Dickens and London

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 the air.

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