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Chamberlin, Powell and Bon

Elain Harwood, author of a new book about Barbican and Golden Lane architects Chamberlin, Powell and Bon, recounts some of the history of the practice and the influences which led up to the design of the Barbican complex.


t is hard to believe that the Golden Lane Estate and Barbican were designed by the same architects. Only the curved block on Goswell Road, the last phase of Golden Lane and completed in 1962 as excavations for the Barbican began, gives a hint that they are by the same people. They were Chamberlin, Powell and Bon, and the two developments bookended their careers. Peter Chamberlin (known as Joe after the Victorian politician), Geoffry Powell and Christof Bon separately entered a competition for designing the Golden Lane Estate held in 1952 with the agreement that they would form a partnership should one of them win. Powell duly won, although all three contributed to the scheme that was eventually built.

For the Barbican, first conceived in 1955 in response to proposals for an office development across the whole site, the lead partner was Joe Chamberlin. He had the greatest interest in large-scale, three- dimensional planning, and suggested bringing the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, the City of London School for Girls and the Youth Hostel Association to the site. The Arts Centre grew out of the idea of using the Guildhall School’s facilities for residents in the evening. By the time the complex was completed in 1982 Chamberlin had died – of a heart condition brought on, it is said, by the stress of Barbican. In between, the practice built several schools, New Hall in Cambridge (now Murray Edwards College), and extensions to Leeds University. Not all these commissions were completed, but despite years of arguments and delays the Barbican was – a triumph in itself. Chamberlin, Powell and Bon remain little known. They were three distinctive personalities, who operated in different ways but shared a sense of fun which ran throughout their careers, however large the commissions they worked on and however much the office expanded. They approached architecture from first principles, taking to new levels the spirit of enquiry and experiment that was a feature of the war years and its aftermath. The three elements that Joe Chamberlin considered central to


architecture were those of site, space and urbanism. Barbican filled a bomb site, constrained by railway lines and the remains of old buildings – a fire station and mortuary as well as St Giles Cripplegate and bits of London Wall. Chamberlin was particularly interested in the grouping of buildings, or ‘townscape’, a popular term in the 1950s and 1960s, and he was one of the first to emphasise the importance of designing in three dimensions to include the separation of pedestrians from traffic and parking. Traffic separation featured in all CPB’s mature schemes, from proposals for student accommodation at King’s College, Cambridge, to plans for Peterborough city centre.

Renaissance Italian cities and Oxbridge quadrangles were among the only historical sources for the design of Barbican. CPB suggested moving Temple Bar to a site opposite Barbican (then Aldersgate) Station, and part of London’s threatened Coal Exchange, which Chamberlin proposed should become an atrium to the School of Music. The three were also fascinated by Mediterranean vernacular traditions and Victorian industrial buildings, the latter influence seen in their use of hard bricks or paviours and inverted brick arches at Barbican – a reminder of the warehouses previously on the site.

The three partners were reluctant to discuss style, though Geoffry Powell acknowledged a debt to Le Corbusier. The fascination of the practice is that Golden Lane and Barbican chart the

whole history of Modernism in post- war Britain from the gaiety of the Festival of Britain to the hard-on concrete style commonly called Brutalism that made it possible to span London Underground tracks and large car parks. CPB pushed modern architecture to the monumental in a manner achieved by few other practices, whether functionalist or Brutalist. As Chamberlin declared at Leeds University in 1963, ‘the movement in time is for bigger commissions, not little ones – we are now going for all or nothing’. The scale of the buildings also reflects the architects’ personalities. Chamberlin was a large person who lived life on a grand scale, a natural leader, a gentle giant who had been a conscientious objector during the war, and an enthusiastic giver of parties, for which Christof Bon, the son of a hotelier, did the cooking. Theirs was a belief in a better, more equable Britain that extended to a love of the arts, large cars and good living. Geoffry Powell, physically the slightest of the three, combined interests in gardening and archaeology with an infectious humour, expressed in a love of puns. When the office closed in November 1987 its archive was dispersed. Many of their drawings and photographs, however, survived in the hands of Christof Bon and their younger partner, Frank Woods, who has just offered them to the Royal Institute of British Architects. The drawings show how ideas developed, how for example the Conservatory at the Arts Centre began in 1956 as a freestanding pyramid, that there were originally sixty shops in the scheme, and how the square towers took on their final triangular shape to be more interesting and reduce wind resistance. Above all they demonstrate the eye for every complex detail that any architect working on such a scale must have; the thinking big that directed the lives of Chamberlin, Powell and Bon has its perfect expression in the Barbican.

Elain Harwood is the author of Chamberlin, Powell and Bon, published in November 2011 by RIBA Publishing with English Heritage and the Twentieth Century Society, available from the Arts Centre bookshop or at

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