The Holden-Holford plan for the Barbican area

In 1944 the City’s Improvements and Town Planning Committee produced a report written by F. J. Forty, the City Engineer which advocated restoring the City much as it had been before the devastation from bombing during the War. The Improvements and Town Planning Committee probably represented the interests of entrenched interests – the land owners of the City – who wanted to get the City back to business as it had been before the War, and who had little enthusiasm for the visionary ambitions of the London County Council architects department.  But the Forty plan was heavily criticised, and William Morrison, the Minister of Town & Country Planning put considerable pressure on the City to appoint new and more progressive planning consultants. The architect Charles Holden was approached, and he accepted provided that the prominent town planner William Holford also be appointed.

Charles Henry Holden was best known, up to that point, as the designer of many London Underground stations during the 1920s and 1930s and for the University of London’s Senate House.

Lord William Graham Holford was more of a professional town planner. In fact, in 1948 he succeeded Patrick Abercrombie (of the Abercrombie Plan) as professor of town planning at University College. Holford’s main claim to fame nowadays is an unfortunate one. He produced a redevelopment plan of the area around St Paul’s Cathedral in London which had been devastated by bombing in the War. That led to the infamously grim Paternoster Square development near St Paul’s (now long replaced with something better). He probably should not be blamed for the buildings themselves which other architects designed.

Holden played a relatively small role in the City of London plan; his main concern as an architect was the architectural setting of St Paul’s. Holford did most of the work on the wider planning issues with a small team of planning experts.

An interim report was produced in 1946. The final report called ‘City of London Plan’ was presented to the Court of Common Council in 1947 and was accepted by the City Corporation.

Their proposal was that the City should aim to restore the same amount of floor space overall as had existed before the War. If the City grandees had been worried that they would support Abercrombie’s proposals for decentralising business, this must have been music to their ears. This was what the Forty Plan had clumsily tried to achieve.

Holden and Holford’s innovation was to find a way to avoid the pre-War congestion resulting from a huge daily influx of workers. So they proposed extensive road construction to reduce congestion. In particular they proposed creating a northern traffic bypass for the City. This was built and became London Wall. (In documentation of the time – and in much of the discusssion of the Barbican estate project – the proposed new road is referred to as ‘Route 11’.) They were also advocates of the idea of separating traffic and pedestrians which was very much in vogue in planning circles in the 1940s and ’50s.

Holden and Holford’s ambition was to create a city of offices and precincts along American lines instead of the small buildings and crowded streets of the pre-war City.

In place of Forty’s attempt to simply rebuild on the scale which had existed before the war, Holden and Holford’s report proposed that permission should be granted for new buildings which would be much higher than anything seen in the City before the war – as high as 36.5 metres. (However, they were sensitive to creating and maintaining views and vistas across the City, so buildings of the maximum height were only to be allowed in the east, away from St Paul’s.) Allowing some very tall buildings, would give far more flexibility to the overall reconstruction of the City.

They introduced the idea of plot ratios as a way of regulating the size of new buildings. The ratio they proposed for the City was 5:1. (If the plot size was 10,000 square feet, the new building could have total floor space of 50,000 square feet.) The ratio was slightly higher round the Bank of England at 5.5:1. They also advocated ‘daylighting’ controls on new developments to ensure that the windows of new office buildings would have plenty of daylight.

They recommended that they City should compulsorily purchase the most bomb-damaged areas such as the Barbican and this was going to be called the ‘declaratory area’.

This Holden and Holford report went down well with vested City interests – the businessmen and land owners – because it fulfilled the ambition to restore a thriving businesses environment – but did so while also fulfilling at least some of the requirements of the progressive planners in the London County Council and the Ministry of Town Planning at the time. The report was enthusiastically adopted by the City Corporation and was incorporated into the City Development Plan of 1951.

Holford was knighted in 1953 and given a life peerage in 1965.