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Chamberlin, Peter Hugh Girard [Joe]free

(1919–1978)
  • Kenneth Powell

Chamberlin, Peter Hugh Girard [Joe] (1919–1978), architect and town planner, was born at the Waldorf Hotel, Aldwych, London, on 31 March 1919, the son of Hugh Noel Girard Chamberlin, an army officer of Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, and his wife, Eleanor Penelope, née Chamberlin, who died in childbirth. He was brought up by an aunt, Kitty Evershed, at 60 South Edwardes Square, Kensington.

Chamberlin was educated at Bedford School and Pembroke College, Oxford (1938–40), where he read politics, philosophy, and economics but left without a degree. During his youth he was an enthusiastic traveller: his jaunts included a trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway. A conscientious objector, he worked during the war years first as a farm labourer, then for civil defence in London. In 1940 he married Jean Evelyn Raper-Bingham (1912–1997), the daughter of a civil servant; they were close, but apparently agreed not to have children. It was she, always a strong influence on Chamberlin's career, who encouraged him to register as a student in the school of architecture at Kingston Polytechnic, then headed by Eric Brown. His talents were recognized and after qualifying in 1948 he became deputy head of the school and, for a time, Brown's professional partner.

It was at Kingston that Joe Chamberlin, as he was always known, met his fellow tutors Geoffry Powell and Christoph Bon. Geoffry Charles Hamilton Powell (1920–1999), architect, was born on 7 November 1920, in Bangalore, India, the son of Dacre Hamilton Powell, an army officer. He had been schooled at Wellington College and was expected to enter the army. Tuberculosis as a child rendered him unfit for the services, however, and he enrolled at the Architectural Association school. Christoph Rudolph Bon (1921–1999), architect, was born on 1 September 1921, at St Gallen, Switzerland. He had trained at the ETH (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology) in Zürich and worked briefly for Ernesto Rogers in Milan and for William Holford in London. His second visit to London, in 1949, was planned to last six weeks: he remained there for fifty years.

In 1951 all three men submitted entries to the competition for a public housing development at Golden Lane on the northern edge of the City of London. Powell was the winner. With his colleagues he formed the partnership of Chamberlin, Powell, and Bon in 1952 to develop the scheme. The Golden Lane estate, complete with shops, pub, sports centre, and community hall, was constructed in several phases between 1953 and 1963. The precise elegance and free use of colour seen in the earlier blocks at Golden Lane were echoed in the Cooper Taber seed warehouse at Witham, Essex (1955; dem.), and the Bousfield School in Kensington, completed in 1956, which confirmed Chamberlin, Powell, and Bon's high standing among the new post-war practices.

The success of Golden Lane led to the commission which was to dominate the work of the partnership for three decades: the Barbican. Its initial ideas for the development of the blitzed 35 acre site were submitted to the City of London corporation in June 1955. Chamberlin's report envisaged 'a district residential in character and with an identity of its own, surrounded by the quite different—but complementary—busy, commercial life of the City' (Chamberlin, 347–8). A dense development, with 300 residents to the acre, was advocated. The construction of the residential element of the scheme (with over 2000 flats) began in 1963 but the final component, the arts centre, was opened twenty years later. For a time the practice numbered over seventy people, with schools and housing work supplementing the principal projects. (The firm designed only one private house.)

The architecture of the Barbican, much heavier and more monumental in character than Golden Lane, with exposed concrete as the dominant material, reflected the influence on Chamberlin, in particular, of Le Corbusier's later work, with its strongly expressionistic and romantic qualities. This penchant for the monumental was shared by Powell, who was the finest draughtsman of the three, while Christoph Bon's sure grasp of detail contributed to the formation of a distinctive style, at once imposing and surprisingly decorative. It was Bon's talent for detail, reinforced perhaps by the time he spent working in Milan, which gave the firm's work its remarkably tactile and even sensual character.

In 1959 Chamberlin, Powell, and Bon were commissioned, on the recommendation of Leslie Martin, to prepare a master plan for the future development of the University of Leeds in tune with the projected expansion of student numbers. Le Corbusier was again a major influence on the project, constructed over the next fifteen years though never realized in its entirety thanks to spending cut-backs and the listing of some of the existing buildings scheduled for demolition. The aim was to connect the campus, which had developed piecemeal since the 1870s, with the city centre, using land made available by clearance of unfit housing and by roofing over, at the university's expense, the new Leeds inner ring road, then under construction. (This key move was the suggestion of Chamberlin.) As at Golden Lane and the Barbican, Chamberlin, Powell, and Bon demonstrated a conviction that modern architecture could have a civic dimension: the centrepiece of the redeveloped campus was a great square, ringed by social and residential, as well as teaching, accommodation. The lecture-theatre block, the work of Chamberlin, was a particularly bold composition, with stacks of lecture rooms arranged on a model—without central aisles but with rows of side doors for latecomers—subsequently developed at the Barbican arts centre. One of the residential buildings on the campus, designed by Bon, straddled the stone wall of a disused cemetery and was faced in red brick in deference to the solid Victorian houses of the neighbourhood.

The expressive and explicitly romantic qualities in the practice's work, seen vividly in the buildings at New Hall, Cambridge, begun in 1962 (the project was never completed to the original designs), worried some critics: Pevsner found the Barbican towers 'wild and wilful' while the New Hall concrete domes were interpreted as covert historicism. Geoffrey Chaucer School in Southwark (1958–62) was contained under a striking, tent-like hyperbolic paraboloid roof. Though far removed, in intention and effect, from the excesses of postmodernism—a fashion for which none of the partners had any sympathy—this aspect of Chamberlin, Powell, and Bon's work reflected a realization of the shortcomings of the modern movement, in particular its rejection of the lessons of history and of traditional urban forms.

The firm had no sympathy with the 'towers in a park' vision of modernity epitomized by the London county council's Roehampton estate: its sympathies were firmly urban and were reflected in the planning scheme of 1958 for Boston Manor in west London. Ultimately unrealized, it was much publicized; Huw Weldon devoted an edition of the television programme Monitor to it. The Boston Manor project, developed by Chamberlin in collaboration with Graeme Shankland and David Gregory-Jones, proposed a dense 'living suburb' where residential development, a mix of low- and high-rise, was integrated with offices, a shopping centre, and educational and entertainment facilities, all served by two underground stations. The development, housing 15,000, would be 'a different kind of new town: a suburban community within the city. A piece of metropolis on the inner edge of its green belt'. Boston Manor would have been a Barbican for the suburbs, the best of suburb and city, 'an architecture of towers and squares, paved promenades and green lanes' (Chamberlin, 347–8).

Chamberlin, Powell, and Bon was a practice where work was done collectively, with all the partners collaborating on projects, but it is clear that Chamberlin's abilities as strategist and planner contributed significantly to its success. He was appointed CBE in 1974. Joe Chamberlin's taste for travel—as well as for films, theatre, and large cars—continued until the end of his life. He was taken ill on a trip to the temples of Abu Simbel in 1978 and died on 23 May that year at his home on an island in the Thames, Mill House, Sonning, Berkshire.

Chamberlin's early death was a blow to the practice, which remained heavily involved in completing the Barbican, with added responsibilities falling on Powell and Bon. Geoffry Powell was married twice: first, on 24 July 1954, to Philippa Jane Cooper, an artist, with whom he had two daughters and a son (who died as an infant). The marriage was subsequently dissolved. Then in 1971 he married the radio producer and broadcaster Dorothy Louise Grenfell Williams (1934–1994), with whom he had a son. Powell, an enthusiastic traveller, amateur archaeologist, and coin collector, died at St Anthony's Hospital, North Cheam, Sutton, on 17 December 1999.

Christoph Bon, whose family background in the hotel business was reflected in his notable culinary abilities, remained single until he married Jean Chamberlin months before her death. Bon and the Chamberlins had always been close, sharing homes in London, Berkshire, and southern France, and Bon ended his days in Joe Chamberlin's childhood home at 60 South Edwardes Square, Kensington. It was there that he died on 21 October 1999.

With the retirement of Powell and Bon in 1985, the practice was renamed Chamberlin, Powell, Bon, and Woods, with Frank Woods as managing partner and Powell and Bon as consultants. In 1989 Woods merged the practice with that of Austin-Smith, Lord. Chamberlin, Powell, and Bon's significance in the history of post-war architecture lies in the practice's bold enlargement of the vocabulary of modernism, including its frank exploration of historical sources, and its determined pursuit of a modern architecture which addressed real urban, as well as social, issues and eschewed the destructive philosophy on which so much development after 1945 was based.

Sources

  • The Independent (7 Feb 2000)
  • The Guardian (20 Dec 1999)
  • The Times (22 Dec 1999)
  • The Times (26 May 1978) [obit. of Joe Chamberlin]
  • The Times (16 Dec 1999) [obit. of Christoph Bon]
  • K. Powell, ‘Golden years’, Building Design (18 Feb 2000)
  • E. Harwood, England: a guide to post-war listed buildings (2000)
  • personal knowledge (2004)
  • P. H. G. Chamberlin, ‘Report’, Architecture and Building (Sept 1958), 347–8
  • b. cert. [Chamberlin]
  • m. cert. [Powell]
  • d. cert. [Chamberlin]
  • d. cert. [Powell]
  • d. cert. [Bon]
  • The Times (27 May 1978) [obit. of Joe Chamberlin]
  • CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1978) [Peter Hugh Girard Chamberlin]
  • CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1999) [Christoph Rudolph Bon]

Wealth at Death

£297,994—Chamberlin: probate, 8 Jan 1979, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

£762,141—gross: Christoph Rudolph Bon: probate, 2000, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]
, 63 vols. (1885–1900), suppl., 3 vols. (1901); repr. in 22 vols. (1908–9); 10 further suppls. (1912–96); (1993)