As the Golden Lane Estate marks 50 years since its completion, Greg Penoyre reveals its humane charms
Golden Lane Estate
Chamberlin, Powell & Bon
Golden Lane is pretty special to me. It’s a very civilised place, rare in early post-war housing.
I worked for Chamberlin, Powell & Bon on the Barbican between 1977-80, during which time among other things I also catalogued their photographic archive so I got to know their work in some detail. They had fantastic photographs of the early projects, including of the evolution of Golden Lane Estate, and over the years as I found out more, it became an important project for me. After site visits to the Barbican I used to go up to the roof garden on the top of Great Arthur House and have my lunch looking out over the estate and the whole of London.
Golden Lane was the result of an architectural competition, after the City of London decided it needed new housing in the bomb-damaged city fringes. This was only the second housing design competition after the war, following Churchill Gardens. Peter Chamberlin, Geoffry Powell and Christoph Bon decided to enter separately to maximise their chances of winning, with an agreement to set up in practice together if any of them did. Powell, perhaps the most intuitive designer, won it. He was in his early 30s and it was a great opportunity for a young architect.
I find it particularly interesting that although the architects were determinedly formalistic, they were also so interested in detail. And Golden Lane is all about the details, the spaces and how people live. It was a highly sensitive way of designing. They thought of it as a whole: the urban spaces were as important as the flats, full of very civilised moments such as the little group of seats and trees near the community centre, one of my favourites.
They were designing a bit of city — not just housing — and that makes it a most integrated scheme. Powell said there was no attempt at the informal — all the elements have a geometric relationship to one another — but the result is much more humane than that might sound. Powell’s scheme was initially for five low blocks and a tower but this evolved and grew. The three partners divided it up to detail. Chamberlin did Great Arthur House, Powell designed Stanley Cohen House, using pick-hammered concrete — a treatment which was to develop much further in the Barbican — and Bon did the detailing on Bayer House. The three architects drew the different buildings with quite different languages. But they weren’t seeking to unify. It was the first time they had come together as a practice and they were clearly experimenting, still finding their feet.
What I really love is how the estate represents a time that contrasts with how we work now. They had the freedom to explore their architectural aesthetic and there is a clear evolution from the relative simplicity of form in the early 1950s to the much more figured, late-Corbusian expression of the subsequent buildings, a language they explored more wholeheartedly in the Barbican eight years later. For example, on the last part of the scheme, Crescent House along Goswell Road, is a layer cake of shops with studio flats above woven together very simply with lovely barrel vaults over the top floor.
They were also curious about different construction techniques and on Golden Lane seemed to have freedom to experiment — with coloured glass cladding and elegant minimal sliding glass windows that use the adjacent balcony balustrade as a track.
The highest element at Golden Lane is Great Arthur House, a symmetrical building with an asymmetric composition at roof level, which is four flats across, each single-bedroom and single-aspect. The Corporation wanted this housing to go to a certain type of resident so deliberately excluded larger family dwellings.
On Great Arthur House, Chamberlin decided halfway through the design that it would be better to have something exciting at the top and designed a great flourish, giving it the beautiful sailing roof that soars over the whole estate, becoming its defining characteristic. I’m sure they’d been to Marseille — everyone was looking to Corbusier at the time — and Chamberlin may well have come back from seeing the Unité saying “I want one of those” and added one to the roof.
But Chamberlin, Powell and Bon were viewed as outsiders — expressionist, undisciplined and wilful. Powell used to say that nobody liked their work. They were almost seen as decorative but I think they saw themselves as just interested in richness and detail.
Something has really worked here in terms of public space. There’s a subtlety of layers. The relationship between private and public is blurred by devices such as the steps down into the courtyard at Bayer House, where a series of flights separate the public garden from the podium and the flats themselves. They were well-educated and knew about the great courtyards of the world. They also drew on ideas such as Vermeer and Pieter de Hooch’s observations of thresholds, and from the treatment of the outdoors in Indian gardens and Renaissance architecture.
‘Golden Lane is all about the details and how people live. It was a highly sensitive way of designing’
This brings a much richer treatment to a very simple scheme, and the way they manipulated landscape is one of the things that makes the atmosphere at Golden Lane so special. Much of it anticipates the Barbican, such as the idea of the water going right up to the buildings and the use of stepping stones both at ground level and in the roof garden at Great Arthur House, which used to be open to all the tenants in the building.
The architects could be slightly eccentric, however, and some elements of the design are a complete mystery to me, such as why they designed those huge external grandstand-type steps beneath Cullum Welch House leading down to what was originally the bowling green.
At Penoyre & Prasad, the architecture we pursue is about how people inhabit space and how architecture interacts with the human experience. There’s a real pleasure in ordinary circumstance. I learnt much about this from my time at Chamberlin Powell & Bon and from Golden Lane. I also learnt about detail, in particular the interest in making one element perform more than one function and therefore become indispensable in the architecture as a whole.
It is a pleasure to spend time here, to look down on the estate from under the beautiful canopy on the roof of Great Arthur House and to visit one of the much-loved duplex flats. Golden Lane Estate is on my doorstep and I see it and the Barbican from my office. It is valuable to remember why it is so special.
An exemplar of modernism comes of age
This year Golden Lane Estate celebrates the 50th anniversary of its completion. Widely regarded as an exemplar of British modernism, it consists of 557 flats and maisonettes and is listed grade II and grade II* (Crescent House).
Built by the City of London in Cripplegate, an area devastated by the Blitz, it was conceived as council housing for single people and couples.
Geoffry Powell won a competition for the commission in 1952, and set up in practice with fellow Kingston School of Art lecturers Christoph Bon and Peter Chamberlin to develop the project.
Their Corbusier-inspired design rejected the traditional urban form of houses on streets for a mixed-use estate of eight low-to-medium-rise blocks dominated by the 16-storey Great Arthur House, the first residential tower block in London that was over 50m in height.
Landscaping was a priority, providing both amenity in the form of seating and open space, and privacy in the use of level changes to create a barrier between public private space. To do this, the architects used some of the retained basement cavities of demolished warehouses on the site.
Over the project’s10-year duration, the architectural style of the estate evolved. The 1962 Crescent Building on Goswell Road, the last to be completed, is closest in style to the adjacent Barbican Estate, which Chamberlin, Powell & Bon went on to design.
Building conservation management guidelines were prepared by Avanti Architects in 2006/7. The leisure centre has recently been refurbished and consultants appointed to replace the curtain walling on the east and west sides of Great Arthur House. Its roof garden, which includes pergolas and a pool with stepping stones, as well as the distinctive curved canopy, has been closed for many years because of safety concerns, but is accessible on public open days.
Approximately half of the units are now in private ownership.
Interview by Pamela Buxton