Shops, pubs, and restaurants

“North of this sunken square is a semi-circle of shops below the crescent-shaped block of flats approached by steps in the form of an amphitheatre.”

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

At the time of writing, there is just one ‘general provisions’ type shop for residents, next to Lauderdale Tower. Round the other side of Lauderdale Tower is “Cissors Palace”, a hair salon. There is a large music shop in the side of Cromwell Tower facing out into Silk Street, and therefore not really part of the residential estate, which presumably survives on trade from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

But it was never intended to be thus. Chamberlin Powell and Bon’s 1955 report to the City on a prospective residential neighbourhood for the Barbican stated:

“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.

The 1956 version of the scheme was less ambitious – but only by a little. There was to be a paved courtyard opening onto Aldersgate Street, containing 16 shops. Ten of the shops were to be in a terrace, and the other six shops were to be grouped in pairs centrally in the courtyard. It proposed three public houses not six, but there was to be an extensive beer garden for “outdoor refreshment” close to what would be Cromwell Tower.

The reason for the reduction of shops was that the City Corporation required the architects to make provision for the City of London School for Girls, and the City of London School (for boys) to the estate. Chamberlin Powell and Bon concluded that, since the introduction of the schools into the equation meant that more space had to be allocated to them, that would require a reduction in the planned number of shops.

The reason for all those shops in the first place was financial. The City Corporation were not proposing to construct the Barbican estate as an act of public generosity. It was always mean to pay its way. Chamberlin Powell and Bon had concluded in their 1955 report that the rent from all the projected flats and from the shops would bring a profit from the development. (The rather hopeful theory was that 7000 residents would be enough to make the 60 shops profitable, and the shops would encourage people to come to the City to rent flat, who would spend money in the shops …). Now they concluded that the development would not make a profit but it should still at least about break even.

In the final 1959 scheme there was still an ambition for plenty of shops within the scheme.

“”The shops are planned below the crescent-shaped block of flats on the podium, virtually at the centre of gravity of the scheme as a whole. They are set back behind the covered pavement and have a clear height of 18 feet. The lower level can be used for storage or as a sales area and has direct access to road service.”

Barbican was to have its own shopping mall. You may walk along the crescent-shaped covered walkway under Frobisher Crescent to get from one side of the Barbican to the other, but you won’t see any shops. This underground pedestrian way was intended to be lined with shops full of bustling Barbican residents elbowing each other aside to get the best sales bargains. The only trouble was that no one wanted the shops. The space is now offices for the Barbican Arts Centre and workshops for the Barbican Estate Office.

In addition, there were to be small shops – a newsagent, a ‘confectionery’, and a small grocer’s shop – on the podium under Willoughby House. They are now offices.

There was to be a restaurant, at the base of Lauderdale Tower (roughly where the Barbican Estate Office is today) with a bar and a flower shop next to it. During the summer there were to be restaurant tables out on the forecourt. (Since the winds around Lauderdale Tower are capable of blowing away a small car, one can only imagine what it would have done to tablecloths and light suppers.)

None of these saw the light of day.

Space was allocated for three pubs in the North Barbican area, but those plans were dropped, as was the plan for a quite massive pub under Cromwell Tower, opposite the brewery, which  was going to be on three levels, from street level up to podium level. However, one solitary pub – the Crowder’s Well – was constructed near St Giles Church, with one level opening onto Fore Street, and the other onto St Giles Churchyard. This traded for several decades. But with the change in popular taste going against pubs, this has now been turned into a restaurant and wine bar.

A wine bar was created under Shakespeare Tower. The last version was called Xanxos. But this also dried up from lack of Barbican trade, and is now an office.

When the estate was built, it was in a desert as far as food and drink were concerned. Smithfield and Clerkenwell were still Dickensian. But even then it was clear that residents would tend to go outside for their shopping and eating. It soon became clear also that non-residents don’t venture in unless they’re on their way to the Barbican Centre for a concert. In fact, probably the only such establishments which can work in the Barbican are those which serve the visiting public in the Barbican Centre.

Even the projections for restaurants in the Barbican Centre had to be cut back considerably when it was built. The original plans included the restaurant areas we have. But they also included a restaurant between the Conservatory and the Art Gallery, and a private restaurant for staff of the Royal Shakespeare company, the London Symphony Orchestra, and students at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. The first was never built; the second was built but as a restaurant bar for the public not for internal use.