Golden Lane – The Estate

Building the 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.
Description of the Estate

The Golden Lane estate contains 559 homes, of which 385 flats are flats and 174 are maisonettes. About half are now in private ownership, and half remain as social housing owned by the City of London.

The dominating feature is Great Arthur House, the only tower block in the estate, which is roughly in the centre and makes a bold statement with its overall bright yellow colour. The rest of the estate is made up of terrace blocks. These are placed in groups round four courts. Crescent House runs the whole length of the western border of the estate along Goswell Road, from Fann Street almost to Old Street. Stanley Cohen House is not quite as long but covers much of the Golden Lane boundary to the east. These two blocks have their flats facing east and west. All the other terrace blocks are placed roughly parallel to each other, running east to west, and with their flats facing north and south.

The largest court is formed by Crescent House, Cullum Welch House and Great Arthur House and it opens onto Fann Street. Underneath is an extensive car park for residents, with air and light being provided by the round silo-like structures in front of Cullum Welch House. To reach the garage, you drive down the ramp next to Cuthbert Harrowing House and turn left into the underground parking area.

Carry straight on and it leads you out into the second court. (So do the wide steps running along the entire width of Cullum Welch House.) This contains the tennis court. (originally a bowling green). Right next to the tennis court is the swimming pool and, round the next bend, is the health club.

The third court is between Bowater House and Bayer House. The fourth is between Bayer House and Basterfield House. These later courts are part pavement and part garden. The pavement areas are generally at street level. The gardens are at a lower level which gives a form of separation between public and private areas. In fact, the levels were to some extent governed by the existence or not of basements in the buildings which had been on the site before the Luftwaffe cleared it one night in 1940.

The only strictly public garden area is behind Bowater where there is a ramp down to a rather attractive garden area with a pool with a little fountain, fish and water lilies. It’s attractive because it’s not intensively gardened and looks quite natural. The paving is tired and the roses look decidedly dowdy, which makes the place feel quite appealingly homely.

History of the Estate

The Need

After the Second World War, the City needed to provide housing for people on the housing register. This meant the workers who provided all the services in the City, and their families. The City Corporation provided accommodation already, but well outside the City, in areas like the Old Kent Road and Sydenham Hill. But, to provide more such housing, they decided to create a new council estate near Golden Lane at the boundary with Finsbury.

The Voting Issue

It is said that the decision was triggered by a new Government policy. Hardly anyone actually lived in the City. The City’s ‘elected’ councillors were mainly elected by businesses which had votes and the City’s plan was to reduce the residential vote even further. But the Government understandably didn’t approve of councils with no local electorate. It threatened to introduce a law which would effectively extinguish the City unless it could quickly manufacture some sort of credible electorate. But if that was the case, how was the situation improved by creating an estate at Golden Lane, which, until well after the estate was built, was in Islington. The residents had no vote in the City.

The Land

Before the Second World War the Golden Lane area contained Victorian warehouse and factories. The Luftwaffe levelled these buildings in a single night of incendiary bombs in 1940, leaving only rubble and basements.

The original 4.7 acres for the Golden Lane Estate were bought by compulsory purchase in February 1951. In May 1954, the City bought more land so that the site covered a total of seven acres, and extended the site to Goswell Road.

The Competition

In 1952 the Royal Institute of British Architects organised an architectural competition for the City. The challenge was to create a design for an estate with 940 residents at Golden Lane. There were 187 entries. Peter and Allyson Smithson were among the entrants. They were the most well-known of the architects later called Brutalists. They went on to build Robin Hood Gardens housing complex in Poplar, East London. Another scheme was submitted by Jack Lynn and Gordon Ryder. Lynn later designed the Park Hill flats in Sheffield.

But the competition was won by an unknown architect, Geoffry Powell, who was declared the winner on 26 February 1952.

Chamberlin, Powell & Bon

Geoffry Powell was a lecturer in architecture at the Kingston School of Art. He and two fellow lecturers, Peter Chamberlin and Christof Bon, had each submitted designs to the competition. They had agreed that if any of them won, they would all leave the Kingston School of Art and form an architectural practice. That is what they did. The partnership of Chamberlin, Powell and Bon was formed. Chamberlin Powell & Bon supervised the building of the estate in detail. They later went on to design and build the Barbican estate to the south.


It took 9 years to construct the estate. The original design was modified over the period, partly to accommodate an additional 7 acres of land which was added to the original proposed site. The swimming pool, for example, was a later addition to the project.

The completed estate

The first parts were completed by 1957. Crescent House was completed in 1962. As completed, the estate contained 1,400 flats and maisonettes, a swimming pool and badminton court, a bowling green (now tennis courts), a nursery and playground, a community centre and club room, and a line of shops facing Goswell Road terminating in a pub, the Shakespeare.

Original residents

The original plan was to create mainly flats for workers such as caretakers, nurses and policemen who worked in the City and had to live within striking distance. The original plan assumed some family units, but in the end none were built and the estate was designed for single people and couples There are no large family units.

Originally the estate was intended to provide housing for families from the Borough of Finsbury. In the end only 12% of the first lettings were for Finsbury residents.

Becoming part of the City

Boundary changes in 1994 transferred the Golden Lane Estate from Islington to the City.

The estate now

The Golden Lane Estate remains almost exactly as it was built, except that a pub operator with typical good taste gave the Shakespeare Pub under Crescent House an ‘olde worlde’ makeover. Some glazing in of the staircases of terrace blocks was carried out in 1987.

Golden Lane remains one of the most successful of England's housing developments from the early 1950s.

Car Parking

The courtyard between Crescent House and Great Arthur House, which you enter from Fann Street, opposite the YMCA appears to be natural ground level. But the site was originally at the same level as the tennis court beyond Cullum Welch House. The architects created the court at ground level. Underneath is an extensive car park for residents, with air and light being provided by the round silo-like structures in front of Cullum Welch House.  To reach the garage, you drive down the ramp next to Cuthbert Harrowing House and turn left into the underground parking area.  Carry straight on and it leads you out into the tennis court.  So do the wide steps running along the entire width of Cullum Welch House.

There is another entry for cars at ground floor level on Fann Street running between Cuthbert Harrowing House and Bowater House. This opens into a car parking area in front of a community-style hall (currently advertising Bingo).  It’s a central courtyard giving pedestrian access to the rest of the estate in several directions.

Golden Lane

17th century poem about Golden Lane

In Whitecross Street and Golden Lane
Do strapping lasses dwell
And so, there do in every street
Twixt that and Clerkenwell.

At Cowcross and at Smithfield
I have much pleasure found,
Where wenches like to fairies
Did often trace the ground.

Roxburghe Ballads
17th century

Goswell Road

Goswell Road runs north from Aldersgate Street. It is in the London Borough of Islington - the part which was formerly the Borough of Finsbury. You can still see the old Borough of Finsbury street signs.

Originally the whole street from the Barbican northwards was called Goswell Road; but the southernmost bit, in the City ward of Aldersgate Without, is now called Aldersgate Street. It was Goswell Street until 1894 when it became Goswell Road.

The road was named after a nearby garden called 'Goswelle' or 'Goderell' which belonged to Robert Brandon (after whom Brandon House in the Barbican is named). Robert Brandon was son of Lord Ufford. In mediaeval times much of the land in the area was owned by the Ufford family. Robert Ufford's claim to fame was a daring exploit to put the young Edward III on the throne. After the murder of Edward II, the kingdom was in the hands of Roger Mortimer, a prominent baron. The young king and some loyal friends, including Brandon, discovered a secret entrance through an underground passage into the castle yard where he was spending the night. When it was dark, they made their way up to Mortimer’s chambers, struck down the two knights who were guarding the door, and captured Mortimer. Mortimer was hanged and drawn to death as a traitor, and Edward took control of his kingdom. In 1336 or 1337, Brandon was made Earl of Suffolk.