Landscaping in the Barbican Estate

“The careful detailing of the hard and soft surfaces of the open spaces will add point to their form and contribute greatly to the delight of the scheme for those who are to live there.”

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

These are explanations from Chamberlin Powell and Bon in their 1959 report to the City Corporation about what they were seeking to achieve with the garden and lake areas in the proposed Barbican estate.

“The continuity of paved terraces extending under buildings, and the areas of planting or water which link and define the open spaces, make a significant contribution to the unity of the whole; the careful detailing of the hard and soft surfaces of the open spaces will add point to their form and contribute greatly to the delight of the scheme for those who are to live there.”

The gardens were intended to be quite formal. Chamberlin Powell and Bon say in the quote below that formal planting would be confined to the defined areas within the podium, but the layout of terrace buildings in strict rectangular configurations also imposed a formality on the entire layout.

“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. Formal gardening is restricted to the podium and the small, sunken, enclosed courts, where the pattern of planting can be appreciated by pedestrians moving about on a higher level.”

It was important that the garden areas should look good before any flats were completed, so as to make it easier to let flats in completed blocks while other blocks were still under construction. Chamberlin Powell and Bon recommended that mature trees up to 30 feet high should be selected to be transplanted to the gardens, and these would need to be prepared three years in advance. They explained:

“Stocks of suitable trees are very limited, and it would be as well to order trees of 30 feet high and allow for a three year cycle of preparation by root pruning before moving. If this is done, there should be no difficulty in completing the landscape work entirely before the tenants move in and thus create an appearance of some maturity.”

Chamberlin Powell and Bon must have consulted garden experts, because they gave very specific and detailed advice on precisely which trees would provide the best results.

First, they gave a list of recommended trees divided between large trees “which are invaluable as a foil to buildings” and small trees “which are useful to give enclosure of space and for the detailed value of flowers and leaf at lower level”.

Large trees
Acacia (Robinia)
Horse Chestnut
Lime (Tilia euchlora)
Silver Maple
London Plane
Norway Maple

Medium and small trees
Crab (malus floribunda)
Willow-leaf Pear
Stags-horn Sumach
Snowy Mespilus

These were the reasons they gave for their choices.

  • Horse Chestnut, London Plane, Silver Maple and Norway Maple are recommended for size and stature.
  • The plane can hardly be bettered for urban conditions.
  • For solidity of planting, the Chestnut and Norway Maple are excellent in contrast to the Plane. The Silver Maple is a beautiful tree with fine autumn colour.
  • The Ailanthus, Ash, and Acacia are all chiefly valuable for their fine branch and twig pattern and delicate divided leaf forms.
  • For flowers and bold leaf form, the Catalpa and Paulownia are especially fine.
  • Medium and small trees such as the Whitebeam, Willow-leaf Pear, and the Sumach all have interesting leaves for decorative value and interest at lower level. The Sumach in particular has magnificent autumn colour.
  • The Holly and Yew provide darker colour contrast of leaf and density of foliage which can be used to good effect.
  • Of the smaller trees which flower, the Crab, the Hawthorn and the Snowy Mespilus are amongst the best.