The Barbican 


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Architectural influences

Residential accommodation

The Barbican today

Architectural influences

The Barbican might not have looked as it does.  There were several competing designs, some mundane in the extreme.  Chamberlin, Powell and Bon, who were ultimately chosen, in common with many Modernist architects, considered that they were outside any particular style and were simply pursuing the best contemporary solutions to architectural problems. At the Barbican this is evident in the wide-ranging sources of creative influence.

The architects drew upon the architectural language of historical London and Europe and the best international design of the time. These diverse points of reference are evident throughout the Barbican giving its architecture a sense of richness and complexity. The gardens were influenced by French and Italian Baroque design. Throughout the Barbican many references to the work and ideas of Le Corbusier can be seen from his early Villa Savoye to the contemporary Maison Jaoul. This is most clearly seen in their decision to allow the concrete structure of the Barbican to be the material used for the exterior finish as Le Corbusier had confidently done at Roncharnp.  Yet the architects' particular use of hand-tooled coConcrete surfacencrete for the Barbican reveals a creative independence evident throughout their designs.

As to the internal structure, residents quickly appreciate that almost everything in the Barbican is non-standard.  In the kitchen the Garchey system was installed, that sucks rubbish and cans down immense pipes to the basement, where it is mingled with rainwater in huge Garchey collection bunkers.  Each kitchen Garchey needs regular cleaning, sometimes a major enterprise.  The kitchens themselves were designed and built by a company specializing in yachts; perhaps that is why the stainless steel rises up at the front (to stop things falling off when the Barbican rocks in heavy weather).  Electrical outlets although apparently standard 13 amp sockets, are also non-standard; replacing them and the light switches is no easy task.  The tower block shower rooms are also blessed with a shower which can be a foot-bath, a bidet or a shower, depending upon the position of a gear-lever.

The partnership of Chamberlin, Powell and Bon was formed as a result of Geoffry Powell's winning entry to the competition to design a housing complex for Golden Lane (next to the Barbican site). The three partners met whilst teaching architecture at Kingston School of Art and, at the end of 1951, each entered the Golden Lane competition with very different designs. When Geoffry Powell won, they decided to set up in private practice together and leave their teaching roles behind. They were first instructed by the Corporation of London to put forward designs for the Barbican site in 1954. It was an innovative practice for the time in that they shared an office with engineers and surveyors working on the residential development at the Barbican and, later consulted with the London Symphony Orchestra and the Royal Shakespeare Company during the design phase of the arts centre. The Barbican project is historically significant in European terms in that it was predicated on the fundamental and innovative idea that a city centre should not only house commercial but residential and cultural activities as a means of renewal and survival. The Barbican project was so large that it dominated Chamberlin, Powell and Bon's work for many years - the Barbican Centre opened in 1982. Nevertheless, they worked on other projects, two significant schemes being the reconstruction of the campus at Leeds University, to which they were appointed in 1959 and New Hall, Cambridge,1966.

"We strongly dislike the Garden City tradition with its low density, monotony and waste of good country, road, curbs, borders, paths in endless strips everywhere. We like strong contrast between true town and true country    ... There are possibilities of enlivening existing towns. The best views of towns are from high up. Restaurants, pubs etc. should be on top of buildings; every tower and spire should be used thus, like a lot of stork nests. Rooms with views - of the Thames, or railway termini."

Chamberlin, Powell and Bon in The Architects' Journal, Jan 15, 1953