The Architects Who Made London – Chamberlin, Powell & Bon
Rhona Levene makes the case for architects Chamberlin, Powell and Bon
After devastation of the Cripplegate area of the City of London in WW2 blitz the Corporation recognised the urgent need for housing and a competition was set up in 1952 for what became the Golden Lane Estate.
Of the 178 entries it was won by a young architect in his 30s, Geoffry Powell. Powell had entered the competition separately from two other fellow architecture lecturers at Kingston School of Architecture. By doing this they increased their chances of winning the competition but had agreed beforehand that if any of them one they had to set up a practice together. So it was that the practice of Chamberlin Powell and Bon was established.
Peter Hugh Girard Chamberlin, known as “Joe”, was born in 1919 at the Waldorf hotel in the Aldwych to Elaine Penelope Chamberlin (according to Who’s Who Chamberlin was her maiden name and no father is mentioned but other sources say his father was an Australian army officer). His mother died soon after he was born and so he was brought up by an aunt at 60 South Edwardes Square in Kensington. Initially he went to Oxford and studied Philosophy, Politics & Economics and it was there he declared himself a conscientious objector. He went to work on a farm in Wales during the second world war and moved to London in 1940 marrying Jean Bingham. It was Jean who enrolled him on an architecture course at the Kingston School of Art. Joe qualified in 1948 and stayed on and became deputy chief of staff. He and head of department Eric Brown together designed the seaside section of the Festival of Britain in 1951. Engineer Anthony Flint described Joe as having a philosophy that “he wanted to try something new every day”. Joe was the senior partner of Chamberlin Powell & Bon and the public face of the practice. He loved driving large black cars, the theatre and the cinema and is said to have seen “Singing In The Rain” over 30 times. He was awarded RIBA Distinction in Town Planning in 1963 a CBE in 1974 and elected Associate of the Royal Academy in 1975. He died while gardening at his home at Sonning on an island in the Thames in 1978.
One year younger than Joe, Geoffry Powell was born in India in 1920, educated at Wellington College he then went to the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London. In 1944 he worked as assistant to Frederick Gibberd (most famous work Regent’s Park Mosque if 1978) and was assistant to Brian O’Rorke in 1946. In 1949 he began teaching at Kingston School of architecture which is where he met the other two partners.
Third member of the practice was Christopher Bon, born in Switzerland in 1921. He studied architecture in Zürich and qualified in 1946. He worked with Professor Halford on the master plan for City of London in 1946 and then went to Milan to work at Studio BBPR are 1949 to 1950. He came back to England in 1950 and taught at Kingston School of architecture until 1952. He shared a passion for foreign travel with the Chamberlains and moved in with them as their lodger sharing their three homes – a London house, a farmhouse in the South of France and the house at Sonning on a Thames island. When Joe died Bon married Jean and together they promoted the work of Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa whom they’d all met in India in 1976 and in 1986 they organised the Royal Institute of British Architects exhibition of Bawa’s work. Jean died in 1997 and Bon died two years later.
CP&B wrote “We attempted to make Golden Lane truly urban as, for instance, Florence or Oxford City are truly urban. Wheeled traffic was kept outside as far as possible. The greater part of the site was reserved for pedestrians only; an attempt was made to bring life to the pedestrian area… We strongly dislike the Garden City tradition with its low density, monotony and waste of good country, road, curbs, borders, paths in endless strips everywhere. We like strong contrast between true town and true country. Most towns are a terrible disappointment; we suggest 200 to the acre is a reasonable density… There are possibilities of enlivening existing towns. The best views of towns are from high up. Restaurants, pubs etc., should be on top of buildings; every tower and spire should be used thus, like a lot of stork nests. Rooms with views – of the Thames, or railway termini.”
Other London Projects:
Barbican Estate (probably their best known work).
Bousfield School in South Bolton Gardens South Kensington/Earl’s Court – which is regarded as their most joyous building. Powell wrote that the water feature was designed to keep out school inspectors and that the colour cladding was a lesson in colour theory for children using panels of blue, yellow and green.
Unfortunately due to health and safety rules the Golden Lane Estate’s roof at Gt Arthur House is no longer accessible – which is a real shame as it has a beautifully designed pagoda and a small pond with stepping stones.
Next time you’re walking past the Golden Lane estate look up and see the “tongue” shape on the top of the Tower of Gt Arthur House, the design influenced by Le Corbusier’s Unite d’Habitation.