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The Barbican Centre: Architectural Marmite

Love it or hate it, The Barbican Centre is a hub of interesting and innovative design

Written by . Published on September 26th 2011.


The Barbican Centre: Architectural Marmite

THE Barbican Centre, which is situated in the City of London, certainly is one of the most divisive structures in the entire city. Along with Centre Point, The Shard and The Olympic Park, The Barbican continues to split Londoners with its challenging Brutalist design and high-rise towers, many of which have become synonymous nationwide with poor architectural design and an even poorer standard of living during recession hit 1980s Britain.

By the time the Barbican Centre was being conceived, Modernism had evolved further, as architects began to appreciate the aesthetics of the raw materials they were working with, creating structures with distinctive forms which appeared to have been hewn from solid stone – a movement soon to be dubbed as Brutalism.

Historically though, the Barbican played a vital role in the city of London. The Norman cityʼs walls and its fortifications today encircle the financial hub of London, with the Barbican, or gatehouse to the city, forming the core of a medieval Londonʼs defenses. Like much of the city, the area in and around the Barbican evolved as dramatically and as quickly as the rest of London had done over the course of over a thousand years. Before the outbreak of World War II, this corner of the city had an extremely large concentration of residential housing typical of Victorian London, which provided cramped and extremely poor living conditions for many of Londonʼs most vulnerable.

Lakes and gardens soften the harsh forms of the Barbican, whilst the towers sit in the background, framing the lush grounds of the complex. (Courtesy of The Barbican Centre)Lakes and gardens soften the harsh forms of the Barbican, whilst the towers sit in the background, framing the lush grounds of the complex. (Courtesy of The Barbican Centre)

Once the area has been devastated during the relentless Blitz campaign, which engulfed the city for over five years, the shape not only of the Barbican, but of the whole of London was to be redrawn forever by a group of young and progressive designers and architects whose ideas would still have a profound affect on the way we live today. The chronic shortage of housing all over the country after the destruction of World War II led many councils to explore more innovative, inexpensive and quick to build forms of housing already developed extensively all over continental Europe by avant-garde pioneers of modernist architecture such as Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe.

Chamberlin, Powell and Bon were the architectural practice entrusted with the challenge of creating a vast new community in the heart of London. A firm familiar with experimenting in formulating large social housing schemes, Chamberlin Powell and Bon had already demonstrated their architectural prowess on the adjacent Golden Lane Estate built a decade earlier. The centre piece of the estate was the tower, which drew much of its design inspiration from Le Corbusierʼs Unite dʼHabitation in Marseilles – considered by many to be a seminal work of large-scale Mordernist housing. A similarly progressive and innovative style was to be employed in the conception of the Barbican Centre, though on a much grander scale.

The Barbicanʼs powerful forms and harsh exterior interestingly disguise a postwar movement, which sought to create a new style of architecture whilst also forming a new optimistic utopian society out of the ruins of war. When the tenements and cramped flats of Victorian London lay flattened, architects had the opportunity to redraw entire cities and towns, forging new styles of architecture in the process, ultimately creating new ways of living out of the ruins of the Blitz-ravaged city. Idealistic young designers with fresh ideas looked at what they deemed to be antiquated ideas of the prewar world and embraced a new style – Modernism. By the time the Barbican Centre was being conceived, Modernism had evolved further, as architects began to appreciate the aesthetics of the raw materials they were working with, creating structures with distinctive forms which appeared to have been hewn from solid stone – a movement soon to be dubbed as Brutalism.

The clusters of differently shaped buildings which make up the complex echo the surrounding ancient streets, whilst giving each part of the centre a unique identity. %28Morley von Sternberg%29The clusters of differently shaped buildings which make up the complex echo the surrounding ancient streets, whilst giving each part of the centre a unique identity. Morley von Sternberg

Construction began on the 20 November 1972, with the entire complex not completed until nearly a decade later in March 1982. In this period, much had changed in Britain, not only in terms of architecture and design, but also socially and economically. Walking along the Barbicanʼs infamous Highwalkʼs back into the city represent not only an architectural transition and a shift in design ideologies, but also a shift in cultural ideas and beliefs. As one emerges from the simple and utilitarian concrete forms of the Barbican into the glass, marble and steel clad world of consumerist 1980s London, it becomes clear that the Barbican signifies one of the final forays into large social housing experiments in postwar Britain. The structureʼs Grade II listing along with its popularity as a centre for culture would also suggest that it represents one of the most successful schemes realised during one of the most experimental periods in the design of our built environment.

The Brutalist design of the Barbican may be divisive from the outside, but once within the almost fortified walls of the complex and away from the world of business that lays just beyond the Centreʼs lakes and gardens, thereʼs a real sense of calm and serenity unmatched by anywhere else in this notoriously hectic cosmopolitan enclave. An urban oasis away from the bustle of one of the worldʼs largest financial centres, the challenging and almost threatening exterior of this concrete beast conceals a very different world once inside. As one walks along streets in the sky overlooking manmade lakes, perfectly tended lawns and unusual architectural forms, there is a great sense of surrealism and peacefulness, which embraces the entire complex.

One thing that strikes anyone entering the Barbican complex is the sheer abundance of space the Centre has to offer. It is almost as though when designing this new way of living, the architect’s primary concern was the outdoor spaces the collection of buildings would frame, rather than the buildings themselves. The concrete pillboxes sit in a very austere and unassuming manner on the periphery of the lakes, gardens and tennis courts which make up the centre pieces of each of the apartment blocks, whilst the three towers which also form part of the complex sit quietly in the background, monolithic and serene, a feat which so many other towers in London from this period fail to achieve.

Life within the walls of the Barbican is about as normal as one can imagine considering the Centre’s location in the very heart of the city. The dynamic programme of arts and theatre offered by the Barbican Centre is refreshingly juxtaposed with an array of launderettes, corner shops and off licenses, which really bring home the fact that the Barbican complex is a real neighbourhood with a great sense of community. Despite the alien architecture and harsh concrete forms, which make up the Barbican Centre, one also sees life go on here like anywhere else in London. Shunned by so many from the outside, and often unfairly awarded the accolade of ʻLondonʼs Ugliest Building,ʼ to really experience the Barbican, one must get within the fabric of the building to appreciate the unique and imaginative way Chamberlin, Powell and Bon sought to challenge architectural conventions and truly change the way in which we live.

Even today, the Barbican is used as a model of how large scale social housing from this exciting period can work and is a testament to how a type of architectural design which is often so defiled can subvert convention, housing within it some of the most sought after and exemplary real estate in London. Its unique and unforgiving design represents not only a period of dramatic change in London, but also a period of dramatic change all over the country, creating along the way a new style of living and a new social fabric.

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