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At The Barbican

October 19, 2018
by the gentle author

Polly Powell, whose father Geoffry was one of the architects of the Barbican, sent me this short memoir of growing up in the shadow of the design and construction of a Brutalist masterpiece. Inspired by Polly, I took a walk around the Barbican recently with my camera, trying to look with fresh eyes and seek photographs that are not the familiar images.

“The Barbican was never far away in our household. Beneath our feet were those distinctive maroon floor tiles so redolent of the place which my father, Geoffry Powell, had chosen for the entire seamless ground floor of our house, Glen Cottage in Petersham. Presumably he had got a rather good deal on them. But they absolutely epitomised what he liked. They were well-made, robust, richly coloured, with a nod to ancient Roman heritage, but mostly they responded well to polishing, a means by which light could be brought into the house.

But the tiles were not the only reason for the Barbican to loom large in our lives. The entire development, thirty-five years in the making, coincided with the formative years of the family.  We were sheltered from most of the ups and downs of the development’s protracted gestation because my father was by nature a cheerful person and preferred to leave work at the door. I remember an occasion, however, towards the end of the building of the development, when he was required to make an inspection from the top of one of the towers. He described how he had had to do a little jump in order to get into the window-cleaner’s cradle. I was both admiring and terrified by this feat of bravery. In fact, I learned later that the purpose for his inspection had been prompted by the threat of litigation which was perhaps more frightening.

The main office of Chamberlin, Powell and Bon was in Lamont Rd Passage, situated behind the kink in the King’s Rd, Chelsea. The building was a late-Victorian print works which the partners chose because of its large north-facing windows that let in maximum light. The building was divided into two floors: the top floor had one enormous space with cubby-hole offices for each of the partners and a meeting room. It was accessed via a shaky double-height spiral staircase which was always exciting to climb. On the ground floor, where everyone else sat, there was an old parquet floor covered with huge ink splodges from its previous tenants. According to one of the architects who worked there, you could tell if the practice was busy by looking at the angle of the drawing boards. If the boards were flattish (with fewer people in the office), then it was quieter, but if the boards were at a jaunty angle (more people necessitating more squeeze) then business was good. Needless to say, the firm was largely busy throughout its life and was, reportedly, the largest architectural practice in Europe at one point. In due course, the practice opened a second Barbican site office in one of the early flats overlooking the lake.

The three partners – Jo, Geoffry and Christoph – maintained a life-long respect and admiration for each other, enjoying holidays and Sunday lunches together outside the office.  An important ingredient in this was the role of Jean Chamberlin who was married to Jo. Jean was a warm but determined woman who ran the Lamont Rd Passage with a rod of iron and bustled around the place, more often than not with a dash of lipstick on her whiskery face. Christoph Bon lived with Jo and Jean for most of his adult life, the three of them sharing a triumvirate of beautiful homes – South Edwardes Sq in Kensington (including a self-contained flat for Christoph), Mas Gouge in Provence, and The Mill House, Sonning. Mas Gouge was a fortified farm, simple and solid with a large terrace overlooking the valley below.  The main structure was an old farmhouse, the guts of which had been removed to create a soaring three-storey open atrium sitting area with bedrooms and studies overlooking the main space from the floors above. Walls were decorated with contemporary craft pieces, some created by their friends. Here at Mas Gouge, they went to relax and enjoy the local French food – the vast fully-equipped kitchen was Christoph’s domain and was designed with white square tiles and a large tiled island, long before such things became popular. Despite the grandiose nature of the house, it still required a small hand-pump to bring water into the building. Everyone who stayed there was required to spend ten minutes at the pump.

The Mill House in Sonning was set on an island in the Thames, and allowed them to keep an Edwardian launch which was chugged out on special occasions. In the garden, there was a concrete structure surrounding a fire pit, comprising two high-backed semi-circular concrete benches. The idea was that there would be a blazing fire which, once calmed, would comfortably heat the concrete seats. The Mill House was also the setting for the Practice’s retirement party, an occasion at which the partners insisted on serving everyone who had ever worked at the firm. The Mill House is better known now as the home of George and Amil Clooney. When Jo died, Christoph and Jean spent much time travelling with the Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa. Christoph personally financed a monograph on Bawa’s home Lunaganga.

My father and Christoph lived long enough to witness a new-found affection for Brutalism in general and the work of the practice in particular. The partners were from a generation that regarded architecture as a profession and as such were not self-promoters – indeed there are very few photographs of them other than holiday snaps. Arguably, their ambivalence towards PR was perhaps a factor behind the Barbican’s negative reception in the early years. So it is particularly gratifying to see the Barbican and other buildings by the firm being appreciated once more by people voting with their feet.” – Polly Powell

Polly Powell’s memoir is included in THE BARBICAN ESTATE by Stefi Orazi & Christoffer Rudquist, published by Pavilion Books to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the estate in 2019

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Dorothy Annan’s murals at the Barbican

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11 Responses leave one →
  1. Caroline Bottomley permalink
    October 19, 2018

    This is one of my favourite pieces on Spitalfields Life, I love the story, I love the pictures, I love the Barbican.
    Thanks all x

  2. October 19, 2018

    Interesting article and wonderful photos, but still not a place I like! Valerie

  3. Paul Loften permalink
    October 19, 2018

    After I left school I briefly worked for a company called Nairn -Williamson whose office was in Aldersgate st opposite the Barbican site whilst it was being built. There was a long lasting building workers strike at the site and it turned very bitter when blacklegs were bussed in. One day I went out for lunch and as I stepped outside the front door of the building I was forced back by a line of police. A full scale riot had broken out . The scene was very violent with builders on the walls it was a pitched battle of hundreds of building workers against the police. The wall had a steep drop into the foundation excavation and to my horror I saw one of the strikers fall off the wall into the foundations. . I believe he was was seriously injured a recall the ambulance trying to get through the crowds. It was indeed a Battle of The Barbican and it was in the headlines of the papers the next day. The site is a London landmark but it has more history than just the planning

  4. Ian Silverton permalink
    October 19, 2018

    Lived there for a short time,had a great indoor pool,which was used by residents,and shop owners,Pet Shop Boys,where neighbours,as was Clive James broadcaster,writer,still are we think,very modern clean lines,but always cold,shadowing walkways,and car basement,had a Italian Cafe,Hairsalons, Florist,Jewels, DIY,Fruit and Veg,etc shops on site,all very new and Posh!!!!! Nice living experience for a young East end Boy,from the slums via,Clifford’s Inn,now that was old but nice.

  5. October 19, 2018

    What an interesting thing to read on a Friday morning. I have always loved the Barbican and remember well seeing it going up in the 70s. My father and I would drive into London from Sussex on hot summer mornings and you could see it so clearly as we drove through the southern suburbs. When I moved to London in 1977 it was just round the corner from where I lived and I was fascinated by it. Now it has had all these years to settle in it looks exactly right for that part of London. And the way it contains and protects ancient walls and St Giles church seems fitting. As that entire area was bombed flat, it is like a phoenix from the ashes.

  6. October 19, 2018

    The link I have given as my website is a link to a page on one of my blogs about my Father, James Holland – long time friend of James Boswell (one of the three Jameses in fact), and also close friend of Jean and Jo Chamberlain and Christoph Bon. So what a delight to read today’s piece about the Barbican, the construction of which was a subject of interest when I was growing up. I have spent many weeks at le Mas Gouge, the last time a matter of days after Jean died in 1997. It is a very special place. The photos you have taken are also lovely.

  7. Phyllis permalink
    October 19, 2018

    I was lucky enough to take a guided tour of the Barbican about a year ago, it was fascinating and once inside it’s a really special place. I’d love to live there.

  8. Marcia Howard permalink
    October 19, 2018

    A great story and some wonderful images

  9. aubrey permalink
    October 20, 2018

    As one can see from these photographs, the columns which sustain these highrise homes were quite massive. The sizes of these columns (together with other elements of the building) is based upon the loadings which they sustain. The various loading patterns were calculated by the structural engineers who would have worked closely alongside the architects. It’s a pity that they were not mentioned in the interestng narrative.
    I am always fascinated by the area whenever I walk along the elevated walkway on my way to the London Museum.

  10. Peter Bradshaw Wilson permalink
    October 20, 2018

    Thank you for publishing this. I lived for fourteen wonderful years in the Barbican; it is truly one of London’s most important architectural treasures – and a most perfect place to live

  11. October 20, 2018

    I remember visiting the Barbican Estate for the first time in 1981. I never saw it as ‘brutalist’ because it was a placed I loved immediately. The architecture is inventive and of it’s time: communal, spacious, well designed and pleasant for the people who live their. The use of wood for the interior fittings was inspirational. The flats are gorgeous. The Barbican has survived as a masterpiece of modern architecture because it has been well maintained and has excellent estate management. It’s a great pity that similar ventures in the UK have not received the care lavished on the Barbican. The Barbican model is not brutal, it’s enlightened. We need council housing all over the UK like the Barbican. We need a new age of enlightenment that rejects the idea that it’s normal for people to sleep and die on the street in the City of London next to the Barbican.

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