Architect: Chamberlin, Powell & Bon, 1959-1981
The City of London’s project to re-introduce a residential population to the historic ‘Square Mile,’ set within a spectacular Modern urban landscape.
There are two common misconceptions about the influential and imposing Barbican complex. The first, that it was the product of post-war socialism, constructed as council housing. The second, that it is ‘Brutalist’ to the core. To dispel the first myth, this modern-day fortress was commissioned by the City Corporation to provide its middle and professional class workers with not so affordable but highly desirable accommodation. Conceived as a residential village (the arts centre was in fact an afterthought, completed eight years later in 1981) by architects Chamberlin Powell and Bon, the chosen scheme was the fourth version for a coveted 35-acre site (testament to the diverse political interests of the LCC and the City) that had lain empty for over twenty years following the decimation of the Blitz.
To dispel the second myth, you only have to spend time journeying through its complex maze of high-walks to notice that the considered detail, rich materials and picturesque rhetoric of ‘surprise and delight’ are anything but brutal, frequently denying rather than obeying the mantra of structural honesty. Comprising three triangular, 125-metre high towers (the tallest residential blocks in Europe) with jagged cantilevered balconies, alongside giant low-rise blocks (supposedly the longest in Europe at the time), the designs are highly sculptural, their mass reinforced by the homogenous colour of the concrete, appearing to be carved from a single block. The latter is not, in fact, the exposed structure of the building, but a rich aggregate concrete facing with dark Welsh granite, pick-axed (by hand!) to give a rough texture and dull finish, as if to pre-empt its inevitable weathering.
Wrapped around a large central lake with private residential gardens, the water feature is both a scenic addition straddled by graceful pilotis, and an ingenious form of secondary insulation for the new stretch of Tube line below – the invention of Anglo-Danish engineer, Ove Arup. Contrary to some public opinion, the estate is highly sensitive to its historic surroundings, embedding parts of the old Roman wall and fortifications into its fabric, preserving and framing historic sight-lines and restoring the medieval church of St Giles. Receiving heavy criticism for its complex circulation system and harsh aesthetic (and consequently ‘softened’ by various refits in the last two decades), the arts centre contains a library, exhibition space, concert hall and theatre. The fly-wall of the latter is the centrepiece to The Conservatory above, a glazed structure housing plants, birds and fish pools, opening onto the (empty) crescent-shaped sculpture court.
Best time to visit: take one of the brilliant Barbican Architecture Tours for an informative overview and access to hidden treasures such as the ominously named ‘Sample Room’ containing swatches of the various concrete experiments tested for the exterior.
Address: London EC2Y 8BD.