Kitchens

“There appears to be a growing interest in better – and greater variety – of cooking which, together with the request for up-to-date equipment and the tendency to entertain without the help of servants, greatly influenced the design of the kitchens in this new residential neighbourhood.

Chamberlin, Powell & Bon, Barbican Redevelopment, April 1959

A study of the space required for working in a Barbican kitchen. Chamberlin Powell and Bon’s 1959 report to the City Corporation.

When is a kitchen not a kitchen?

Chamberlin Powell & Bon, the architects, decided that kitchens should be placed at the rear of the flats (and be window-less) so that the available window space would be reserved for the living area and bedrooms. This had been the settled arrangement since the detailed plan was drawn up in 1959; the whole layout of flats depended on it.

In 1963 this ran into a technical problem. The London County Council had recently passed bye-laws requiring all kitchens to have windows or equivalent ventilation. Many of the Barbican kitchens did not have ventilation. A deal was struck. What had previously been called kitchens, were instead renamed as ‘cooking areas’ and part of the living room, for the purpose of the regulations, and so they were approved by the London County Council.

Seeking the most effective design

Chamberlin Powell & Bon, the architects, wanted to make the design of the kitchens as efficient and space-saving as possible. They figured that the one place where space for a kitchen was always at a premium was on board a boat, so to solve the problem, they brought in Brooke Marine, a firm of yacht designers. A full-size mock-up of a kitchen was erected by the Gas Council, Watson House Research Centre, and was tested by going through the motions of preparing several different kinds of meals.

The result was a standardised design, which would be cost-effective to install in all different shapes and sizes of flats.

“The proposed design is based on a simple plan with the equipment laid out on a standard pattern which is identical in all dwellings; the number of standard storage units, however, is variable and can be adapted in accordance with the size of the dwelling.”

They obtained the opinion of experts on household management, cooking equipment and storage fitments. This resulted in the proposed layout incorporating “a number of less familiar features” such as eye-level ovens and grills, and in-line boiling rings.

Fibreglass units

They looked for the most suitable materials and finishes for easy cleaning and minimal maintenance. One of the conclusions was that economical storage cupboards could be made in fibreglass, which was easy to clean and would not require decoration or maintenance.

The plan for the standard kitchen

This is how Chamberlin Powell and Bon described the kitchen design which had emerged from the testing at Watson House Research Centre in their 1959 report to the Court of Common Council on the detailed plans for the estate.

Storing food. There are two parallel ranges of fittings; one side for cooking, preparing and washing up, on the other side for storage of food and utensils and serving up. Food is stored in a large ventilated cupboard and a 3 cubic foot refrigerator, with separate cupboards for fruit and vegetables; the exception being the groceries needed close to the cooking equipment.

Storing equipment and utensils. In general, these are stored in shallow cupboards over the worktop on which they are normally used, pans, tins and trays under or over the cooker; dishes and bowls, knives and tools above the preparation area; crockery and glass above the serving top.

Preparing food. Sink, bench top and cooker are all in sequence and very close together. The mock-up and the test meals proved the real value of this arrangement.

Cooking the food. Both the oven and the grill are placed at eye-level to allow easy inspection during cooking as well as easy cleaning. The boiling rings set into stainless steel or enamel plates are arranged in line along the back of the worktop. This allows food to be prepared in front of the pots and put in the pot without moving. Pots are easy to move on or off the rings and there is no danger of knocking against handles. Furthermore, the length of top in front of the boilers can be used for stacking dirty crockery.

Serving the food. Food, when cooked, is transferred to the serving top immediately opposite with the crockery stored above and cutlery below. There is space for storing trays and trolleys under this top. The door to the dining room is nearby, and in many cases, there is a hatch through.

Washing up. Crockery and utensils are piled on a 5-foot long top extending to the double sink unit of stainless steel, which provides the rinsing and the disposal of refuse, food, soft waste, cartons, bottles, etc, through the Garchey equipment.

Fuel for cooking

Chamberlin Powell and Bon considered whether gas should be supplied as well as electricity for cooking and they reported on the options to the Court of Common Council in their 1959 report.  They acknowledged the system recommended for space and water heating were both electric, and that there was therefor an incentive, for reasons of technical simplicity and economy and installation, to provide only electric connections for cooking. They also acknowledged that the problems of fume and steam extraction would be more severe in the case of gas, though these could be minimised by the installation of mechanical ventilation.

But they concluded that offering tenants a choice of fuel to suit their personal tastes was the most important consideration in their view, and they recommended that all kitchens should be provided with connections for both electricity and gas.

The City decided that the financial and technical benefits of sticking to electricity alone were the more important factors, and so gas was not supplied to Barbican flats.

Other features

In most flats a small thermostatically-controlled electric water heater supplies the kitchen sink. (Studio flats don’t have a separate kitchen boiler). The heaters hold 68 or 136 litres of water and have a 3kW heating element. The thermostat is set to limit the water temperature to approximately 140°F (62°C) but this can be varied. When the supply runs cold, it takes 20 minutes to heat up again.

Apparently, it is normal for the kitchen hot water tap to drip for a short time after use. This is due to the plumbing method used and does not indicate that the tap needs a new washer. (Likely story!)

Fluorescent lights

Some original kitchens have 8 foot fluorescent tubes above the work tops. These are apparently very difficult to obtain now. Any replacement needs to be a 125 watt tube – a 100 watt tube won’t work. The Barbican Estate Office suggest getting an electrician to fit two 4-foot T8 x 36 watt tubes with new water proof holders. (I don’t quite see how a 125 watt tube can be replaced by a 36 watt tube, so I suggest you double-check this before proceeding.)

Position of the kitchens

Chamberlin Powell and Bon wanted to ensure that all window space in the flats would provide daylight for living rooms and bedrooms. They did not want to share it with kitchens or bathrooms. Those rooms do not have windows. In terrace flats they are either in the middle of the flats (in east-west facing blocks) or behind the living rooms (in north-south facing flats). In tower flats, the kitchens and bathrooms are next to the central core, which is convenient for the connection of services.

“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 and Bon’s 1959 report)

Servants

I am intrigued by the reference in the quotation at the start of this page about “the tendency to entertain without the help of servants”. I must say that I thought the idea of servants had disappeared as part of the social changes after the 1914-1918 War, and were hardly a feature of life – except for the Queen – in 1959. To give you a further flavour of the times, this is another explanation in the 1959 report about contemporary life in the kitchen as understood by Chamberlin Powell and Bon. (Servants get another mention.)

“The kitchens in these flats should be equally suitable for a housewife who wishes to cook regular meals, professional women – or bachelors – who might use it as a workshop to provide occasional meals as quickly – and economically – as possible, therefore, the considerable number of businesses and professional people who consider occasional cooking for themselves or guests to be an enjoyable activity. Both the shortage of servants and the high cost of floor space in central areas, as well as the great technical progress in the last 30 years have greatly influenced the kitchen planning and design of equipment, particularly in Europe and the USA, and it is only reasonable to expect that similar standards will be required in this country in the not too distant future, particularly where middle and upper income groups are concerned. There appears to be a growing interest in better – and greater variety – of cooking which, together with the request for up-to-date equipment and the tendency to entertain without the help of servants, greatly influenced the design of the kitchens in this new residential neighbourhood.”