The Barbican Estate was designed by Chamberlin, Powell & Bon, now considered one of the most important modernist architectural firms in post-war England. In 1954, the young architects were building the nearby Golden Lane Estate for the Corporation of the City of London and were asked to submit designs for the Barbican.
Between 1955 and 1959, Chamberlin, Powell & Bon produced three schemes for the redevelopment of the area that became known as the Barbican. The architects initially suggested a ‘small exhibition hall’ in their first proposal but by 1959 this had grown into a major arts centre including a theatre, a concert hall, an art gallery, a public lending library and a restaurant. Approval was given in 1959 for the residential blocks to be built and construction began in 1963, lasting for twelve years.
The Barbican’s distinctive tooled-concrete finish is the result of an extremely labour-intensive technique. After the concrete had dried for at least 21 days, workers used handheld pick-hammers or wider bush-hammers to tool the surface and expose the coarse granite aggregate. It required great precision: pick-hammering involved pitting the surface to an average depth of 1.25 cm and bush-hammering to no more than 0.6 cm deep. The residential blocks alone necessitated over 200,000 m² of concrete to be tooled.
To fit the arts centre in the restricted site, the architects and engineers resorted to an ingenious solution: to excavate the site twenty metres below ground level and place the majority of the centre below the elevated walkways or ‘podium’ level. The architects compared the arts centre to ‘the hull of a large ship in which much is contained below the water.’
At the time of their completion, the Barbican towers were the tallest residential towers in Europe. Chamberlin, Powell & Bon had previous experience of designing high-rise residential blocks. Their Great Arthur House on Golden Lane Estate, which is visible to the right just behind Cromwell Tower, was briefly the tallest residential building in England when it was finished in 1957.