The study of a small but powerful body of work joins an important historical record.
Chamberlin Powell & Bon
RIBA Publishing, 146pp, £20
Before his death in 1999, Geoffry Powell questioned the value of a book on Chamberlin Powell & Bon, protesting that they were neither pioneers nor ‘architecturally rich’ like the younger Foster and Rogers ‘of whom he seemed in awe’, recalls Elain Harwood. It is lucky that Harwood has taken a more objective view. Her new monograph, drawing on a long association with the architects as an historian at English Heritage, presents a small body of work that contains multitudes. If CP&B could not claim architectural firsts, it refined and combined ideas in a way that perhaps owed something to the thinking time the partners’ financial comfort allowed them, and something to their complementary strengths: Powell the visionary; Peter ‘Joe’ Chamberlin the natural leader; Christof (later Christoph) Bon the detail man.
The Golden Lane Estate in the City of London (1951-63) married a modernist idiom to Townscape concerns in urban planning. At New Hall (now Murray Edwards College), Cambridge (1958-66), CP&B ‘looked to the issue of achieving monumentality within the modern movement’, fusing the engineering skills of Pier Luigi Nervi, the material daring of Eero Saarinen and the concrete bravura of Le Corbusier, plus a formal symmetry, ‘making it one of the first modernist buildings to earn the epithet “baroque”.’ The 1960s buildings at Leeds University introduce expressionist flourishes to orthodox functionalism.
By the time they got to build the Barbican (1955-83), they had developed a project of compelling grandeur and coherence, a minor miracle in a country used to tepid distillations of ideas pursued with more conviction elsewhere. The metabolist megastructure remains a unique, astonishing achievement. Here too is hybridity, or duality: the complex is both craggy and lush, formal and eccentric, monolithic and disaggregated.
The bulk of the book is taken up with a detailed account and analysis of all of CP&B’s major works, but Harwood also shows us something of the partners’ full and sometimes remarkable lives outside the office. Bon, for example, lodged in Chamberlin’s household for the whole of their professional partnership, and married Jean Chamberlin after Joe’s death.
The CP&B book is the latest in what is becoming an important series, RIBA Publishing’s Twentieth Century Architects. Earlier titles include monographs on Ryder & Yates, McMorran & Whitby, Powell & Moya, Leonard Mannasseh, John Madin and Aldington Craig & Collinge; books on Stephen Dykes Bower, Maguire and Murray, ABK and Wells Coates are planned. They are vital not only in preserving the history of these practices, but increasingly as the only readily accessible record of the buildings themselves. Of CP&B’s modest oeuvre, several have been fundamentally altered or demolished. The loss of the Cooper Taber seed warehouse in 1987, just as the first post-war listing candidates were being identified, highlighted the need for statutory protection, recalls Harwood. Yet key examples are still at risk: Birmingham city council plans to demolish John Madin’s Central Library next year.
The series is itself a weapon in the armoury of those fighting to preserve recent heritage. (The Madin book, says Twentieth Century Society director Catherine Croft, was instrumental in the success of the society’s nomination of ‘British Brutalism’ to the 2012 World Monuments Watch.) Equally inspiring, however, is the defiant reminder that there was a time, not long ago, when so much intelligence, integrity and imagination could be poured into a handful of housing and education projects, whose qualities become more apparent with age. CF
First published in AT225, February 2012