Future Fantastic? The Barbican estate at 25

The Barbican Centre, that concrete icon of post-war British architecture that has attracted approbation and opprobrium in equal measure whilst entertaining many thousands of Londoners, is over twenty-five years old; it is also more than fifty years since the Barbican estate as a whole was first proposed.

The inspiration, development and construction of this ground-breaking residential and cultural district, the largest to be built in London since the planning of the West End two centuries before, deserves a closer look.

The opportunity for this twentieth-century grand gesture arose from tragedy; the razing, in a single night, of over 40 acres of the City of London north of St Paul’s during the Blitz. The resultant devastation is reflected in remarkable contemporary photographs of office girls reading a lunchtime book on a grass-grown bombsite in the shadow of the cathedral, or aerial imagery showing block after block of Victorian warehousing swept away, leaving hundreds of cellars open to the sky like honeycomb.

Plans to rebuild these blasted acres of London appeared even during the conflict, but pre-war dreams of imperial grandeur still held sway even as the bombs of one empire rained down to end another. In 1942, Philip Hepworth illustrated the western approach to St Paul’s rebuilt in neo-classical, pseudo-Lutyens splendour – magnificent, but hardly democratic. It took the post-war pragmatism of the Welfare State to inform a new style of reconstruction, one based on a separation of work and living spaces, with the latter to be rebuilt as “genuine residential neighbourhoods” in the words of housing minister Duncan Sandys, incorporating schools, open spaces and other amenities and served by improved transportation systems.

In the City, pressure had been growing for something to be done in the Barbican district, with architects, the press and the mayor clamouring for action.

Beginning with Kadleigh, Horsburgh and Whitfield’s grandiose scheme of 1954, an fabulous collection of high-rise glass boxes based on an abortive idea for building above Paddington station and surely intended only to jump-start the Barbican redevelopment rather than be considered seriously, the Corporation of London and the London County Council, still the planning authority for the entire capital, worked up a number of different approaches, gradually coalescing around the concept of low-level and tower blocks arranged about courtyards.

When a change of government relaxed planning laws, the partnership of Chamberlin, Powell and Bon produced a design – based on their earlier, successful Golden Lane estate nearby – that seemed to contain all the right elements; piazzas, pubs and shops, with housing in familiar four-storey terraces and a number of squat towers, the whole interwoven with separated routes for cars and people and plenty of green space including a pyramidal glass ‘hothouse’ predating Pei’s Louvre addition by forty years.

With the towers heightened to improve the density, the inclusion of two schools and a small arts centre and the shattered tube line straightened and buried in a 1200-foot rubber-dampened concrete box courtesy of Ove Arup, this plan was adopted by the Corporation in 1957 and approved in 1959.

Chamberlin, Powell and Bon saw themselves as providing architecture, not style; specifically, a contemporary, practical and sophisticated solution to the problem of housing people in the midst of a soon-to-be-thriving European city, and indeed ‘European’ is the key word.

John Honer, part of the original design team, explained how every member of the practice flew to the continent at least once during the project, visiting Venice as the perfect example of the separated pedestrian and traffic city and the new town centre of Stockholm then under construction. Inspiration was also drawn from the gorgeous late 16th century water gardens of the Villa Gamberaia, Settignano, whose circular pools within pools find a direct analogue in the Barbican’s lakes and fountains, and of course the work of Le Corbusier, particularly his pairing of brick with concrete barrel vaulting at the Maisons Jaoul.

Another very specific aim was the arrangement of accommodation in squares and crescents, contemporary versions of classic idioms. Thomas More House – regular, geometric, well-detailed – relates to Taylor’s Stone Buildings, Lincoln’s Inn (1774-80) and to the geometry of Berkeley Square.

The final component was Chamberlin, Powell and Bon’s desire for housing to be raised above service areas, with the Adelphi and Carlton House Terrace supplying well-proven historical precedents. Not that the team were above flights of fantasy, however; a helicopter landing platform was briefly considered for one of the tower summits, no doubt inspired by a Time magazine photo-spread of Manhattan’s skyscrapers pinned to their office wall, a helicopter waiting on top of the Pan Am building to whisk well-heeled commuters off to Kennedy Airport.

The Barbican’s towers underwent significant alteration during design. Originally square and intended to be clad in polished concrete, to float ethereally in a blue sky, it took sight of Frank Lloyd Wright’s triangular Price Tower to bring about a change of plan – literally, with the Toblerone-shaped towers that we have today deemed more appropriately dramatic.

Original plans also called for the entire complex to be clad in white marble and mosaic, until a change of plan resulted in bare concrete, variously finished. A remnant of the initial scheme is found in the exterior cladding of parts of the art centre today.

This use of concrete was more in keeping with ideas of solidity and strength, drawing on the Roman history of the area that inspired its name, but one assumes budgetary restrictions played a part. The result is the most visible and most criticised aspect of the Barbican, even with the multiple textures to be found on the estate’s buildings.

Post-war homelessness for a greater-than-expected number of London’s cultural institutions led to hugely-increased demand on the arts centre, which was now called on to accommodate a concert hall, theatre, library, gallery and cinemas. Expansion above ground was prohibited to avoid impinging on the amenity of the housing that was already being built. The solution was to bury much of the arts centre below ground, far below ground, in fact, such that the stalls of the concert hall are on a level with the Circle Line tube and its roof forms the base of the open-air sculpture court at the foot of the blocks of flats.

With minimal views out and most of these facilities cocooned within the 600 foot long by 170 foot high building, the design turned inwards and required a very different approach to the al fresco European tradition Chamberlin, Powell and Bon so frequently cited. Space was everything. The vast concrete box of the concert hall featured continuous fixed seating rather than individual tip-up seats, an idea taken from new halls in Germany. The theatre abandoned aisles in favour of rows of seating each with their own door which automatically closes at curtain-up. The hothouse was retained but was now wrapped around the top of the theatre fly tower to disguise it as well as provide a green encounter.

Bringing delight at a detailed level were the circle and half-circle motifs found elsewhere on the estate. Employed within the arts centre with great vigour, they appear as recesses for firehoses, push plates for doors, windows and light fittings. Even in the wonderful railway-carriage-like toilets, circles are everywhere – sinks, foot-operated tap buttons and mirror lights.

The brilliance of this approach is confirmed by Richard Dawking’s amazing Boys’ Own-style cutaway paintings of the centre, sliced through to reveal the different levels. The centre as a kind of cultural aircraft carrier, a ship of arts whose battleship-grey colouring is relieved by dazzling design details often picked out in crimson and gold.

The nautical theme persisted in the design of the flats. The emphasis was on living spaces as generous as possible with kitchens and bathrooms kept to the minimum size necessary. The latter were also confined to the interior of the plan and were artificially lit, precious daylight being reserved for the former.

Ergonomic planning, off-the-shelf foldaway marine fittings and the wonderful vertical hand basin set into the bathroom wall, specially designed by Twyfords, all helped. Underfloor heating, sliding screens for flexibility and balconies also aided the provision of extra space.

And who would live in these super-sophisticated apartments? For all the talk of democratic principles and careful nix of dwelling sizes, most of the Barbican was never intended for letting to anyone other than high earners in the City, a clientele summed up by references in original literature to “the merchant banker and his wife who entertain international clients” and “the professional couple with a grown-up daughter who stays with them when not on tour”.

Gordon Cullen’s stylish sketches of elegant women in cocktail dresses, E-Type Jaguars waiting in the underground garages, completed the image. These were the New Europeans, exposed to Mediterranean holidays, French food and Scandinavian design – this was the future, forged in Harold Wilson’s “white heat of the scientific revolution”.

So, in the end, does the Barbican work? Residents like the peace and quiet, the architecture, the arts facilities of course, but there are criticisms. There’s no gas, divergence from the prescribed exterior colours of flats is not permitted and storage space is very limited. It’s hugely expensive, both to acquire a flat and in service charges. These are higher in the east-west aligned blocks because they have more lifts to be maintained, an unavoidable outcome of the dual-aspect flats that face north and south and thus prohibit through corridors.

Residents quoted in filmed interviews for the 2002 exhibition This Was Tomorrow compare their experience to “living in a suite in a peculiar hotel everyone’s forgotten about”, and feel that “each cupboard should be labelled, saying ‘we’ve designed this for your cocktails, and this for your pans’”.

The forces and desires which drove the construction of this astonishing quartier are as relevant today as they were after the war. The Barbican arose from the ashes of one nightmare, and survived through the threat of another; it is hard to avoid feeling that this troglodyte world, shielded by tonnes of concrete and fortified by inaccessibility, was informed at least partly by fears of what the Cold War might bring forth from the sky.

Ironic, then, that the greatest threat to this future tomorrow came not from the atom but the electron, for it is the perceived inability of the buildings of the 1960s to cope with the demands of the 2010s that is causing them to be demolished. Tower cranes now pierce the sky over London Wall just as searchlights once did seven decades ago. And yet the dream was there; a dream of a cool, elegant living, with arts to be enjoyed by all as part of a civilised rebirth of a country which had been brought almost to its knees – this was, after all, a fantastic future.

Barbican centre cutaway

Cutaway of the arts centre by Richard Dawking from a contemporary source

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basin
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Great design even in the smallest room; the Barbican basin, from Twyfords

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