The towers in the Barbican Estate

“Lastly the three high towers rising up into the sky will give dramatic contrast to the otherwise horizontal treatment of the buildings and, by their distinctive form and relationship to each other, will both mark the change of axis at ground level and give identity to the neighbourhood from afar.”

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

“They have wild and wilful top features and jagged balconies passing between the inner and outer uprights of the external framing.”

“The Buildings of England” Nikolaus Pevsner and Simon Bradley

Artist’s impression of life in a Barbican tower flat for Chamberlin Powell and Bon’s 1959 report to the City Corporation.

The towers got taller and changed shape as the Barbican project developed. Chamberlin Powell and Bon’s 1956 report proposed three square towers of 30 storeys. Their 1959 report proposed 37-storey polygonal towers. The decision to build towers 43 and 44 storeys in height was finally made in 1961.

The increased number of storeys and therefore number of flats in towers was to accommodate the London County Council’s requirement (as planning authority for the scheme) that the resident population had to be at a density no higher than 230 persons per acre. To achieve that, while keeping the same number of flats as originally proposed, meant building higher. The City required the development to produce a financial return. Chamberlin Powell and Bon’s plans had assumed income from 2,000 or more flats but they had laid out the flats on the basis of 300 persons per acre. In light of the LCC’s planning requirements, the City was not prepared to sacrifice flats (and income) and so they resolved to squeeze more residents onto smaller base plots by building higher. The final increase in height in 1961 to 42 and 43 storeys was occasioned by a proposed expansion of the Barbican Centre complex which was going to cause the loss of flats in that area.

Towers first appeared in Chamberlin Powell and Bon’s 1956 proposal for the residential development of the Barbican. Their first proposal in 1955 concentrated on closely packed courtyards of low buildings. But in their 1956 proposal they went in the opposite direction entirely and proposed a total of five towers. Three of these – called buildings VI, VII, and VIII – survived through to the final plans and were built as Lauderdale, Shakespeare and Cromwell Towers. Between 1956 and 1961 these planned towers grew in height from 30 to 43 and 44 storeys. The architects also proposed two additional, shorter, towers only 16 storeys high in the North Barbican to form a family with Great Arthur House, the 16-storey block in the Golden Lane Estate. These smaller towers were not built.

The proposed main three towers were to be “three slim towers”. The architectural idea behind this was that they would complete the series of vertical elements which would surround the central part of their scheme- – the other vertical elements being the “half a dozen commercial blocks similar to each other in form and 200 feet high, which are proposed flanking route 11 [London Wall].” These are the commercial towers proposed in the Martin-Mealand plan for the redevelopment of the City.

The towers which Chamberlin Powell and Bon proposed were not going to look like the iconic towers with their jutting balconies, which we have today – that wasn’t what was originally intended at all. The architects originally designed slim inoffensive towers and referred to the “light appearance of the towers” and even poetically called them “traceried towers”. The towers were originally not even going to be bare concrete. They were going to be covered in external framing in the form of a triangular “latticework of polished concrete”.

The design of the towers underwent changes after the original plan in 1959. An irregular roof line, triangular projecting balconies, and vertical structural members were introduced to the design. Among the buildings which influenced this design was the Price Tower designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1953 to 1955 which Peter Chamberlin visited in the early 1960s.

The greatest influence on the change in appearance of the towers was the work of Ove Arup, the structural engineers, whose structural report in 1959 necessitated many changes in style for the towers. Because the towers were to be built in concrete not metal-framed Ove Arup recommended external framing and beams, which became an architectural feature as jutting parapets. The curved forms of the balconies reduce wind resistance.

The towers’ height (above podium level) is 43 storeys in the case of Cromwell Tower and 44 storeys in the case of Lauderdale and Shakespeare Towers. They look triangular but, strictly speaking, they are polygonal. They are all much the same internally. Leaving aside the penthouses at the top of each tower, each floor houses three flats – one flat to a side, more or less.

“Each block is designed with an individual structure and arrangement of walls, services, et cetera, although the aspect of the flats would, of course, be different dependent upon the axis of a particular block relative to the points of the compass. In all cases, however, the large living rooms are planned in the corners of the towers so that – irrespective of the placing of these on-site – each living room has a dual aspect which ensures the entry of sunlight during a large part of the day. In order that living rooms, dining rooms and bedrooms should have the benefit of the maximum external wall area, kitchens and bathrooms are concentrated in the centre of these blocks; these service rooms are ventilated by extract ducts, which run up the core of the building. This concentration of drainage and service ducts in the centre of the blocks is both practical and economic.”

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

The towers roughly run along the line of Beech Street and also roughly divide the north from the south Barbican areas. Lauderdale is solidly in the south area. Shakespeare has entrances from the south Barbican podium and the north Barbican podium (effectively a floor up). Cromwell can be accessed from the north Barbican podium and from real street level.

The basements contain tenants stores, main water storage tanks and rooms for mechanical and electrical equipment.

Each tower has three passenger lifts from a central lobby so that the residents have a choice of three lifts, or more importantly there is a reduced risk of being stranded by an out-of-order lift.

Particularly striking is the quirky detail of the tops of the towers, which became more dramatic over the years of design.