Tag Archives: architecture

The Barbican Estate – a town reconstructed from its cellars

In the comments to my Guardian piece on the Blitz (yes, I read them, hungrily seeking affirmation) there were several interesting discussions about the Barbican. In the piece I’d described it as a “successful” example of post-war redevelopment, something others were quick to dispute, arguing that nobody liked the Barbican. I hadn’t considered my view particularly controversial, but then I do spend a lot of time talking to Brutalists and had also just written an article about the history of the Barbican for the excellent n magazine – in-flight magazine for Norwegian airlines.

You can read it here, where there are also some excellent photographs. And here’s a video of Unit 4 + 2 singing “Concrete And Clay” on the unbuilt estate in 1965.

While writing the feature, I spent a couple of hours exploring the Barbican more carefully than ever before. Although I’ve visited the Barbican Centre and the Museum of London on countless occasions, this has rarely led me through or over the estate itself. There’s something about any estate that doesn’t welcome visitors and during my walks around London I usually stick to “normal” streets, but the Barbican is well worth your time.

The Barbican, contrary to public perception, is a wonderfully walkable part of London. Yes, it can be confusing but it was built with the pedestrian in mind so amply rewards the willing walker. As I wrote:

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.

The Barbican is often chastised for being confusing and it can be, but this is precisely what many people like about the City, with a medieval street pattern that is often deemed charming. And is there anything wrong with getting lost in London anyway? I’ll report back on that thought in my next blog post.

Three new London books: then, now, forever

I’ve been immersed in a trio of complementary London books in recent weeks, each of which adds further depth to any understanding of the city’s built environment.

London: Architecture Building And Social Change is a very useful, glossy overview looking at how London’s architecture has developed – or not – with the city’s needs. Sometimes the architecture has led to social change; sometimes social change has led to new architecture. Author Paul Knox focuses on 27 districts – largely central, which is understandable but slightly annoying – exploring how landowners and developers combined to give them their character, before looking at a dozen key buildings in closer detail. There’s rich detail here, as well as nice pictures and helpful maps. I was particularly grateful for being introduced to the word “super-gentrification” to describe London’s current toxic situation. Knox is particularly good at emphasising the city’s sense of scale – how it has repeatedly rejected density in favour of a more humanising style of urban living in the form of terraces or mansion blocks – and showing how this is once more under attack. The overall feel is a little like seeing London through a microscope: first the overview, then closing in on a specific area, then seeing how all this maps on to a single building. It’s also a terrific reference book.

If Knox’s angle is how we got from ‘then’ to ‘now’, Tom Bolton is more interested in what ‘now’ obscures of ‘then’. Vanished City: London’s Lost Neighborhoods hunts the streets for traces of London districts that have been eradicated by time, developers, fire and bombs. Bolton embraces the history, delving into archives to restore to life forgotten quarters such as Ratcliff, Cripplegate, Wellclose, Clare Market and, particularly fascinating, the strange lost towns of Old St Pancras. There’s much incidental overlap with Knox, but Bolton fills in some of the gaps, bringing us the stories of the people who lived in these lost towns rather than simply telling us who owned the land and what was built on it. Brilliantly researched and breezily written, the only drawback is a lack of maps, which would have really helped the reader pin the past on to the present. Instead, as with Bolton’s previous book with Strange Attractor, SF Said adds suitably spooky imagery.

Finally, the reprint of Ian Nairn’s Nairn’s London is a must for any Londonphile. Filling a space between Bolton’s largely historic musings and Knox’s contemporary report, Nairn looked at London at a very specific point in time, the mid 1960s, as the post-war redevelopment of the city was really getting underway. In this way, it makes a nice companion to HV Morton’s In Search of London, roving, individualistic, romantic and revealing. Nairn conceived it as “record of what has moved me, between Uxbridge and Dagenham”, and his idiosyncratic eye meant he was able to celebrate vernacular masterpieces like the Granada in Tooting (“Miss the Tower of London if you have to, but don’t miss this”) while waspishly dismissing some of Wren’s lesser works. Vivid and memorable, it’s like a three-dimensional A-Z. If you don’t already own it, snap one up.

Small is beautiful: maps and models in London exhibitions

I’ve written before about my dislike of blockbuster exhibitions so was interested to read this piece by Stephen Moss the other day about how the age of the blockbuster may be coming to an end.  It may be wishful thinking, but support for his view comes from some surprising places.

Ken Arnold, the creative force behind the Wellcome Collection, recently told me that ‘Blockbusters are a depressingly greedy way to view exhibitions’. Arnold criticised the idea that any institution would want to cover a subject so definitively it left no avenues for others to explore, and also bemoaned the very experience of a blockbuster, which is often so unfulfilling for the spectator, who is shunted in and out on a timed ticket, having only seconds to view key works of art from behind a throng of tourists and daytrippers.

Small exhibitions might not get the column inches and posters on the tube, but they are often far more thoughtful, unusual and creatively curated. There are two crackers on display in London at the moment, and I’ve reviewed both of them. The Petrified Music of Architecture at the Sir John Soane Museum is a wonderful collection of tiny Victorian models of European cathedrals – I wrote about it for the New Statesman.

The Hand-Drawn London exhibition at the Museum of London is even better. Curated by the Londonist website, it features 11 idiosyncratic maps of London drawn by locals, and is one of the best exhibitions I’ve seen for a while. I reviewed it for the Independent.

Go and see them both.