrians who pass under the Bar, over the causeway across the moat, and between the shopping arcades leading to the square, round St Giles.”

North Barbican

CPB’s report only related to the south Barbican area. That is the area south of Beech Street as far as London Wall. So their report was confined to that area. But they pointed out that the Ministry of Housing and Local Government had also 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.”

Housing in that area was not anticipated to be quite the same quality as 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.”