Barbican: Penthouse Over the City by David Heathcote

Most of the book is a detailed look at the various stages of planning the Barbican went through — a lot of local politics, which can get tedious if you’re more interested in the buildings themselves. But this is all good background info, and while I’d have liked more details about the finished estate, buildings, flats, fittings and culture it’s recommended if you happen to be fascinated by the peculiar place that is the Barbican.

29-30 It’s remarkable the project happened given the austerity of the 1950s.

30 The architects, Chamberlin, Powell and Bon (CP&B), were inexperienced, only just stopped teaching at Kingston, when they started on Barbican work. Between 1954 and 1968 they drew up four complete plans, which were then modified later.

33-38 “A living space that was English but also European in its ambience and American in its use of technology.”

1. Reconstruction

41 Barbican was planned seven times between 1954 and 1968.

41-43 Bressy and Lutyens planned a grand Imperial city in the 1930s, published as London Replanned in 1942. A very planned city.

43 The London County Council’s (LCC) County of London Plan and Greater London Plan by Abercrombie and Forshaw, 1943 and 1944 respectively. Satellite towns, reduced housing density in reconstructed London. The City would have only essential workers living there.

47 “Precincts” became the building block of reconstruction — a cross between Italian piazzas and US city blocks. Mainly pedestrian — separation of people and traffic.

48 City of London Reconstruction Plan, 1947, Holford and Holden for LCC. City would house only essential workers. Markets and docks would be moved further out, service industries encouraged. A road and Underground around the City was planned — parts of City Road and Lower Thames Street were the only parts finished. A highway called Route 11 was planned from Whitechapel to Holborn — London Wall is the only finished part. Large office complexes would replace small Victorian sites.

51 500,000 workers were expected to arrive in the City by public transport each day and would need pedestrian routes — underpasses would be used. Also shops would be needed. Could be in the underpasses — Old Street is an example of the policy. Areas around preserved remains would become garden precincts where City workers could eat lunch. All still exist.

56-7 Post war — command economy, lack of housing, poor transport infrastructure. New local government proposals that would make the power of a local authority dependent on its electorate - City had little.

59 Licence secured to build housing at Golden Lane, 1951. Competition announced 1952 — 187 entries. Geoffrey Powell won — had agreed with his fellow Kingston lecturers that if any of their entries won, they’d form a partnership (CP&B).

60 Roof of Golden Lane’s Great Arthur House references Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation at Marseiles and Berlin.

61-3 1,400 people on seven acres. Rules changed so that any City workers could live there, not just those on the housing list.

66 Barbican was the first area of the City blitzed in 1941 and lay undeveloped. 40 acres had been compulsorily purchased in 1948. A few unsung representatives of the Corporation of the City of London, modernisers, were crucial in getting the Barbican development to happen.

2. Barbican Planned

73-6 Three comprehensive plans for Barbican in 1954.

76 LCC and Corporation plans had housing around St Giles church, with shops and offices laid out around the old street pattern.

80 The new Barbican Committee’s plan was more radical. Much of the site would be excavated to 60 feet for warehouses. Roofed over, 40-50 foot podium on top with office and commercial space, and ground level seven acre park. Terraces and higher blocks of residential with offices on lower storeys, with 10 acre park on podium.

84-7 Eric F Wilkins’ Public Health Committee felt a more serious look at providing housing was needed. It should attract rents high enough to cover commercial value of sites. CP&B’s report said private developers were unlikely to like the long term investment; Corporation in a better position. Said “people prepared to pay one fifth, or even more, of their income for the rental of their house expect their money to purchase, indirectly, certain amenities not confined within the actual walls of their home.” eg, parking, sports facilities [where did they go!?]. CP&B said estate should be pedestrianised, have district heating and Garchey waste disposal system.

88 CP&B suggested cinema, theatres, etc could cater to the tenants’ “mental” leisure. Suggested Wren’s Temple Bar be re-erected at west entrance to estate.

84-95 CP&B’s 1955 plan combined historical influences (Italian piazzas and walled towns, moats, gardens) with modernism.

95 “CP&B’s Barbican design used simple contrasts like historicist plan/modern building and public formality/private informality in their design. The constant employment of these opposites created a complexity in their vision, which ran counter to the self-conscious straightforwardness of British Modernism at the time.” All the plans ignored the existing streets; planning wisdom at the time was that the City had too many. 1956, Duncan Sandys, Minister for Housing and Local Government, rejected plans with little provision for housing.

96 This lead to another CP&B plan for the non-commercial areas, while the commercial areas were covered by a join Planning Committee/LCC plan.

97 This 1956 plan had to cope with the two City of London Schools (boys’ and girls’), plus the high density (300 people per acre) and high income.

99 Shops were left out: would be better on the edges and weren’t suitable to the kind of quiet residential area they wanted. New plan was less martial, more Georgian (in the spirit of Inns of Court, West End squares, and Bath (p.115)).

100 Blocks north of the towers were designed to blend in with Golden Lane and were less high rent, more council.

106 Flats were dramatic, lots of open space, un-English. 83% were 1 or 2 bed, so the plan was largely for young people.

106-7 “In retrospect, the current popularity of the Barbican among graduates of the Hoxton Clerkenwell milieu may be because the built Barbican retains the design elements that BP&B, who ere analogous to today’s young ‘culturati’, felt represented their own sense of how to live well.”

108-111 Grouped theatre, gym, pool, etc together so they could be used by public when not in use by the two schools and Guildhall School of Music and Drama (GSMD). Precursor of arts centre, although the schools and public don’t want to share.

115 Interested parties weren’t keen on the high density of development however — arts centre and schools took up much of what would otherwise be open space. But arts centre was allowed to go to the next stage.

116 After 1956 plan submitted for consultation, the Improvements and Town Planning Committee took over development of North Barbican but couldn’t reach a decision so it was eventually added as an extension to the main development.

119 Outline planning approval stipulated: density down to 230 people per acre, 1.5 open space for 1,000 people, 2 acres of land for girls’ school (the boys’ school was removed from the plan), lending library and a hotel were added. The elevated walkways must connect with the non-residential Barbican plan.

120 Barbican Committee taken on tour of modern European architecture in 1958.

128 City Engineer said a road must run north/south across the site. Architects came up with an expensive and elaborate solution. The idea was eventually dropped.

3. Barbican Regained

132 Plans for arts centre grew but by the time it came to be built (1968) it had to fit in the same space, so they added more space beneath, with 3 metre thick concrete walls to support surrounding buildings. Types of flats were more varied now, allowing for more families: bedsits to 14 5-bed houses. Interiors simplified a little. Smallest flats were on the north part of the estate.

135 Towers were now triangular instead of square.

139 Height and useless space (barrel-vaulted ceilings, alcoves, etc): “affluent space.” A feeling of luxury. Stair treads and window frames are teak, fittings are by marine metal fabricators. “The flats were ‘delivered’ undecorated.”

142 At the time kitchens and bathrooms had the connotation of service areas, rather than items of personal prestige — hence inflexible, standardised designs. At the end of World War II the government set up some product agencies that offered testing and research facilities, funded by levys on products sold. Barbican kitchens were designed by the Gas Council Research Centre.

145 Kitchens were prefabricated off-site. Weren’t envisaged that they would get heavy use.

That the kitchen was the least flexible element in the architects’ design is an indicator of the moment of affluence at which the Barbican was built. Though the architects designed for the consumer to a degree novel in mass housing what they and the agencies they employed failed to anticipate was the extent to which affluence would come to mean not simply a filtering down of the concepts of domestic comfort of the rich but the development of a new range of classless products that peopled not the living areas but the former service areas of homes. With the benefit of hindsight, the Barbican architects sought to create service areas using the design methodology of European Modernism, which favoured finding ideal solutions to fixed problems. The Barbican kitchen is a prototypic solution to a problem formulated by a designer.

146 CP&B saw kitchens as a single problem to solve once and for all, but this tradition was (too late) replaced by an American design ethos — not one problem, but “an endless process of adaptation to, and development of, new needs that could be met by a range of partial solutions — modern consumerism.”

147 Barbican kitchens are dramatic, “part of the theatre of affluence.”

150-3 The 1959 plan had a concert hall and theatre, partly attached to the GSMD and designed to be flexible (either could be used for theatre or music). The 1959 proposal, in general, was very prospective and much was changed after planning permission was granted.

156 eg, the plan for covering the tube were only decided in 1963. The line had a then unique concrete floor suspended on rubber to minimise vibration. Also had to be strong enough to carry an armoured train. Construction began on the Barbican in 1960. Proposals for the arts centre submitted 1968, accepted in 1971. Residential area completed in 1973. “The complexity of the organic growth of a town was replicated but vastly accelerated by the development evolving over many years on paper before construction began.”

157 Most (but not all) of the changes to the residential plans were made by 1964. Decided to use concrete as exterior finish, instead of marble, in November 1959. Welsh Pen Lee granite was used, suitable for a rough finish, poured in situ (originally would be smooth, white prefab blocks). Surface was pick hammered.

160 Towers then changed to become 43 or 44 floors (tallest residential blocks in Europe) and were redesigned. Barrel-vaulted roofs added to terraces. 14 more houses added. 428 5- to 7-room houses in final plan, making Barbican more upmarket than the original proposals.

167 Architects of the time “graduated into a profession dominated by commissions controlled by a government and business sector who still regarded Hampstead Garden Suburb and the Dorchester as novel and progressive.” Corbusier Modernism was a great influence on the generation of architects.

171 It seems like there was a desire to escape from the immediate past (all the Victorian and Georgian City buildings) but to preserve distant history (ancient ruins).

172 Milton Court was the first Barbican building finished, in 1963.

183 1961 — Decided not to build Redcross Street bridge (The north/south road) or move the Coal Exchange building to the estate (was going to be used for the GSMD, as architects wanted to preserve it, but it was demolished instead).

1962 — The concert hall and theatre plans separated from those for the GSMD. The library was dropped.

1964 — Library reinstated. New plan with library and larger concert hall and theatre. Latter were no longer interchangeable in use. A range of restaurants included.

184-186 Because Barbican was planned for wealthy tenants it had to be attractive to them. Residents became the most powerful lobby by the time the arts centre plan was submitted. Plan was as self-effacing as possible so as not to impose on residents. GSMD was biggest casualty, tucked away. Arts centre is hidden as much as possible — in a hole with conservatory attempting to hide the theatre’s fly tower. Arts centre goes down to 17 feet above sea level.

191 Despite all this there are endless battles between the arts centre and residents over noise. Frobisher Crescent courtyard was supposed to be a sculpture gallery or concert area, but is barely used. Residents also stopped the church bell ringing.

195 Gallery originally lead onto Frobisher Crescent courtyard but the doors and windows have been painted over.

196 The arts centre designed more for performers, rather than the needs of audience.

200 Brutalism had developed by the time the arts centre was finally planned and it displays more Brutalist features than the rest of the development.

203 The arts centre stairs “evoke the age of the technocrat rather than the aristocrat.”

223 Reyner Banham, in New Society, 1974:

The Barbican, to put it bluntly, is Britain’s largest voluntary ghetto — but not for the reason of high rents alone. It matches in its style and planning, architecture and amenities, what is now the prime educated middle-class dream of a good life in the city, established as a Standard Modern Future by Le Corbusier in the twenties, and indoctrinated into most of us ever since. Hitherto, through the ironies of the financial and administrative structure of Britain, it has been available only to the working classes — who generally haven’t cared for it much. At the Barbican, for the first time, the progressive establishment are having to swallow what they have previously stuffed down the throats of the labouring poor.

[Tastes good to me.]

Comments

  • Interesting. I live in Bermondsey and took a walk around the centre today. Can you supply some background information regarding whom the finished estate would be aimed at? What is meant by high-rent tennts? Were those on council lists preferred? In fact were they originally council houses? I recall hearing that during the 1970’s and into the 80’s it was hard to attract people to the development, was this the case, bearing in mind the desirability today?

  • The Barbican was certainly never intended for council tenants! On the contary it was meant for high flying city execs etc. to rent an exclusive pad in London (often as a second home) Now the Barbican population is mainly older people, who nearly all work in the city and have second homes, thus the estate is deserted quite a lot. The flats have been released for sale, and the prices are typically

  • What’s your opion of how does Barbican inspired a philosophy of life?
    what i’m really mean is that does barbican make poeople behave in a specific way?

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