Like many municipal authorities in London immediately after World War II, the highest priority of the Metropolitan Borough of Bethnal Green was to rehouse those whose homes had been destroyed in the previous 6 years. Over 5000 people were living in temporary homes in 1946, many prefabricated structures, with the last of these still to be housed 20 years later. A mass house building programme was launched all over Britain, but especially in the east of London. This led to Bethnal Green commissioning some of the most interesting and radical designs for mass housing in Britain. Architects both storied, such as Berthold Lubetkin, and emerging, like Denys Lasdun, designed estates to house those made destitute by the war and to look forward to a brave new world.
The first estates to be completed in Bethnal Green after the war were those that had already been designed before the war by the London County Council Architects Department. The Minerva Estate opened in 1946 with accommodation for 1000 people, and was built in reinforced concrete. The first estate to be designed and built in Bethnal Green post war was the Park View Estate by De Metz and Berks for the L.C.C., which opened in 1951, with 267 flats. The most interesting part of the estate is the community centre, now known as the Glasshouse, with its scalloped concrete roofline, and cantilevered first floor.
Building continued through the 1950s with a succession of estates designed by a combination of the L.C.C., Bethnal Green’s surveyors department and private firms. These estates were solid but unspectacular designs, but by the end of the decade a number of schemes would turn the attention of the architectural world towards the borough. Berthold Lubetkin had been one of the preeminent modernist architects of the 1930s in Britain, producing designs such as the Penguin Pool at London Zoo, the Highpoint Flats in Highgate and Finsbury Health centre, all high points in the decades architecture. The post war years saw the dissolution of his Tecton practice and a new partnership with Francis Skinner and Douglas Bailey. After the completion of the three estates delayed by the war in Finsbury (Spa Green, Priory Green and Bevin Court) the trio designed three more estates for Bethnal Green.
The first to be opened was the Dorset Estate in 1957. It is situated between Hackney Road and Columbia Road, and featured 8 housing blocks in its original plan (all named after the Tolpuddle Martyrs), with the most eye-catching being the two Y-shaped blocks of George Loveless and James Hamnett houses. The blocks feature the patterned facades in concrete that would become the partnership's trademark in the post war years. The estate also features a circular library and community centre and a pub, originally called The Royal Victoria. The 20 storey Sivill House point block was added in 1966, six years after Lubetkin's retirement but he had provided designs for the tower in the late 1950s.
A year after The Dorset Estate opened, the Lakeview Estate was completed next to the old Hertford Union canal. It is on a much smaller scale than the Dorset estate, but the materials and design make it instantly recognisable as a Skinner, Bailey & Lubetkin scheme. The main focal point of the state is the 11 storey apartment block, with its geometrically patterned facade. There are also four 2 storey old peoples homes in the grounds facing onto the canal. The estate was built by the borough's own direct labour force.
The third estate for the borough by Skinner, Bailey & Lubetkin is Cranbrook, between the Old Ford and Roman Roads. Opened in 1964, the estate is set around Mace Street, a figure of 8 road, with the 6 tower blocks, 5 smaller terraces and bungalows, all arranged in a stepped sequence to allow maximum sunlight throughout the day. The blocks themselves are constructed of concrete and faced with grey brick, with the tower blocks enlivened by bright green concrete struts and tiles. The grounds were designed to give a trompe l'oeil view of Victoria Park (now blocked by a neighbouring development) and also feature Elisabeth Frink’s “The Blind Beggar and his Dog” sculpture.
Just a little to the south, the second phase of the Greenways Estate by Yorke, Mardall & Rosenberg was opened in 1959. The first part had been designed by Donald Hamilton, Wakeford & Partners, opening in 1951. The new section by Yorke, Mardall & Rosenberg added a series of five storey blocks, constructed of reinforced concrete, faced in precast panels with stone chippings. Shops or lock ups were situated on the ground floor of each block.
Next to the Greenways estate are two blocks that left behind the rectangular form of most apartment schemes of the era, in favour of something more daring. Sulkin House and Trevelyan House were designed by Denys Lasdun, then with Fry, Drew, Drake & Lasdun, and completed in 1959. The two cluster blocks are eight storeys in height, with maisonettes angled around a central service tower. This design produced a high density housing scheme with minimal disruption to the existing street plan and reduced demolition. Lasdun also designed the more regular flanking four storey blocks as part of the scheme, recognizable as Lasdun projects due to their bold concrete staircases.
The cluster block design was repeated by Lasdun at another scheme, Keeling House in Claredale Street (1960). Here the scale is much larger, 16 storeys instead of 8, with 56 two storey maisonettes and 8 studio flats arranged in 4 towers around the service core. The effect on the streetscape is (or maybe was) more pronounced than at Usk Street, with Keeling House rising dramatically out of the surrounding streets of terraced houses. A lower rise block, Bradley House was also built as part of the estate, but this was demolished in 2005. Keeling House was sold by Tower Hamlets Borough in 1999 and turned into private apartments, with a glass foyer added at ground level, as well as eight penthouse flats on the top service floor.
A couple of other noteworthy projects were completed by the Municipal Borough of Bethnal Green, before it was subsumed into Tower Hamlets in 1965. St Peter’s Avenue is just west of Keeling House, and the new estate there was built between 1964-7. It features 5 six storey blocks containing 174 dwellings, constructed of concrete with brick infill and bold concrete balconies and ventilation towers. On Cambridge Heath Road is Mayfield House, opened in 1964 as a mixed residential and work scheme, with flats, shop units and striking gallery at one end. There are 54 flats in a six storey block, which was designed by the partnership of Kenneth Wakeford, Jerram and Harris to include facilities such as a music library and recital hall in the building. Unfortunately the glass clad gallery has been boarded up since 2014, with various campaigns since to reinstate the windows.
The Metropolitan Borough of Bethnal Green became part of the new London Borough of Tower Hamlets in 1965. In the 20 years from the end of World War II to its abolition, the borough had built over 1500 dwellings, helping to rehouse much of the thousand of people made homeless by the war. The rebuilding effort also saw the standard of dwelling raised, away from the cramped Victorian terraces and tenements, towards a (brief) brave new world.
55 Broadway was officially opened on 1st December 1929. Designed by Charles Holden as the new headquarters for the London Transport Board, it replaced the previous hodge podge of buildings the board used in the same area. The new building brought together different departments under one roof, allowing faster communication and creating a corporate atmosphere. As well uniting the company under one roof, the building would also contain St James Park tube station. Holden, and his firm, Adams, Holden & Pearson, were appointed to the design in 1925, after an initial plan by Sir A.E. Richardson was rejected by LTB director Frank Pick for being too old fashioned.
The site chosen for the building was an awkward, asymmetrical plot, hemmed in by other buildings. To counteract these problems, Holden arranged the building in an irregular cruciform plan, with a long east-west axis and a shorter north-south one. The upper floors step up, getting smaller in floor area as it gets to the top. This allows natural light into each office, as well as allowing more light down to street level. The services such as lifts and ventilation were built into the central tower core.
Holden had previously specialized in the design of hospitals when he joined the firm of Henry Percy Adams (later to become Adams, Holden & Pearson) at the start of the 1900’s. This experience was to provide useful in creating the large, integrated design of 55 Broadway. Another influence on the design was that of the fifteen-storey General Motors Building in Detroit (1919-22) by Albert Khan, also designed to allow sunlight and air to each of the buildings numerous offices.
55 Broadway is constructed around a steel frame encased in concrete and then clad in stone. Portland Stone, a material Holden had used on a smaller scale for London Transport in his Northern Line Extension stations a few years earlier, was used from the 3rd floor upwards, with blue-green Norwegian granite for the first and second floor. Inside, flooring of Travertine limestone forms three paved public arcades and covers the staircases, with bronze used for the railings. Each floor contains a drinking fountain and an automatic mail chute, details picked up from American office designs of the time.
The exterior of the building was decorated with a range of sculptures, produced by a number of different artists. Reliefs depicting “The Four Winds” were sculpted by Eric Gill, Henry Moore, Alfred Gerrard, Eric Aumoinier and Sam Rabinowitcz. Jacob Epstein, who Holden had previously worked with on the British Medical Association building on The Strand and Oscar Wilde’s tomb in Paris, designed two sculptures, Day and Night, which proved controversial. Day in particular drew heavy criticism, with a campaign started to have it removed. Pick, despite his initial reservations to employing Epstein, offered to resign to loyalty to Holden, but it was refused. Eventually 1.5 inches was removed from the statue to appease the complainers.
When it opened, 55 Broadway was, at 176 ft the tallest building in London. The top 4 floors were kept unoccupied, as they were above the limit decreed by the 1894 London Buildings Act. The Observer newspaper called it “The Cathedral of Modernity”, and it was widely praised as the harbinger of English Modernism, balancing Arts and Crafts detailing with new building technology and American design.
It has served as the headquarters of the London Transport and then TFL for 90 years, but that time is drawing to a close. A 2015 plan by Tate Hindle to convert the building to flats and offices came to nothing, and in September this year TFL agreed a deal to sell the property to the Integrity International Group, who have not yet announced their plans for the building. 55 Broadway was Grade I listed in 2011, and so whatever its future, the building should stand as a marker of the journey of British architecture from Art and Crafts towards Modernism.
Charles Holden: Architect by Eitan Karol
Bright Underground Spaces by David Lawrence
Buildings of England: London 6 City of Westminster by Nikolaus Pevsner and Simon Bradley
The Jubilee Line is celebrating two anniversaries this year. First of all, it is 40 years since the line first opened, connecting Stanmore to Green Park. The second anniversary is that of the 1999 Extension, which extended the line from Westminster to Stratford. Not only did the line extend through the heart of the capital, into the newly built Canary Wharf and East London, but it also created a sequence of spectacular stations in the process. The Jubilee Line Extension stations; Westminster, Waterloo, Southwark, London Bridge, Bermondsey, Canada Water, Canary Wharf, North Greenwich, Canning Town, West Ham and Stratford; became the most feted since the heyday of Charles Holden in the early 1930’s.
Originally to have been called the Fleet Line, and to extend down to Lewisham, the Jubilee Line opened on 1st May 1979. The stations that made up the line were older stations inherited from other lines, such as the Bakerloo, whose services it replaced from Baker Street to Stanmore. Various extensions were planned over the next 20 years including through Surrey Docks and south to New Cross, and east through the former docklands (which would eventually happen as the Docklands Light Railway). A 1980s study group recommended extending the line through Westminster and on towards Stratford. This idea was given the go ahead in 1990 and construction began in December 1993, with a projected finish date of mid-1998. The new line eventually opened in stages between May and December 1999, with the eastern stations of North Greenwich, Canning Town, West Ham and Stratford coming into service on May 14.
The design of the 11 stations was overseen by Roland Paoletti, the British-Italian architect previously responsible for designing stations on Hong Kong’s Mass Transit Railway. Paoletti used a group of architects to design the stations, giving each practice one or two stations. The architects he chose, include some of the most famous in contemporary architecture; Foster + Partners, Michael Hopkins Architects and Alsop Lyall & Stormer; as well as practices who were lesser known at the time. Despite the diverse group of architects, the finished stations have a common design philosophy, and are recognizably part of the same line, something Charles Holden and Frank Pick achieved with their Piccadilly Line stations in the 1930’s.
The first station on the extension, Westminster, is also one of the most spectacular. Designed by Michael Hopkins Architects, the new station was built below Portcullis House, also designed by Hopkins. The station is made up of a vertical space, 128 feet deep. The concrete structural support columns, escalators and stairs are all left exposed, giving the space a dramatic, futuristic feel. At Southwark, designed by Richard McCormac of MJP Architects, the ticket hall has a 40 metre high wall in blue glass, designed by artist Alexander Beleschenko. Bermondsey designed by Ian Ritchie Architects has, like Westminster, a void down to the platform area, drawing in light from street level.
The design of Canada Water harks back to the era of Charles Holden stations like Arnos Grove and Chiswick Park, with its drum shaped ticket hall in glass, again allowing light down to the platform area. It was jointly designed by Ron Herron Associates, Bruno Happold and the Jubilee Line Extension Project architects. Next door is an integrated bus station (another throwback to the days of Holden and Frank Pick), designed by Eva Jiricna. Next along the line is Canary Wharf by Foster + Partners. The station is situated in a space 78 feet deep by 869 feet long, with once again light being directed to the platform areas via two curved canopies at either end of the station. The station is one of the busiest on the entire tube network, with over 50 million passengers in 2017 (another Jubilee Line station, Stratford is the busiest with 62 million).
Foster + Partners also designed North Greenwich bus station connecting to the tube station by Alsop Lyall & Stormer. The bus station features a curving glass roof supported by tree-like steel columns, whilst the tube station forsakes the usual JLE palette of grey and silver for a striking use of blue throughout. Beyond the final three stations on the line (Canning Town, West Ham and Stratford) is Stratford Market Depot by Wilkinson Eyre, the main train depot for the line extension, featuring an arched roof 328 feet wide by 524 feet long.
Despite the delay to opening and the cost running £1.5 billion over budget, in architectural terms the Jubilee Line Extension can be seen as a great success. The eleven stations, and attendant bus stations, ventilation shafts and depots form the most coherent London Underground project since Charles Holden’s Piccadilly Line extensions of the 1930’s. The use of the High Tech idiom, by architects such as Norman Foster and Michael Hopkins, has set a template for transport projects such as the also much delayed Crossrail project. As infrastructure projects grow more complicated, expensive and environmentally damaging to produce, we can look back on the Jubilee Line Extension as possibly one of the last great public combinations of form and function.
The Jubilee Line Extension by Kenneth Powell
The Barbican Estate welcomed its first residents in July 1969, with the completion of Speed House. The estate as a whole would not be completed until 1982 with the opening of the Barbican Arts Centre by Queen Elizabeth II, but it had been planned 20 years earlier. In the early 1960s the 35 acre site was a bomb site, having been hit by the Luftwaffe on 29 December 1940, destroying many houses, as well as the church of St Giles Cripplegate which now sits at the heart of the estate. Various plans to rebuild the area were put forward after the end of the war.
The partnership of Peter Chamberlin, Geoffry Powell and Christopher Bon had designed the nearby Golden Lane estate for the City of London in 1951, and they were asked to produce a plan for the vacant site. Their initial plan for 5000 residents was expanded to the whole site, and they were asked to incorporate the City of London School, the City of London School for Girls and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Their new plan was debated and revised through planning committees before finally being approved in November 1959. Construction finally began in 1963, with the first residential blocks opening in 1969, and being completed in 1975. Ove Arup & Partners were brought in as structural engineers for the project.
The dominant feature of the estate are the three towers; Cromwell, Lauderdale and Shakespeare. Each tower has three flats per floor, plus a penthouse flat, with each flat positioned in a corner of the triangular towers. The towers also feature striking projecting balconies which give the buildings their angular profile. Thirteen, terrace blocks of seven storeys take up much of the estate, many of them on podiums allowing circulation and light between different parts of the site. The flats in the terraces were designed to have flexible living space, with sliding doors used throughout. The estate also features two terraces of two storey houses and a row of townhouses.The concrete exterior of most of the buildings were bush hammered, giving the estate a monumental, weathered look. As important as the interiors and buildings, is the landscape design of the estate. The grounds feature gardens, trees, pools, water cascades, fountains and seating areas.
As well as the residential parts of the estate are many other sections. Blake Tower was built as a YMCA centre and is situated between the Barbican and Golden Lane estates. It has now been turned into a residential tower. Elsewhere there is a library, the City of London School for Girls, the Guildhall Centre for Music and Drama, the Museum of London (designed by Powell and Moya) and the Barbican Arts Centre. Also within the site is the Highwalk, part of the post war system of elevated walkways built in the City of London. Initially conceived as a way of separating pedestrians from traffic, and allowing people to move all over the Square Mile, only a small part was built with much already demolished. However a few fragments still survive, and some are being extended.
The estate is now home to around 4,000 people, and was Grade II listed in September 2001. Despite this listing and its recent popularity as brutalist architecture is reassessed, parts of the estate are under threat. The City of London School for Girls wants to expand their buildings, which would fill in one of the sub-podium spaces under Mountjoy House, destroying one of the estates many vistas, among other changes. You can read more about the expansion and sign a petition against HERE.
The Barbican is one of the great post war building projects in London and indeed Britain. It forms a great modernist village within the City of London, with its towers and terrace blocks overlooking the water features, arts centre and schools. Fifty years after the first residents moved in it has become a reminder of the ambitious and idealistic era of architecture. We hope that in 50 years time we will still be able to enjoy the vision of Chamberlin, Powell & Bon. As Nickolas Pevsner said “There is nothing quite like the Barbican in all of British architecture”.
For a more detailed history and appreciation of the Barbican Estate, visit the Barbican Living website