Concrete and Clay the 1965 hit song by the pop band Unit Four Plus Two was always going to be a perfect match for the emerging Barbican Centre and Barbican Estate. This was filmed for Pathé Pictorial part of British Pathé on the very new building site of the Barbican which was just beginning its construction. Keep an eye on the background of the film for a perfect view of Great Arthur House, Golden Lane Estate with its distinctive roof detail. Listen to the sounds of the building site and, there’s another great moment for brutalist fans when the camera pans onto a transistor radio propped on an oil drum which naturally is playing Concrete and Clay.
Video with thanks to British Pathé
The Barbican Estate was built on a 35-acre area devastated by a catastrophic raid on the night of 29th December 1940 when bombs rained down on the City of London. By the end of WW2, a void had been left by the war which left the Corporation of London with both a problem and an opportunity. Post-war planning allowed them, through the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act, to secure the site and then they needed to figure out precisely their future vision. Western Europe was grappling with the same issue and Corbusier had created the béton brut Cité Radieuse Marsailles (1947-52), the notion of large scale housing estates and a new way of living was a hot topic.
By the early 1950s, the population in the heart of the historic City of London had plummeted to a little over 5000 residents, the debate began in earnest. What one might arguably describe as dipping of a toe in the water, the Corporation created a competition in 1951 to design a small estate social housing estate. That competition was won by Geoffry Powell in February 1952. He formed Chamberlin, Powell and Bon with fellow Lecturers in Architecture at Kingston School of Art to complete the project. The three had agreed that should one of them win the competition, they would invite the other two to take part in the project.
Spin forward five years to another historic moment on the 19th September 1957. The Court of Common Council voted favourably to create a residential estate on the larger site, today known as the Barbican Estate.
Building began in 1965, when Unit Four Plus Two paid their visit, the architects, Chamberlin, Powell and Bon who followed on the success of their starter project, Golden Lane Estate which today sits to the side of Beech Street (which between Spring 2020 and September 2021 became London’s first Zero Emissions road), were named the project’s architects. To think about it in today’s terms it was of the magnitude of the Crossrail project, digging deep into deeply historic London and reconfiguring a chunk of the City of London. As they say … the rest is history
Eleven years later the project was completed in 1976, though the estates official opening happened in 1969 and the Barbican Centre in 1982.
Today the iconic Brutalist, Grade II listed estate is home to more than 4000 residents in more than 2000 flats and a few houses.
As for Unit Four Plus Two, the song was a massive hit promoted heavily by pirate radio DJ Kenny Everett and ‘Wonderful Radio London’.