London squares

“The long terrace blocks are grouped in meandering ‘U’ and ‘Z’ shapes on plan each enclosing, or otherwise defining, certain parts of the layout. … The areas of the site partially enclosed by these long terraces are comparable in scale to some of the familiar London squares.”

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

The positioning of terrace blocks at right-angles to each other, was a deliberate imitation of residential squares in Chelsea, Kensington and Bloomsbury (whose inhabitants might be rather surprised by the comparison).

This is how Chamberlin, Powell & Bon put it:

“The architectural scale of the scheme, therefore progresses in three stages from the modest and often intimate layer at ground level, through the larger scale of the higher layer of long terrace terraces, reminiscent of the London squares, to the strong vertical dimension expressed by the towers. Throughout, a principal aim in the design has been to create an appearance of clarity without monotony.”

The architects described how they designed the South Barbican area with London squares in mind:

“The principal open spaces enclosed by the long terraces of building south of Barbican are laid out on a large scale with grass, forest trees and water gardening, as is familiar in the London parks and squares.”

You may think that the layout of the terrace blocks in the Barbican estate is not particularly like London squares, but London squares are often anything but square. They were usually long runs of terraces built in parallel or at right angles to each other on a street grid which is roughly rectangular. They appear to be a cohesive unit partly because they were designed to be, but mainly because they were built by one developer who stuck to one design for economy. What you often have is two or three terraces joined at rectangles and one terrace on the other side of a road through the area.

The Barbican repeats this plan fairly literally. Defoe House, which is a terrace standing entirely on its own, is an exception in the Barbican not the rule. Almost every other terrace is linked to a neighbour. John Trundle Court, Bunyan Court and Bryer Court form the closest thing to the traditional view of a London Square with their own semi-private garden in the middle (although Bryer Court is not physically joined to the others). These are an example of the U- shape, mentioned by Chamberlin Powell & Bon above. An example of the Z-shape is the group of Seddon, Thomas More and Mountjoy Houses.

Defoe House, Lambert Jones Mews, Thomas More House and the west wing of the Girls’ School form a complete rectangle round Thomas More Garden, which conforms even more to the spirit of the Victorian square by having the central garden as a private preserve of the residents.

Beyond the Barbican Arts Centre, Speed House, Brandon Mews, Andrewes House and Gilbert House form a looser enclosure, but still with Speed Garden and the lakeside reserved for residents only.

The two examples of a “Z” formation are the combination of Seddon House, Thomas More House and Mountjoy House, which are physically joined, and the group of Wallside and Postern (also physically joined) positioned next to Andrewes House.

The same idea affected the layout round St GIles’ Church. The architects said:

“The City of London School for Girls and the row of terraced houses south of the remains of the Roman wall [Wallside] are linked by the podia in such a way as to enclose a small square round St Giles’ Church”.

The same design concept of referencing London squares was employed in the North Barbican as well. The group of John Trundle, Bunyan and Bryer Courts together form three sides of a square and enclose a lovely secluded garden in the centre with its own little fountain, as well as the tiny lake in front of Bryer Court. Someone put an awful lot of design thought into the details of this miniature gem. This group is also perhaps the most obvious example of a “U” configuration of individual terraces.

Ben Jonson House and Breton House are exceptions to the “U” and “Z” layouts, but they are still joined together at right angles as a “T” to form enclosures on each side similar in effect to the rest of the terrace layout.

This was how Chamberlin Powell and Bon explained the delicate balancing act they were hoping to pull off:

“The foreground is designed as a sequence of open spaces, leading out of each other; in their overall dimensions, in the variety of their form and in their detailed treatment they are calculated to be in scale with – and pleasing to – the people moving about them. Thus, these spaces will not be so open that their form cannot be grasped or so confined that the adjacent areas cannot be sensed.”