The road in a box

“A dual carriageway planned in 1959 to run north-south in a concrete box across the middle was fortunately abandoned.”

The Buildings of England” Nikolaus Pevsner and Simon Bradley

We have a road in tunnel and it’s called Beech Street. Beech Street runs roughly east-west. But when the designs for the Barbican estate were being finalised, the City Corporation wanted another enclosed road to run roughly north-south starting at Golden Lane, following the historic route of Redcross Street, and emerging at Fore Street close to London Wall. Chamberlin, Powell and Bon didn’t sound over-enthusiastic when they said in their 1959 report:

“To make a virtue out of necessity, therefore, we have designed the road within its immediate surroundings in such a way that it becomes a feature in the landscape and an element in the total composition.”

What they meant was they had been forced to stick a great concrete stake through the heart of the Barbican project but they were gritting their teeth and making the best of it. All the images with the 1959 report show this concrete box running diagonally across the proposed shape of the Barbican estate.

As you might expect, Chamberlin Powell and Bon had recommended that all traffic should be diverted round the new estate.

But Francis J Forty, the City Engineer, advised against this. He insisted that a more direct north to south link was needed. Forty had been a sworn enemy of a residential solution for rebuilding the bombed Barbican area from the start. Back in 1944 he had prepared the ‘Forty plan’ in response to the London County Council’s Holden-Holford plan. This was an effort by the City establishment to rebuild the City as it had been before the War, seemingly serving only the interests of city businesses and property owners and taking no account of the wider public interest. The Ministry of Housing and Local Government accused the plan of “waiting for developers to shape the city instead of planning for them”. So Forty, who was still in post, must have delighted in aiming a road right across the new estate.

Chamberlin Powell and Bon again:

“We were, therefore, faced with the dilemma of having to reconcile the requirement of the traffic route on the one hand with the need to create a quite traffic free precinct on the other.”

They said they considered recommending routing the north-south road under the Barbican development, but that proved to be impossible because of the levels of the underground railway which the new road would have to go under, and also because of the position of the main London County Council sewer under the site which could not be disturbed. The solution they proposed was to close the existing Redcross and Whitecross Streets which crossed the site north to south and in their place to build a new route linking Golden Lane with Fore Street, roughly along the route of the former Redcross Street. Trying to reduce the impact on the residential estate, they recommended:

“In order that this road should not disturb the precinctual character of the residential layout, it must be enclosed with walls and roof.”

In a way this episode shows Chamberlin Powell and Bon at their innovative best – never admitting defeat, always trying to make the best of a bad situation. They designed the roof of the new road as a pedestrian causeway linking the parts of the podium near London Wall with those over Beech Street. To avoid the west and east sides of the new neighbourhood being visually split off from each other, they also proposed clearing the site to the existing basement level and creating a large ornamental lake which would be visible on either side of the causeway.

“This sheet of water, at the lowest point on the site, will appear as a mirror which reflects the form of the enclosed road viaduct and will express the continuity of space, linking the two halves of the development.”

They referred rather optimistically to a similar example of bridges over the Serpentine in Hyde Park, while admitting that there the traffic drivers could at least see out, whereas here they would be enclosed in the new box. But at least the pedestrians on the top of the box would be able to enjoy the lake view.

How the architects must have celebrated when the idea was dropped and they could build the present magnificent pedestrian bridge – below Gilbert House –  across the lake instead (the alternative proposal)!