and the City of London
Electra House (1903, pictured right), now part of London
Metropolitan University, was the kind of
building that the first generation of modernist architects reacted
against. By John Belcher
and John James Joass for the Eastern Telegraphic Company, it has an
elaborate and highly decorated facade, a grand recessed entrance
portico and makes much use of mouldings and columns with a variety of
capitals. What the early
20th century modernists wanted was to ‘depreciate the
importance of facades, transfer questions of taste out of the field of
petty mouldings, fiddling capitals and insignificant porticos into the
vaster field of the grouping of masses on the grandest scale.’
Modernism had little influence on British
architecture until the 1930s but after World War II it became central
to the rebuilding of bombed out cities.
The architects Peter Chamberlin, Geoffry Powell and Christoph
Bon built the Barbican in the 1960s and 1970s in a modernist style,
and the photograph above shows how they grouped large masses on a
very grand scale. Three
tower blocks of over forty stories pierce the sky over a series of
slab blocks up to eleven storeys high.
The thirty-five acre estate is organised around a series of
garden squares and piazzas and a central lake.
New Brutalist in style, the Barbican is built of dark grey
concrete and features many giant cylindrical columns supporting
buildings erected above a podium.
It is a pedestrian precinct with, as modernist architects like
Le Corbusier decreed, cars neatly tucked away in basement level
garages. Pedestrians move
around it on raised walkways or highwalks, Le Corbusier’s streets in
Streets in the air were popular at the time.
In the 1950s the City Common Council was sufficiently sold on
modernism not only to commission the Barbican but also to plan for a
network of them so that cars and lorries had priority over pedestrians
at ground level. We are all
familiar with these highwalks around the Barbican and Moorgate but they
are a pale shadow of the original intention.
This was for some thirty miles of highwalks allowing pedestrians
to walk right across the City without ever descending to street level.
The thinking behind this plan is illuminated by a remark made by
a Common Councilman when it was first discussed: ‘Young girls could be
seen dashing across the traffic in Cheapside – it was a wonder they
were not killed’. No
doubt these irresponsible flibbertigibbets were delaying important
middle-aged men in cars as well as risking their lives.
Nowadays most of us dash across the traffic in
Cheapside, young girls travel in cars as often as important businessmen,
and traffic rather than pedestrians is discouraged from using City
streets. But if modernist
ideas about streets in the air proved a dead end the modernist
architecture of the Barbican remains and is much loved by its six
thousand odd residents.
By Susan Gane
First published Cityguide, Spring 2008