Flexible flat design in the Barbican Estate

“Wherever possible, flats, maisonnettes and houses are planned to catch the sun during at least part of the day. They are also designed so that they enjoy a good prospect from the living room windows ….. Bathrooms and – particularly in this estate – kitchens are in use during only a short part of the day (much of which is, in any case, after dark) so that it is no great drawback for these rooms to depend on artificial light.”

Chamberlin, Powell & Bon, Architects “Barbican Redevelopment” April 1959

That was the principle on which the kitchens were designed.

The towers blocks have three sides and each flat takes up a corner and one side. The living rooms and bedrooms monopolise the window side of the flat. (The living room is on the corner where it benefits from windows on two sides.) The kitchen and the bathrooms are on the inner side of the flat.

In those terrace blocks where each flat backs onto a central corridor, the kitchen and the bathroom are at the back nearest the corridor, so that the living room and bedrooms have the windows at the front. In those terrace blocks where each flat runs from front to back, the kitchen and bathroom are in the middle, with living rooms and bedrooms at each end.

But Chamberlin, Powell & Bon had no intention of imposing their preconceptions of how people would use their flats. They intended to make the design as flexible as possible:

“Different occupants may use a particular room as a bedroom, or a dining room separate from the living room, or a study, or a dressing room. Some of the flats are planned with the rooms en suite separated only by sliding or folding screens; this provides the advantage of privacy when required with the opportunity to open one room into another so that the maximum use of space may be enjoyed. The high cost of building is a strong incentive to design individual rooms smaller in size than people of the middle and upper income groups would like. In most of the flat plans we have sought a compromise by providing at least a living room which is reasonably large in its overall dimensions, while the other rooms are fairly modest in size. This, we think, should meet the demand for spaciousness in that part of the flat where people meet socially while the other rooms are quite adequate to serve as private retreats for individuals. We consider that most of the bedrooms should be designed to be furnishable primarily as sitting rooms in which there is – almost incidentally – a bed. This helps to make it possible for members of a family of different ages and with different tastes to live comfortably with one another; thus conversation can be carried on in one room, somebody may watch television in another, while in a third room yet another member of the family may read a book without distraction.”

People in the 1950s and 60s were obviously accustomed to living in much more cramped surroundings than we would expect today.