On the 29th December, 1940, at the height of the Second World War, an air raid by the Luftwaffe razed a 35-acre site in the heart of the City of London to the ground. The site was known as the Barbican (a Middle English word meaning fortification), so-called for the Roman wall which once stood in the area. Following the war, the City of London Corporation—the municipal governing body for the area—started to explore possibilities to bring this historic site into the twentieth century.
The Barbican’s location in the financial center of the British capital made it attractive to commercial developers and, as a result, several office schemes were proposed. These were rejected by the Corporation, partly due to the area’s dwindling population. As the area had become increasingly commercialized, the number of residents had plummeted from 100,000 in 1851 to just over 5,000 in 1951. With such a small electorate, the City of London was at risk of losing its Member of Parliament (MP) and, as a result, its political clout. A housing scheme put forward by Chamberlin, Powell and Bon in 1955 offered an opportunity to reverse the population decline by enticing new residents into this void in the City.
Since 1948, Peter Chamberlin (b. London) and Geoffry Powell (b. Bangalore, India) had been teaching colleagues at London’s Kingston School of Art, where they were joined in 1950 by Christof Bon (b. St. Gall, Switzerland). Their architectural partnership began two years later, after Powell won a competition to design the Golden Lane Estate – a large scale residential project also commissioned by the City of London Corporation. The design of this earlier scheme, located just north of the proposed Barbican site, paved the way for their more ambitious neighboring project.
While the selection of Chamberlin, Powell and Bon’s housing scheme would allow the Corporation better chances of maintaining its parliamentary representation, it would bring in far less revenue than a commercial development. In order to maximize rental income and make the scheme financially viable, the architects proposed a high-density development aimed at those earning a mid-to-high income. The complex was designed as an urban microcosm, with residential blocks arranged around communal spaces – an approach inspired by the work of Le Corbusier. Le Corbusier’s Unite d’Habitation housing project in Marseilles had been recently completed; his vision for a ‘vertical garden city’ is evident in both the Golden Lane Estate and the Barbican.
In addition to “luxury” housing, Chamberlin, Powell and Bon’s masterplan for the Barbican featured cultural facilities (including a concert hall and theater), a shopping mall, underground parking, private gardens, and lakes with fountains and a waterfall. It was hoped that the vast array of amenities within the estate would attract their target market and justify the higher cost of the housing. The Guildhall School of Music and the City of London School for Girls would also be moved to new premises on the site, forging a sense of community within the complex. St. Giles Church, one of the few buildings to survive the bombings of 1940, would stand in the center of the estate.
Collectively, the residential blocks of the estate form one of the most remarkable examples of Brutalist architecture anywhere in the world. The term ‘Brutalism’ is derived from the French béton brut, meaning raw or unfinished concrete. Although the concrete at the Barbican Estate was left exposed, it was not unfinished, having been pick-hammered to give it a rough, rusticated appearance implying a sense of monumentality.
The estate comprises three tower blocks, thirteen terrace blocks, two “mews” (terraces of small two-story houses) and a row of townhouses. The tower blocks dominate the skyline, their facades featuring a grid pattern of concrete paneling. The horizontals of this concrete grid are broken by the continuous lines of the verticals, emphasizing the height of the towers. The terrace blocks, meanwhile, are orientated horizontally, creating a dynamic contrast to the soaring towers. In both the tower and terrace blocks, the layout of the apartments was designed to maximize the amount of natural light in the rooms that would most benefit from it. Bedrooms, dining rooms and living rooms are therefore positioned along external walls, while kitchens and bathrooms are placed against inner walls.
The residential blocks are linked by two systems of pedestrian circulation: the highwalk and the podium. The highwalk, a network of bridges and narrow walkways, encompasses the estate. The podium is a raised platform which becomes a new ‘ground level’ once inside the boundary of the estate. This design feature allows the Barbican to be entirely pedestrianized, with road and rail traffic passing underneath, out of both sight and sound.
All three tower blocks and the majority of the terrace blocks stand above the podium on piloti, enabling pedestrians to navigate the estate unimpeded by buildings. Perhaps the most striking of these can be found beneath Gilbert House, a terrace block spanning the lake which bisects the podium. The height of the columns allows even the highwalk to pass beneath the main structure; a bridge is nestled amongst the supporting colonnade. The podium creates a sense of airiness, while the highwalk encourages movement and exploration; together, they produce open space which flows throughout the estate.
While developing the design for the Barbican, Chamberlin, Powell and Bon travelled abroad extensively to seek architectural inspiration, spending much of their time in Italy. Bon had spent part of his earlier career working in Milan, and the architecture of Italy held a great fascination for the three architects. This influence is evident in the estate; the penthouses of the terrace blocks, for example, have barrel-vaulted roofs – a feature widely employed in Roman architecture. The architects cited the canals, bridges and pavements of Venice as the model for the pedestrians systems of the Barbican, describing it as “the best example of a city where foot and service traffic is completely segregated. This segregation,” they continued, “has worked admirably for many centuries and there is no good reason why the principle should not be applied equally effectively in the City of London.”
The lake and gardens provide the residents with generous communal outdoor space; a rarity in an otherwise heavily built-up area of London. These landscaped areas lie below the level of the podium, with the changing elevations adding visual interest and lending a sense of seclusion. To ensure the underground line below did not disturb those enjoying the gardens, Ove Arup devised an engineering solution to reduce vibration from passing trains. The track was mounted on rubber bearings; the only section of the entire London Underground network to be modified in this way.
Chamberlin, Powell and Bon’s original plans featured five tower blocks of twenty stories. These designs were rejected by the planning authority, primarily on the grounds that the scheme had insufficient outdoor space. In response, the architects reduced the number of tower blocks to three in order to minimize the buildings’ footprints. At the same time, they more than doubled their height to maintain housing density.
Cromwell Tower is forty-three stories high, while Lauderdale Tower and Shakespeare Tower stand at forty-four stories; at the time they were the tallest residential towers in Europe. The architects devised ingenious solutions to the perceived problems of living in buildings of this height. “Each lift,” for example, “is designed with a secondary small panel door which provides direct access between the lift and a tenant’s service cupboard. […] In this way the daily milk, the morning newspaper and post can be delivered directly from the lifts to the individual flats without the milkman or the postman having to get out of the lift.” Similar attention to detail was paid to the fixtures and fittings: the architects installed windows which pivoted horizontally to make them easy to clean from the inside, and a Garchey sink unit was employed across almost all residential blocks to facilitate waste disposal.
Standing at such a height and with complex programmatic requirements, the project demanded specialised engineering, delivered by Ove Arup & Partners. The towers utilise pre-cast reinforced concrete elements for the frame, which places the majority of the load around the exterior of the building “on the same principle as is familiar in a chimney.” Roughly triangular in plan, each floor of the towers contains three apartments arranged around a central core of lift shafts, stairwells and service risers. The living rooms are located at each corner of the triangle, where the meeting of two walls affords panoramic views.
The highly distinctive cantilevered balconies of the towers, with their elegantly curved tips, resemble the hull of a ship. They also have a practical application: their unique form reduces wind resistance and eases the strain on the structural frame. The long protrusions of the balconies, a design feature recommended by the engineers, create deep eaves over the apartments below. The eaves offer both protection from the elements and a sense of security to residents, some of whom, the architects reasoned, “might otherwise dislike the impression of living on the edge of a cliff.”
Surviving fragments of the ancient Roman wall, and a later 13th-century bastion, can be found about the estate. History and modernity collide as the weathered bricks of these ruins are juxtaposed against the grey concrete of the monolithic structures above. Further references to the history of the site were made by naming each of the residential blocks after a prominent local figure. Shakespeare Tower, for instance, is so called because the great playwright once lived in the area.
Construction of the Barbican Estate took thirteen years, concluding in 1976 with the completion of Shakespeare Tower. Critics have accused the layout of the estate as being disorientating and cluttered, though the blame for this cannot be entirely attributed to the design. In 1964 the City of London Corporation presented Chamberlin, Powell and Bon with a revised brief which demanded an expanded theater and concert hall. The outcome of this was the Barbican Center, a building which had to be shoehorned into the master plan after construction had already begun.
As Brutalism became the prevailing architectural style for new housing estates in Britain throughout the 1970s, the reputation of the Barbican suffered from association with less successful projects (such as the Hulme Crescents in Manchester). More recently, however, the estate has benefited from a resurgence of public interest in Modernist and Brutalist architecture. It received Grade II listed status from the British government in 2001, and apartments in the estate are now highly sought after.
Residents speak of the excellent quality of life they enjoy there; architecture critic Jonathan Glancey spent four years living in the estate, and proclaims that “there is nothing like [it] in scale, intelligence, ingenuity, quality, urban landscaping and sheer abstract artistry anywhere else in Britain, perhaps even the world.” Alongside buildings such as the Royal National Theatre in London and Park Hill Estate in Sheffield, the Barbican Estate has become a symbol of British post-war architecture.
 Harwood, Elain. Space, Hope and Brutalism: English Architecture, 1945-1975. London: Yale University Press, 2015. p.73
 Harwood, Elain. Chamberlin, Powell and Bon: The Barbican and Beyond. London: RIBA Publishing, 2011. p.103
 Chamberlin, Powell and Bon Architects. “Proposals” In Barbican Redevelopment 1959. London: City of London Corporation, 1959. p.5
 Ibid. Harwood. Chamberlin, Powell and Bon. p.108
 Orazi, Stefi. Modernist Estates: the buildings and the people who live in them today. London: Frances Lincoln, 2015. p.109
 Ibid. Chamberlin, Powell and Bon Architects. p.15
 Ibid. Harwood. Chamberlin, Powell and Bon. p.118
 Ibid. Chamberlin, Powell and Bon Architects. “Technical Section”. p.6
 Ibid. Harwood. Space, Hope and Brutalism. p.74
 Ibid. Chamberlin, Powell and Bon Architects. “Proposals”. p.15
 Glancey, Jonathan. “Barbican: the critics' verdict”. Time Out, 6 February, 2007. Accessed 10 June, 2016 [access]
LocationBarbican Estate, London EC2Y, United Kingdom
Architects in ChargePeter Chamberlin, Geoffry Powell, Christof Bon
Structural EngineersOve Arup & Partners