| William Guild | Juin 2019 |
The Barbican is known by many people for its cultural spaces, but it is also perhaps the most iconic example of ‘Brutalist’ architecture in the City of London.
Completed in 1974 after a decade of construction, the complex now stands as a testament to the pioneering social agendas of the architects and politicians who made this Modernist utopia possible. While many similarly large-scale projects of the Post-War period are under threat of the wrecking ball, the Barbican Estate still appeals to contemporary Londoners. Today, the City’s skyline is warping beyond recognition; numerous glass towers now share the airspace where once the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral dominated the skyline.
The word ‘Barbican’ originates from the Low Latin Barbecana, which refers to a tower or gateway constructed outside the ring of defences and connected to the city walls by a fortified road known as a ‘neck’. With advancements in siege tactics, Barbicans became obsolete and many of them were either demolished or repurposed. The presence of Tudor bricks on the site suggests that the foundations for the original wall were later reused to build housing during the expansion of the City. Signs of this archaeology are still visible today, enclosed by the concrete walkways and courtyards of the Estate.
It is hard to imagine this area as a densely-packed Victorian neighbourhood with dark, gloomy alleyways. At the time, the Barbican was part of the parish of Cripplegate, of which the church of St Giles (in the middle of the site) is the only surviving building. It is estimated that 14 000 people lived here in 1850, around ten percents of the entire population of the City of London. However, German bombs during World War Two reduced the entire neighbourhood to rubble. A census carried out in 1951 counted only 48 remaining residents. The City was effectively a ‘ghost town’ after hours, once the commercial institutions had closed and the working men and women had retreated to the safety of their suburban homes.
Planning and Social Context
As part of the Town and Country Planning Act of 1947, the London County Council (LCC) designated the corridor running from St Luke’s in the north down to the River for comprehensive development. This included the Barbican and Cripplegate as well as many of the streets surrounding St Paul’s. The area had a sustained considerable bomb damage, which provided an unprecedented opportunity to “start again”. For the past century, the tendency in this area had been to replace densely packed housing tenements with grand commercial buildings, especially banks, which were required by law to be within a ten-minute walking distance of the Bank of England. However, this practice forced out most of the residents of the inner city, dramatically shrinking the population from 100 000 to just 5 000 in 1952.
In a bid to inject new life into the area, the government set out to provide accommodation for 7 000 new residents in the heart of the City. The hugely ambitious plan came as a reaction to the collapse of the ‘Downtown’ areas in American cities, which were becoming devoid of social activity. The LCC planning department also saw this as an opportunity to break with the past, to build a new ‘city’ within the City. This was something Sir Christopher Wren wanted, but failed, to do with his plan for the reconstruction of London after the Great Fire of 1666. In 1952, a formal enquiry by the City of London Cooperation outlined the need for new housing in their planning policy but it was not until 1957 that architects Chamberlin, Powell and Bon were commissioned to carry out preliminary design work.
It took almost another decade before construction began on site. Given the sheer size of the development, additional works were carried out such as moving an existing goods railway, realigning and extending the sewage system and knocking down the remaining ruins. The scheme was based on modernist principles such as dividing pedestrian and vehicular traffic, optimising sunlight to the flats and freeing up the ground plane for shared amenity spaces. Additional provisions were made for boiler houses and underground car parking as well as extensive landscaping on the first-floor deck.
Spread over 14 hectares, the Estate contains 2 104 residential units made up of 140 different types of flat. They are housed within three 120 m high towers and a series of interlocking terraces along a plan, which disregarded the existing street layout. The scheme also includes schools, a concert hall, an art gallery and countless shared recreational facilities. Several cultural and educational institutions, which had lost their buildings to the War, were given new accommodation on the Estate like the Guildhall and the City of London School for Girls. This was all part of a conscious effort to avoid creating the sort of monotonous environment, which has led many Post-War housing projects to becoming ‘sink estates.’
The Concert Hall
The design for a concert hall was a central part of the proposed cultural program. The architects showed great attention to detail by imagining how the venue would be used. While the hall can hold up to 1 000 people, it is carefully divided into tiers to cater for a variety of performances and atmospheres. The intimate setting of a chamber music recital can be recreated within the lower amphitheatre; larger orchestras can be spread across the two lower tiers with the audience being seated along the upper asymmetrical ‘saucer shaped’ gallery. The lower floor can also be turned into a ‘theatre in the round’, which is typically used for Elizabethan or Shakespearian plays. The design of the hall affords a great deal of flexibility, while also ensuring optimal sound and lighting for specific types of events to ensure the best possible spectator experience.
The space was conceived with traditional British and Western European performances in mind, from chamber music to choirs and rock bands. The floor can also be reconfigured to meet the needs of more experimental productions, enabling the Barbican concert hall to adapt to contemporary tastes and trends. Today, the venue remains one of the most popular events spaces in London.
An extraordinary feat of Modern architecture, the Barbican remains an important urban project in the heart of the City of London. The Estate represents a pioneering solution to high density housing, where the design conveyed the optimism of a new era, promoting modern living conditions and providing new public space. It has also become an important cultural hub for the capital, thanks to its remarkable performance spaces such as the Concert Hall. The Centre’s popularity has unsurprisingly led to questions about expanding notably with a recent proposal for a new Centre for Music to replace the Museum of London.
You can discover all this yourself with a 90 minute guided Architecture tour, organised by the Barbican Centre or, for a truly original experience, try visiting the Conservatory: open for a limited number of Sundays each month, it is one of London’s hidden treasures with over 2,000 species of tropical plants and trees.