The 1959 Scheme for the Barbican Estate

“… it only rarely happens in the centre of an old city that a large and clear intention coincides with a large and clear site.”

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

In April 1959 Chamberlin Powell and Bon wrote a comprehensive and detailed report to the City Corporation. It was the basis on which the Barbican development went ahead. They produced it in the form of a lavish hardback with photos, design drawings, and plans. The City Corporation had not asked for anything like that – only a report – and they only paid for the cost of producing and publishing it very reluctantly. Of course, it was an immensely persuasive promotional device for Chamberlin Powell and Bon. Throughout all the report writing (1955, 1956, 1958, and 1959 – and many supplemental reports on particular subjects) Chamberlin Powell and Bon had no security. It was their scheme, but the City did not have to accept it. And if they did accept it, they were under absolutely no obligation to Chamberlin Powell and Bon to employ them to supervise the building of it. Only in 1960 were they confirmed officially as the architects for the project.

Summary of main items

These are the main points in the 1959 report (relevant to the Barbican residential estate) and the main differences from the earlier proposals

  • The architects were again required to consider both the South and North Barbican areas.
  • The City of London School had been dropped. They would stay where they already were on the Embankment.
  • Due to conditions on planning permission imposed by the London County Council, the resident population could only be 230 individuals per acre, not the 300 the City had been hoping for.
  • Amenity open space had to be provided at 1.5 acres per 1000 population. This was another requirement by the LCC.
  • A system of high-walks must be created and integrated with those in the neighbouring commercial area.
  • The City Engineer was insisting on a north-south road through the centre of the estate, which the architects proposed should be in a concrete box.
  • There was no longer a pyramid.
  • There was a much more highly developed Barbican Arts Centre.
  • They would adopt the Garchey refuse disposal system.
  • The walls of the blocks would be faced with small-scale white marble blocks with riven faces, the columns would be in coloured polished concrete, and the towers would have an external latticework framework.

Fortunately, the worst ideas – forced on them I am sure – they managed to get dropped before the estate was built. I mean the boxed-in road, the coloured polished concrete, the little marble blocks, and the latticework tower framework. You can only imagine what our estate would be like now if those ideas had prevailed.

What Chamberlin Powell and Bon have to say

I have used most of what they had to say in pages on individual topics. So I am merely going to leave it to Chamberlin Powell and Bon to have their say, by quoting their conclusion passage in full. And may I say this for myself personally. Annoying as their frequent purple passages, overlong sentences, excessive use of semi-colons and dashes become when you read their entire reports, I do not begrudge them one word or punctuation mark in this paean of enthusiasm for the estate they brilliantly dreamt and then saw through to creation.

“This scheme for the creation of a new residential neighbourhood extending over some 35 acres of war devastated City land is a form of development which has come to be known as comprehensive during the past decade. Instead of replacing old buildings with new ones, erected within the former property boundaries and conforming with the old pattern of streets, the whole area has been acquired by the City Corporation so that these arbitrary divisions will not have an inhibiting influence on the new layout.

Many different but overlapping requirements have to be met in order to create conditions fit to live in for an urban community. As well as privacy for the individual and the family to talk, read, eat, cook, sleep and wash in favourable circumstances, a place is needed to store numerous possessions from clothes to cars; there must be some way to shop or eat out; schools should be reasonably accessible; and, in general, the environment ought to provide recreation for the body, stimulation for the mind and refreshment for the spirit.

To bear in mind all these needs while considering the potentialities of the large, barren site and its surroundings presents a most complex but challenging opportunity; for it only rarely happens in the centre of an old city that a large and clear intention coincides with a large and clear site. This unique opportunity makes it highly desirable to take a long view if the many conflicts of interest are to be held in perspective. In some ways the very scale of the project makes it practicable to seek radical, yet essentially straightforward, solutions to problems which – if considered in isolation – might appear intractable. For example, the open railway – cutting like a scar through the site – can be straightened out and enclosed in a single, continuous engineering operation; by separating road from the foot traffic on different levels, both motorists and pedestrians will benefit and the neighbourhood will become a precinct although traffic routes will be unimpeded; by concentrating flats in compact blocks and disposing these sympathetically about the site, good orientation and wide-open spaces are reconcilable with high density; the arts centre, the recreation buildings and the girls school are all integrated with the general layout so that they benefit greatly from the setting to which they contribute so much.

The podium, rising gradually in terraces from the landscaped gardens, the strongly horizontal blocks of flats poised above, and the lofty traceried towers, are composed in a way calculated to bring delight to those who live there, to the students of the schools, and to the many nearby office workers who will move about the new neighbourhood during daytime and evening. The whole will, we believe, transcend its many parts and thus will parallel the intention of the Corporation which is not merely to bring about the reconstruction of a number of buildings, serving several functions, but, beyond this, to bring back Londoners to the City so that they may again make their homes near to where they work – as they have done for centuries.”