An iconic element of brutalist architecture in London, the Barbican Estate stemmed from reconstruction efforts following World War II. While its relevance and use have been transformed over time — rendering it one of London’s most sought-after residential developments — it remains a fascinating architectural site, full of intricacies and symbolism.
In the following video, Cathy Ross — the Museum of London’s Director of Collections and Learning — walks through the history, vision and stunning architecture of the Barbican Estate to paint a picture of what the development continues to represent in the Londonian landscape.
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The Barbican Estate was designed in the 1950s by a young firm formed by architects Chamberlin, Powell and Bon. Determined to build Europe’s tallest residential blocks and adopt models of modern city living within the estate, the architects’ master plan incorporated elements of advancement and solidity that distinguished it from existing European architecture. As enthusiasts of the modern style, the architects employed brutalism as a symbol for London’s revival after years of horror and global destruction. Construction lasted through the following two decades, before the complex was officially opened in 1982.
“At the end of the war, the [London] Corporation had to decide exactly how to rebuild this particular bit of the city,” begins Ross. “This was going to be a visible symbol of how London could really rise again after the destruction of the old city; it was a vision of the new city quarter.” The Barbican Estate was not built as a social housing project, but rather as a solution to repopulating the City of London after the war. The common misconception may originate from the fact that the architects had gained recognition earlier in 1951 for designing the nearby Golden Lane Estate, a major council housing project on the northern edge of the city.
To embody the vision of a futuristic city, Chamberlin, Powell and Bon looked to modern city planning. “One of the big [elements] was that you separate pedestrians and cars,” explains Ross. “So pedestrians were to walk along these raised walkways — sort of in the air — and the cars were very much on the ground.” But it is particularly at the scale of architectural aesthetic that the Barbican continues to stand out as a lasting exemplar of solid, brutalist architecture. Even today, among all the glass and concrete that creeps around the Estate, the Barbican retains a strong, grounded identity.
Ross expresses this contrast when she talks of the crowding skyscrapers as making the Barbican look slightly old-fashioned. “The buildings look so solid, so staid, so rooted to the ground rather than connected to the skies as modern buildings are,” she says.
The development is also a haven of calm and contemplation in London’s bustling center. “It’s got lovely greenery, lovely sorts of gardens,” says Ross. “There’s water, lakes — which you could say are sort of like village ponds — and a lot of wildlife around, and although it is a massive estate and it is about the future, it’s also got a lot of resonance with the past.” A slice of history within the great and constantly shifting London, the Barbican Estate encloses the historic St. Giles’ Cripplegate Church — of which barely a shell remained after war bombings — as well as fragments of the old London wall.
The uncompromising style of the development is one that Londonians either hate or love. Pilotis holding the apartment towers above the lakes and rounded balconies throughout the development recall a strong Corbusian influence. However, the development differs from many of other brutalist estates built throughout the U.K. Its scale, utopian vision and connection to the past, which Ross mentions, all give it charm and value.
Today, more than 4,000 residents — many of whom have paid over a million pounds to own these properties — live on the 40-acre complex. The Barbican Estate also consists of the Barbican Arts Centre, Museum of London, Guildhall School of Music and Drama, the City of London School for Girls and a public library, making it Europe’s largest multipurpose arts venue.
It was also the inspiration behind a video game imagined by a young architect of the Bartlett School and was the setting for a music video directed by Callum Cooper in which British band Metronomy wanders through the Barbican, producing a memorable view of the building and its iconic architecture.
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All images from “The Barbican Estate” by the Museum of London