Brutalists or Modernists?

Chamberlin Powell & Bon are called Modernists and/or Brutalists, and criticised for not being enough of one or the other. But these are labels attached by academics after the event. I don’t think Chamberlin Powell and Bon regarded themselves as paid up members of any one party.

There is no doubt that Chamberlin Powell and Bon regarded themselves as followers of the Modernist tendency in architecture, and they were admirers of Le Corbusier. Whenever they were able to do it, they introduced Modernist elements and decorations into the Barbican Estate.

But fundamentally, they were architects following a brief set down by the City, and constrained by financial limits.

The City planners and the pro-residential Barbican faction at the City were also enthusiasts for the latest architectural developments, because their aim was to attract the middle classes, who were assumed to have some appreciation of the latest trends.

But ultimately the Barbican Estate is not a Modernist conception. If anything, it owes much more to historical London features such as the traditional London squares – in fact, Chamberlin Powell & Bon’s 1959 Report to the City said as much. The Le Corbusian elements, such as the penthouse domed windows, are hardly fundamental to the Barbican design. The most iconically Brutalist element – the concrete exterior – was a late amendment. Originally, the buildings were all to be clad in white marble.

Chamberlin Powell and Bon were pragmatic architects, attempting to create the best they could, taking up innovative designs and ideas as they went along, but not fanatical adherents of any one ideology.