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Concrete utopia

A maze of 21 residential blocks and a world-renowned arts centre, London’s Barbican was designed as a radical solution to urban living – but only now, 50 years after building started on the residences, is the world fully coming to appreciate it

  • Concrete utopia
  • Concrete utopia
  • Concrete utopia
  • Concrete utopia
  • Concrete utopia
  • Concrete utopia
  • Concrete utopia
  • Concrete utopia
  • Concrete utopia
  • Concrete utopia
  • Concrete utopia
  • Concrete utopia
  • Concrete utopia
  • Concrete utopia

Text by Peter Watts Photos⁄Christoffer Rudquist

"How can anyone reconstruct a town from its cellars?” asked travel writer HV Morton as he surveyed the ruined district of Cripplegate in 1951, 11 years after it had been eviscerated by German bombs. The destruction of this corner of the City of London was so total that many buildings existed only as cellars, and to Morton, the damage seemed irreparable. But in 1965, a new town did indeed rise from these ashes.
The Barbican was a masterpiece of urban planning containing more than 2,100 homes in a bewildering array of terraces, towers and crescents, as well as two schools, a church, lakes, gardens, elevated walkways, ancient monuments and a sports centre, all arranged around an international arts centre. There is nowhere like it in London.

“It’s the most complete piece of utopian planning in London,” says Jane Alison, head of visual art at the Barbican arts centre and editor of a recent book about the estate. “It’s extraordinary in its ambition and design rigour, and it is maturing very well. People are really beginning to appreciate it, and it’s increasingly home to artists and architects.”

It’s also home to Jane Smith, chair of the residents’ Barbican Association, who moved into the estate in 1992. “I’d watched it being built and admired the architecture and general attitude to urban planning ever since I moved to London in the early  1970s,” she says. “It’s just a very nice place to live. The flats are very solidly built of thick concrete so you don’t hear the neighbours, but there’s still a real sense of community. “It’s very central, but you have this little escape from it all, with beautiful gardens and this world-renowned arts centre right on your doorstep.”

Construction of the Barbican’s residential blocks began in 1965 (work on the schools had begun in September 1963), but the first plans were conceived decades before. In 1944, planner Patrick Abercrombie completed the Greater London Plan, which looked at the city’s numerous bombsites. He envisaged Cripplegate, a ward on the northern boundary of the City of London, as being restored to commercial use.

For centuries this ramshackle quarter had housed writers and booksellers as well as London’s rag trade – two particularly combustible businesses that were, unsurprisingly, burnt down with monotonous regularity.
There had been a major inferno in 1897 when an ostrich feather warehouse caught fire and another in 1902 after a blaze at a hat factory. At this time, the area was known as Cripplegate – the Barbican was a solitary street that took its name from a long-demolished watch tower, originally built by the Romans and attached to the London Wall. On 29 December 1940, Cripplegate was swept from the map following a devastating night of German bombing; when it was reborn, it would be as the Barbican.

A year after Morton’s morbid visit, when London was still a “city of jagged ruins, of hob grates perched in the » sunlight in shattered walls,” the City of London Corporation began to consider reconstruction. Initial plans followed Abercrombie’s outline, consisting of warehouses, shops, offices and some housing, but the City had been depopulated by the war and there was a concern this might cost them their ancient status as a unique administrative entity.

“That gave them the impetus to build houses rather than just offices,” explains John Grindrod, author of Concretopia, a history of the UK’s post-war redevelopment. “The first plan was scrapped. At first, the City was not sure they wanted all those people living there, but their thinking gradually evolved. And the evolution didn’t stop until it was finished in 1982.”

In 1956, Duncan Sandys, the government’s Minister of Housing, proposed “a genuine residential neighbourhood, incorporating schools, shops, open spaces and amenities,” that would put people before profit. The land was purchased and the project handed to the architectural firm of Peter Chamberlin, Geoffry Powell and Christof Bon, who had created the nearby Golden Lane Estate. “The architects were very radical, inspired by Le Corbusier and modern utopian thinking about the perfect way to live in the city,” says Jane Alison, who notes this was a fortuitous relationship between architect and developer. “The City wanted to make a statement about bringing back life into the boundaries of the financial City.”

A basic scheme of three towers and terrace blocks around a modest cultural hub – theatre, schools, concert hall – was agreed. The overall design changed regularly – it eventually incorporated 140 interlocking plans – but this core concept remained unchanged. Among the grander unbuilt ideas was one to construct a conservatory inside a huge glass pyramid, and another to use the Barbican as a repository for unwanted London landmarks such as Sir Christopher Wren’s Temple Bar and the London Coal Exchange. Instead, the estate constructed new icons in the form of three 37m towers, each with serrated balconies jutting out like concrete mandibles. For decades, these were the tallest residential buildings in the country.

Contractors began clearing the site in 1960, nearly 20 years after the Blitz, demolishing remaining buildings and removing roads, sewers, gas and electricity, while rerouting railway tracks. A survival of this clearance can be found near the corner of Aldersgate and Fann Street, where a frieze from a gold refiners based at 53/54 Barbican has been erected. This survived the Blitz but was pulled down in 1962.

The first residents moved into the estate in 1968, but building didn’t stop until 1982, at which point there were 21 residential blocks covering 14 hectares. These were built in a variety of styles and on a number of levels, with blocks linked by elevated walkways that raised pedestrians above street level. This network of “highwalks” was intended to spread throughout the City, but was eventually limited to the Barbican, and it is one of the reasons the estate has earned a reputation for being difficult to navigate despite the yellow line painted on the floor to help people get to the Arts Centre.

“One of the criticisms of Modernism is that it made things too bland, too similar, and removed complexity,” says John Grindrod. “The Barbican is an answer to that by being massively complicated and constantly interesting as a result. It is a bit like a medieval street layout and I think people are annoyed that the Barbican has its cake and eats it – it’s both sleek and modern but also very complicated and idiosyncratic.”

The Barbican takes the City’s ancient complexity and expands it over three dimensions – you can go up and down as well as backwards and forwards, so wandering around the Barbican becomes an adventure. Curves envelope you, towers loom, narrow pedways disappear under pedestals and re-emerge as wide walkways enlivened by beds of wild flowers. Even the yellow line may abruptly disappear, eradicated by recent reconstruction work.

There are surprises around every corner, such as London’s largest conservatory outside of Kew Gardens, or the aged tree stump named after composer Felix Mendelssohn, who once sat by it in Buckinghamshire contemplating compositions. Across the lake from the arts centre is the Grade I-listed church of St Giles, where Oliver Cromwell was married and the poet John Milton is buried.

Another fine spot is the roof of the concert hall, initially conceived as a sculpture court, which is framed by the graceful curve of Frobisher Crescent and overlooked by a giant tower.

“There are some interesting quirks in the design,” says resident Jane Smith. “There’s a thriving launderette because when it was planned, people didn’t have a washing machine. There’s also a heritage salvage store run by volunteers who assiduously collect original fittings people are chucking out so those who still have the old kitchen and bathrooms can try and match them up.”

This references another charm of the estate. The homes were built to a variety of plans ranging from studios to five-bedroom houses, but every kitchen was fitted with two sinks – one containing a device for removing waste material – and specially designed tiny bathroom sinks. Other aspects of life on the estate are more fully appreciated by residents, such as getting their rubbish collected five days a week, or having access to eight acres of gardens and lakes, all impeccably maintained either by volunteers or the City.

It’s this careful maintenance that has ensured the Barbican has not aged as badly as London’s other post-war buildings, but that is not the sole reason. The Barbican was constructed with great care, to a high level of detail. Originally, it was to be finished in white marble but the architects settled on tooled concrete. The concrete had to dry for 21 days before handheld hammers exposed the coarse granite aggregate. There’s also imaginative use of traditional coal-fired London brick, brass and ceramic tiles. “It was intended to be refined,” says Alison. “Even the concrete brings a decorative flourish to this robust, muscular building.”

Alison says that one of her favourite spots is on the bridge across the lake from the arts centre. “You are surrounded by these vast piloti columns and when you stand underneath the building and look up you might notice that the architects painted the underside of the buildings white,” she says. “It reflects the water beautifully. The towers are incredible too, I can’t think of any I like more. They look so much more interesting than many of the other high rises around London now.”

While the estate contains many treats, most visitors know the Barbican for its arts centre. This has galleries, cinemas, theatres, restaurants and a library, but was originally conceived as a small auditorium for the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, one of two schools on the site. “The arts centre only became a bigger entity when the Royal Shakespeare Company and London Symphony Orchestra expressed an interest,” says Alison. As the arts centre grew, the architects had to adapt their plan, eventually scooping a large hole out the ground and plonking the arts centre inside it. It was opened in 1982 and offers an adventurous, mixed programme from music and theatre to art and film. “Some residents are undoubtedly attracted because of the arts centre,” says Smith. “It’s quite an interesting balance having an international cultural attraction in the middle of a residential development and there are tiny bits of friction, but we generally have a good relationship. I like being able to walk to the theatre and cinema, and probably go to one or two marginal things simply because it’s so close.”

It’s this combination of art, architecture, public space and community adhesive that makes the Barbican so special. “What makes it important as a development is the sheer number of different things they managed to do,” says Grindrod. “It embodies more than any other post-war rebuilding scheme a successful way of doing all the things people were talking about after the war, like the separation of pedestrians and cars, the use of tower blocks as landmarks, the joined-up maisonettes. There are civic functions like the school and arts centre, and great transport links. They combined all those different things into what is a very historic site, which still has Roman walls and medieval churches. They did all this, and they made it work. That’s a real triumph.”
 
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