The dramatic Barbican story

The Barbican we see today is justly celebrated, as are the architects. But there was nothing inevitable about it. The development was only approved, by a whisker, after years of opposition. The construction was blighted by strikes. The City even sued Chamberlin, Powell & Bon, the architects. The Barbican Centre itself went vastly over budget and suffered huge delays. It was a rough ride.

The story starts dramatically. On the night of 29th of December 1940, the Luftwaffe mounted an enormous bombing raid. Incendiary bombs destroyed almost every street and building from Moorgate to Aldersgate Street and from Islington to Guildhall. What to do with this enormous site occupied the minds of the City’s great and good for a decade and a half after the War.

Getting the residential scheme approved against determined opposition

When the City’s planning department produced its blueprint for reconstructing the City in 1947, it was all to be commercial. In fact, the Labour government vetoed a proposal for 275 homes in Bridgwater Square, because the City was felt to be unsuitable for residential use.

Property developers and their financial backers were licking their lips at the prospect of being able to develop this 35 acre site near the heart of the City of London.

In 1954, a pressure group of interested parties, fronted by architects, began lobbying for a commercial development. They called themselves “The New Barbican Committee” – although they had nothing to do with the City of London government itself.  Their proposal, which was called the Kadleigh Plan, was almost embarrassingly self-serving. They wanted permission to build a complex of, warehouses, offices, and even factories, which was to be so densely constructed that the buildings would extend 60 feet below ground, like Fritz Lang’s ‘Metropolis’. They were refused planning permission. They appealed, but the refusal was confirmed by the Ministry of Housing and Local Government.

But another commercial scheme now sprang up, this time from inside the City itself. It was a joint proposal by H A Mealand, the Head of City’s own Planning Department, and Leslie Martin, the Head of Planning at the London County Council. There could hardly have been two more influential authors. Their scheme – which became known as the Martin-Mealand scheme – proposed a series of huge office towers to be built along either side of “Route 11”. (Route 11 was a proposed new road road, the future London Wall.) Any element of housing was going to be tiny.

So far, a commercial development of some kind was the only option on the table. But now a movement in favour of a new residential district emerged. Some of the City councillors were becoming concerned about a potentially fatal political problem. In 1851 the resident population of the parish of St Giles Church had numbered 13,361. By 1951, this number had dropped to 28. This faction was worried that, with almost no residential voters, the Government might take away the City’s right to its own MP. The risk became worse in 1953 when the Government started discussing legislation which would make the continued existence of all local authorities – including the City – depend on the size of its resident electorate. The City were at a loss for an answer. A committee was set up. It reported back to the Court of Common Council – the City’s ruling body – that the resident voter population could only be increased by persuading private developers to construct housing. But they concluded that it would be impossible to persuade any developers to do so, because there just wouldn’t be any demand for living in the City.

The pro-residential faction weren’t going to give up so easily though. They now pushed hard for a full-scale residential development of the Barbican area, and they adamantly opposed the totally commercial focus of the Martin-Mealand scheme. The proponents of the two approaches coalesced around different power centres within the City government. The Martin-Mealand scheme was promoted by the Planning Department where it had originated. The residential scheme was increasingly supported by the equally influential Town Clerk’s Department. The Town Clerk emphasised the need for a resident population (electorate) to justify the continued existence of the City as a local authority. He was given permission to explore the idea. He turned to Chamberlin, Powell and Bon, the architects who were already organising the development of the Golden Lane estate just north of the Barbican area, and he commissioned them to advise on what could be done to substantially increase the resident population.

In mid-1955 Chamberlin, Powell and Bon responded with a proposal for the creation of a residential community of 7,000 people. In October 1955, a conference of various committees in the City was called, supposedly to weigh the relative merits of the Chamberlin, Powell and Bon scheme and the Martin-Mealand scheme. But the conference was a fix – only the Martin Mealand scheme was open for discussion. This provoked Eric Wilkins, the chief advocate of a residential development for the Barbican, to make an impassioned speech to the Court of Common Council, denouncing the Planning Committee, citing the disastrous precinct of St Paul’s Cathedral – now mercifully long-since replaced – as an example of their disastrous decision making. He saw the Martin Mealand scheme as an establishment stitch-up, promoting the interests of private developers. He demanded that the two proposals should be looked at equally.

The crucial meeting of the City’s Court of Common Council took place in November 1955 to decide whether to take the residential proposal further or to drop it. After two hours of arguing, the Lord Mayor, Mr Cuthbert Ackroyd, put the matter to a vote on a show of hands. The vote was lost. One of the residential supporters demanded a formal count. This came out at 69 – 67 in favour of the motion. The Barbican scheme was officially launched! It was only some hours later that it was discovered that, by mistake, three of the tellers – the people counting the votes – had been counted as councillors in favour of the resolution by mistake. In fact, the motion had not passed at all; it had been lost by one vote. But it was too late. The embarrassing fact was hushed up and the residential proposal was allowed to progress to the next stage.

The City committee with principal responsibility for the question of developing the Barbican area was called “the Special Committee”. The Special Committee asked Chamberlin, Powell and Bon to prepare a scheme for the Barbican area but stopping at London Wall. They also asked them to consider a proposal for residential development of an additional 50 acres of land further north which was not included in the Martin-Mealand scheme. Chamberlin, Powell and Bon produced their report in 1956, along with a large scale model. The government also now put its weight behind the residential bandwagon. Duncan Sandys, the Minister of Housing and Local Government, wrote to the Lord Mayor strongly supporting residential development in the City and saying, “I am convinced that there would be advantages in creating in the City a genuine residential neighbourhood, incorporating schools, shops, open spaces and other amenities, even if this means forgoing a more remunerative return on the land.”

However, some factions in the City council still favoured the adoption of the Martin-Mealand scheme rather than any residential development, and Mealand, as City planning officer, but his plan forward for approval. But the Special Committee came down on the side of a residential development. In July 1957 they recommended that the 25 acres south of Beech Street, as far as London Wall (what is now the South Barbican area) should be developed as a residential neighbourhood and should also provide a home for the City of London School for Girls and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. They further recommended that 10 acres north of Beech Street, as far as the Golden Lane estate (what is now the North Barbican) should be considered for inclusion in the development at a later stage. They recommended that the Martin Mealand scheme should go ahead only in the areas outside that residential area – mainly between London Wall and Guildhall. The new residential neigbourhood was not to be a council estate. The Special Committee recommended that the flats should be aimed at middle and higher income groups.

At a meeting in September 1957, the recommendations were all approved by the Court of Common Council, who now set up a new committee specifically to oversee the residential development, called “the Barbican Committee”. It was still only approval of the general idea at this stage. The Council decided that they would still only go ahead with a residential development at all if, after sounding out employers and businesses in the area, there seemed likely to be a demand for flats in the City. It was a revolutionary concept at the time. No one had any idea whether the concept of living in the City would take off at all. The Barbican Estate was always a gamble.

Chamberlin, Powell and Bon were given the go-ahead to propose a more detailed plan. It was still not plain sailing for them. The opposition tried to hoist on them as a consultant one of the leading exponents of an earlier purely commercial scheme. They managed to defeat that. Their 1958 report proposed a series of terraced blocks in squares and three large towers. The plan also included a swimming pool.

The City Corporation still had to obtain permission from the London County Council for any scheme. The LCC granted overall planning permission in June 1958 – but the approval came with major conditions which almost derailed it. They decided that the density of occupation was too great and they insisted on reducing the number of potential residents from  from 300 to 230 persons per acre. They insisted on a lot more open space. And they insisted that the railway which ran from Barbican to Moorgate had to be covered over.

Chamberlin, Powell and Bon went back to the drawing board. In May 1959 they produced their seminal 1959 report. The Barbican Committee put their report forward to the Court of Common Council for approval.

The 1959 report was to be the basis of the estate as it was finally constructed – although not in every detail One of the requirements which Chamberlin, Powell and Bon had been forced to incorporate in their scheme was for a road in a concrete box running north and south through the estate. Mercifully, that was later dropped.

Even at this stage, the City was not convinced about carrying out the development itself. It was seriously considering allowing private companies to do the development. But in the end, it was decided that the overlap between private residential and public areas and facilities was too complicated and that the whole scheme could only be carried out by one party, the City. The Barbican Committee was made responsible for this, reporting back to the Court of Common Council and other relevant committees. (There were separate Library and Music Committees, for example.)

Getting the estate built despite all the odds

In May 1960, Chamberlin, Powell and Bon were finally confirmed as the architects overseeing the construction of the Barbican buildings. They had so far only been engaged to make recommendations. Even in May 1960 the appointment was made with the reservation that other architects could be brought in to design the schools if the relevant committees were not happy with Chamberlin Powell and Bon’s plans. Ove Arup and Partners were appointed as structural engineers.

In 1962, work on the site commenced. McAlpine moved a fleet of tractor shovels onto the Barbican site and cleared all the ruined buildings. The first building to be constructed was “the public services building” (Milton Court – now replaced by the Guildhall School of Music & Drama in Silk Street).

Now the City ran into more problems with the London County Council. The LCC objected to internal kitchens. They had recently passed bye-laws for London requiring all kitchens to have windows or equivalent ventilation.  This was a major problem since the Barbican kitchens had deliberately been designed without windows, except some of the studio flats. A mock up was built in Chamberlin Powell and Bon’s offices in Little Britain in December 1961. Committee members from the LCC and the City were invited to lunch. The dispute was resolved by a typical back-room ‘fudge’. A glazed hatch partition was removed and ‘kitchens’ were renamed ‘cooking areas’ – and part of the living room for the purpose of the regulations. The designs were then passed by the LCC.

The entire development project was allocated between several major building companies. The west side of the South Barbican (Lauderdale Tower, Defoe, Thomas More, and Seddon Houses) went to Turriff. John Laing Construction Limited were assigned Cromwell Tower and the group of terraces around the east end of the lake and garden (Speed, Willoughby, Andrewes, and Gilbert Houses). They also took the Barbican Arts Centre complex. Myton Limited, a subsidiary of Taylor Woodrow, won the contract to construct the buildings in the North Barbican area (all buildings north of Beech Street and the three towers). Sir Robert McAlpine and Sons Limited was awarded the contract to construct one building, Shakespeare Tower.)

The building project was beset with disputes and delays. In 1965, there was a strike at the Turriff site to protest against non-union labour being used. The strike spread when Turriff tried to require workers to sign a declaration that they would never strike, work-to-rule, or refuse to do overtime. Other sites struck in protest and the strike was made official. Turriff backed down.

On the Myton site there was a work to rule by scaffolders over changes to the bonus system. Myton responded by sacking three steelfixers. This caused an all-out strike. The workers agreed to return, but Myton shut the whole site down and gave redundancy notices to the entire workforce.  After six weeks Myton offered to reopen the site and re-employ everyone except the six works committee members who were leading the disputes. The workforce refused. The strike was not backed by the official unions and a court of enquiry found in favour of Myton. The workforce finally gave in and Myton’s Barbican site opened for work again. The six shop stewards who led the struggle remained sacked.

Myton threatened to walk off the Barbican site unless the City paid more money. They claimed the work was far more complex than shown in the documents on which they had based their tender. Again, they issued redundancy notices to their workforce to put pressure on the City. The City agreed to a 25% increase in the contract sum and the redundancy notices were withdrawn.

McAlpine attempted to introduce non-union labour onto their site, but this was successfully defeated by the workforce.

In March 1971, Turriff cut bonus payments to its workforce, blaming the City for falling behind on payments. Disputes commissions found in favour of the workers. The workforce went on strike when Turriff still did not pay the bonuses. The workers returned to work quickly, but there were further issues about bonus payments. In the end, Turriff were allowed to get out of the contract without completing their buildings and they were replaced by John Laing Construction Limited.

The first residential building to be completed was Speed House in July 1969. During the 1970s the residential buildings were gradually completed. The last was Shakespeare Tower, completed in February 1976.

The Barbican Arts Centre

The focus moved on to the Barbican Arts Centre complex. there was a two week all-out strike on the Barbican Centre site because of Laing’s refusal to remove asbestos from the site. They had workers sweeping it up. The Barbican Centre was finally completed by Laing in 1982 – after long delays. The final cost was £159,000,000 – more than ten times the original tender price of £14,000,000. But on a more positive note, when Queen officially opened the Barbican Centre in March 1982 she called it ‘one of the wonders of the modern world’ – and I think that is a fair comment on the entire Barbican develoment.

And the architects?

Was the whole project a triumph for Peter Chamberlin, Geoffry Powell and Christof Bon? You would certainly say so today. But it was probably bitter-sweet for them. The project did not go entirely smoothly. By 1977, persistent water penetration problems were being encountered in the barrel roofs of penthouse flats in the terrace blocks. Ultimately, the City sued Chamberlin, Powell & Bon, although the case was eventually settled without the project being disrupted. The development of the estate and the Arts Centre must have been a terrible strain on the three men. At one point, they had 80 people working under them on the project.

Peter Chamberlin died in 1978, before the Barbican Arts Centre project was completed, and it has been suggested that the stress of it all may have played its part in his early death. But he had lived to see the entire residential estate complete and occupied as a living neighbourhood. They must all have been very proud of what they achieved. So many other architects of the period failed to see their dreams made real. Peter Chamberlin, Geoffry Powell and Christof Bon have certainly achieved well-deserved, lasting fame.