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.

5 responses to “The Barbican Estate – a town reconstructed from its cellars

  1. We are all lost, as much in London as anywhere else. And yes, I do love meandering around the Barbican. Occasionally in tears.

  2. I sort of love the Barbican, but it has also been the cause of much confusion and some frustration down the years. I used to think that only the British could devise a cultural centre for the people that is so impenetrable. (My mum is German, I grew up hearing this lament often: ‘Only the British could…’) I thought the inaccessibility said a lot about our views on class and high brow culture. I still wonder about that. But, you’re right, the culture is also there to be had in the playful and complex nature of ingress and departure. Just hope you don’t miss the last train home getting lost in the dark.

    • > “cultural centre for the people that is so impenetrable”

      Just a product of its time really. When it was built, it was assumed that in the future nobody would go anywhere except by car. Hence you could be dropped right at the front door of the theatre, hardly impenetrable.

  3. Simon is right. It was built to be accessed by car – as were the flats. It was expected that you would enter from your subterranean car park, rise in the lifts and then have your splendid view across the rest of the estate. Visitors were expected to arrive by car, or of course by the pedway network (Podium) which, as has been covered many places else, was truncated and never really reached its potential (for better or worse, depending on your view).

    My advice to any visitor to the Barbican Estate was always to ignore sight lines or desire lines. Yes, you could probably *see* your destination, but rather than try and aim for it, you were better off if you just followed the signs around the pedway, let it lead you to the end place and then you counted the door numbers. It’s very easy to get around if you just don’t think too hard. And besides, it’s great fun to have a look around the place.

  4. Pingback: Gobbets of the week #24 | HistoryLondon

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s