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When three bright, but as yet unknown, young architects, hoping to form a partnership, set about entering an important competition, what is the best strategy? Back in 1951, Peter Chamberlin, Geoffry Powell and Christoph Bon (pictured seated) adopted the only sensible approach: they submitted not one but three distinct schemes. Powell won and Chamberlin, Powell & Bon (cp&b) was born. The competition was for the Golden Lane housing estate on the edge of the City of London, completed (in two phases) in 1962, now listed, and rapidly becoming a fashionable place to live. In the midst of the Golden Lane project, with other jobs in hand, cp&b was commissioned to prepare the plans for what became the Barbican, a magnificent but (even now) undervalued development, stretching over 14ha and containing more than 2000 flats, finally completed in the early 1980s with the opening of the arts centre.

The Barbican, Geoffry Powell believes, was a once-in-a-lifetime job - 'but in the end it killed our practice'. In retrospect, Powell and Bon - Peter ('Joe') Chamberlin died in 1978 at the age of 59 - regret that they did not execute a greater number of more modest schemes. Yet the list of their completed works includes the quietly elegant Bousfield School in Kensington, New Hall, Cambridge, (both also listed) and the reconstruction of the campus at Leeds University, where cp&b was appointed in 1959. Where other civic universities, like Manchester and Liverpool, adopted a piecemeal approach to expansion, Leeds went for a progressive masterplan which integrated the university with the city centre and produced modern urban architecture of great power and conviction.

The three founding partners met at the architecture school in Kingston- upon-Thames during the Second World War. Their backgrounds could not have been more different, but this diversity enriched the practice, with the partners all learning from one another. Chamberlin had been brought up in Kensington, in a house where Christoph Bon now lives. 'He never talked about his family, and we never enquired,' says Powell, himself the product of an Anglo-Indian, military background and born in India. Rejected on health grounds by the army, Geoffry Powell turned to architecture - a friend of the family was president of the aa. 'It seemed an easy option,' he recalls. 'Then I discovered what it was about, partly through reading Corb, and it became the most important thing in my life.' Bon was Swiss by birth. His family were prominent in the hotel trade, opening the last big hotel in St Moritz to be built before the First World War, but his mother had been raised in an artistic milieu and had encouraged him to train as an architect. Bon came to England in the late 1930s, initially on a tourist visa, but spent some months working for William Holford before returning home. Just after the war he spent some time in Milan as an assistant to bbpr. Alfred Roth encouraged him to return to England to teach and, with his future partners, he joined the team at Kingston led by Eric Brown, who proved a difficult taskmaster. Golden Lane meant release.

Corbusier was, inevitably, a major inspiration for all three partners in cp&b, but they found his utopian (and destructive) ideas on city planning unappealing. For Bon, with a European background, working within existing cities, even trying to 'fit in', was a reasonable aspiration. In the uk, this was a non-issue: the social agenda was all in that era of reconstruction.

Yet cp&b managed, against the odds, to combine social purpose with elegant and memorable form. The high-rise block at Golden Lane was topped by an expressive structure - which housed the water tanks - designed by Chamberlin, and featured vividly coloured cladding. 'But there was an ideal of integrity and purpose behind it all,' says Bon. 'It wasn't just about the look of things.'

The Barbican is particularly memorable for its extraordinary skyline, a refreshing contrast to the packing-case office slabs along London Wall. The development was faithfully carried through to completion, but Powell and Bon regret that some of the ideas behind the scheme, notably the linking of the podium level to the street, were never fully realised, while later changes, including the closure of a number of shop units, have further weakened the concept. The cosmetic changes to the arts centre made by the late Theo Crosby were, says Powell, 'feeble tinkering'. Powell and Bon are glad that there is a prospect of the unsympathetic (and pointless) alterations of the early 1990s being undone under John Tusa's management.

While the Barbican was under way, cp&b's office employed over 70 people, with a separate office set up to run the job. By the time that the project was completed in 1982, Chamberlin was dead and Powell and Bon were both over 60. The practice was finally wound up in 1987, with a junior partner, Frank Woods, effectively merging it with Austin-Smith:Lord.

Cultivated, urbane and committed to architecture as an art as much as a form of social service, Powell and Bon exemplify the best aspects of the post-1945 era. If their names are too little known today, it is perhaps because they were (as Powell admits) 'non-joiners, never members of a 'club', and non-writers'. For Bon, 'many architects write too much - they should stick to building. If I started again, I'd go back to the basic principles of architecture, as Hawksmoor, say, did.' Powell adds: 'Maybe we tried too hard to be new and interesting.' Yet cp&b's expressive modern architecture has enriched London and Leeds, and is finally being recognised for its contribution to a humanistic tradition of urban building.

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