The first time I visited the Barbican, which was during my pre-London resident days, I felt lost and completely bewildered. First of all, I had made some rookie mistakes. Following the signs from Barbican tube station, I had made my way to the Centre via ‘ground level’ i.e. the traffic lights on Aldersgate Street that make you wait 15 minutes, and the toxic pollution funnel of Beech Street, to arrive at the Silk Street entrance wondering who the hell had decided to build a concert hall in a parking garage the size of an Olympic park. I was running late by that time and my mind was too busy trying to find my way around to notice the actual building. What. A. Horrible. Place. This was my first impression of the Barbican. There are many people who agree with how I felt about it then. The Barbican Centre is one of those elusive buildings which is hated by some as much as it is adored by others. Reactions vary from squinted eyes and mouths curled up in disgust to dreamy eyes and wispy love messages escaping in little pink fluffy clouds from mouth and nostrils. It did not take long for me to turn from the first into the latter. You see, I am a great admirer of Brutalism, but I’ll admit that the issue with Brutalism, is that if Brutalism is done badly it’s not just grim but very grim. However, if it’s done well, it is done really well. To be fair, those who critique modern architecture and concrete and brutalism as looking drab and not having character and not being designed with the human scale in mind, are right in so many cases. But those people will not talk or perhaps be aware of the great wealth of the materials and the attention to detail in a Seagram Building by ‘Mies’ or in the success of a multimixed-usedness of a Unité d’Habitatión by Le Corbusier. I soon discovered the Barbican as being not just really well done but even really really well done. I am not the only one to feel that way, as the whole Barbican Estate is Grade II listed. So there.
The Barbican Estate covers an area of 14 hectares within the City of London and comprises residential accommodation within three high rise towers, 13 horizontally laid-out terrace blocks, mews houses and family homes. Then there are the cultural institutions; the Barbican Centre, the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and the Museum of London. The Barbican Centre houses a theatre and performing arts centre, cinema, exhibition halls, shops, restaurants and bars, a huge conservatory and best of all; a public library for City residents and workers. The estate also has a conference centre, offices and possibly the poshest corner shop in the world, where they sell bags of pasta for many £££ with pasta bits that are tri-coloured rather than having pasta bits of three colours thrown into one bag together. This is a place where everything is Design.
So what is a place like this doing in a place like this? The Barbican is built within the Square Mile, or Ye Olde Londinium. It was the location where the Romans built their fort, and which would remain the site of fortifications and the London wall for centuries to come. Bits of the old wall still remain in and around the Barbican estate, with some of the bits restricted to the mythical Residents Only areas. It makes for sad scenes when non-residents try to make the walk along the old wall only to be met with a locked gate in the middle of it. And they can but stare through the bars like a puppy weeping to be adopted from a shelter.
The name Barbican derives from the Low Latin word for fortification; ‘Barbecana’. And once you start thinking of the Barbican as a fortification within the city, or perhaps even a fortified city within a city, the layout of the estate starts making sense. The lower floors of the estate are parking garages and high concrete walls with fire exits and intimidating looking ramps. Pedestrian level is called The Podium and is actually on the third level of the estate. The high rise walkways literally have little peek-holes like medieval walls did. And the three vertical towers seem to look over the estate and guard it from the evil world outside. Inside the estate, all the different elements interact together, but the Barbican does not seem to interact much with the world around it.
Of course, we should not forget why the Barbican was built where it was built. German bombs blitzed the area in the Second World War. By the time the city was ready to rebuild, only a handful of people still lived in the city. So plans were made to build new residential areas. This tabula rasa formed a great opportunity for young architects to test modernist ideas of residential inner city utopia. Rebuilding this area as it had been was not even considered an option. Modern architects were not as impressed with Victorian and Edwardian terraces as many of us are now. Besides, the Old World created two major devastating wars within the first 45 years of the 20th century. It was time for a Better World and good architecture would fix it.
First came the Golden Lane Estate, just to the Northwest of the Barbican, which was built as affordable housing and housing for city workers. Then came the Barbican, which was imagined as the Golden Lane’s more middle class and upmarket little brother. There was a competition, and the scheme from (Golden Lane) architects Chamberlin, Powell and Bon was the winner. The City invested a pretty hefty sum of money into the development and it shows. It is a residential area of high density, but it never feels crowded because so much space was left for amenities and landscaping. The residential blocks are built around impressive public areas with trees and flowers and water features. Then there is the amazing area in front of the Barbican Centre with its famous waterside terrace and fountains and of course the access to all the high quality cultural institutions on the residents’ doorstep.
The Estate shows great attention to detail and richness of materials. The Barbican was built with tonnes of concrete, and these surfaces are left brutal and bare, yet it took x amount of workmen a y amount of hours to drill a texture into a z amount of walls. And they did this everywhere, not just on the outside to show off but, as a testament to how devoted they were to creating a high class living space, on the inside of the balconies and even in the parking garages. It’s this texture that almost gives an organic look to the brutal, a texture that must appeal to the origins of its residents as cave dwellers, in the same way as a log fire does. The whole of the estate is also meticulously cared for by the Barbican Estate Office who act on behalf of the freeholder, which remains the City of London Corporation.
Above: Laboriously textured concrete
And then there are the flats themselves. My love affair with the Barbican truly started when a friend moved into a lovely top floor flat in one of the terrace blocks. It has a vaulted ceiling and a view of the residents’ gardens. It also has two balconies and all the original features. The attention to detail goes as far as custom made door knobs, sinks and even toilet roll holders. All are inspired by ocean liners (wink wink Le Corbusier), which also explains why the layout and arrangement of space within the flats is so economical. Then I found out that the residents get certain special treats; these gated areas with the special words ‘Residents only’. Each resident has a key with which they can go anywhere. The sunken gardens under the waterfall? Check. The park garden at Thomas Moore House? Check. The little quiet wall area behind St-Giles Without Cripplegate? YEP. In a location where you are quite far from London’s great parks and green spaces, these residents’ areas are just the thing when you are in dire need of a shot of nature and quiet.
Above: Rosalinde’s bedroom view looking north; their stunning interior staircase.
When my friend moved into the Barbican it not only made me truly fall in love with the estate, but it made me realise that living there was not an impossible dream. After two years of commuting to and from SE23 to NW11, I was ready to live somewhere more central, but it always seemed unaffordable and I reckoned the Barbican would have some kind of secret waiting list and mystic vetting processes. But none of that. It was brutally expensive but as the right flat showed up just at a time when we had been evicted from our old flat and a friend was desperate to find a new home, it suddenly came within our reach. Now I have the pleasure of calling a ridiculous triplex flat in the estate my home and it’s a home I am so madly in love with that it’s like my husband and I are having a threesome (with the flat). When this stops feeling special, then please deport me, because I would not deserve to live in London anymore. Or anywhere.
Rosalinde De Best is an Architectural Historian for Estate Conservation