In ad­vance of the 50th an­niver­sary of the Bru­tal­ist icon that is Lon­don’s Bar­bican es­tate, a new book by past res­i­dent Stefi Orazi cel­e­brates its longevity

ELLE Decoration (UK) - - Design & Architecture -

I re­mem­ber vividly the first time I vis­ited the Bar­bican es­tate. It was 1997, I had just grad­u­ated from uni­ver­sity and got a job as a ju­nior de­signer for a men’s mag­a­zine. It was a hot sum­mer and the Labour gov­ern­ment had just got into power. I was broke and in debt, but it didn’t mat­ter – there was pos­i­tiv­ity in the air.

Af­ter a work night out in Soho, a group of us ended up go­ing to Tony the art di­rec­tor’s flat in the Bar­bican. We got into the lift, went up to the sixth floor and into his (Type 36) apart­ment and I was speech­less. A dou­ble-height liv­ing space, walls painted in Cor­bu­sian brights, sim­ply fur­nished, books ev­ery­where, wooden ➤

open-tread stairs – it was stun­ning. We all cooed as Tony ex­plained the cu­riosi­ties of the Bar­bican, from the cen­tralised Garchey waste dis­posal sys­tem to the un­der­floor heat­ing. Some of us ended up stay­ing over and, in the morn­ing, I had to nav­i­gate my way through the es­tate to the tube sta­tion.

In the day­light, Gilbert Bridge, which spans the Bar­bican lake, was a to­tally dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ence. To one side of it was the wa­ter­fall, and on the other, foun­tains – what the hell was this amaz­ing place?! And so it was by pure luck that a few weeks later, hav­ing found my­self with nowhere to live, Tony sug­gested I could stay in his spare room for a while. What was meant to be a few months stretched to eight years, and my love af­fair with the Bar­bican and its ar­chi­tec­ture has en­dured. At that time, the Bar­bican hadn’t reached the fash­ion­able Bru­tal­ist sta­tus it has to­day. It was like our lit­tle se­cret. Most peo­ple still thought of it as an eye­sore, some­times top­ping polls to be named Britain’s ugli­est build­ing. It was (and of­ten still is) per­ceived as a coun­cil es­tate – a no­tion that seemed bizarre to me, hav­ing grown up in one. I’d never come across a coun­cil es­tate that was so im­pec­ca­bly de­signed and main­tained. Stairs, lifts, lob­bies, all cleaned and mopped ev­ery day. Rub­bish col­lected from a nifty lit­tle two-way cup­board daily, with milk de­liv­ered to the hatch above. Pri­vate gar­dens that were pruned and wa­tered to per­fec­tion and the Arts Cen­tre lit­er­ally a lift ride away. This re­ally was a utopia.

Since then, I’ve seen the de­mo­graphic and the per­cep­tion of the Bar­bican com­pletely trans­form. Had I been smart enough, I would have started sav­ing to put a de­posit down on a flat in those early days. A typ­i­cal Bar­bican res­i­dent back then would have been a mid­dle-aged City worker. The es­tate was con­ve­nient for them lo­ca­tion-wise, and very safe – plus, if the ex­te­rior was not to their ➤

taste, that was okay – you could chintz-up the in­side of your apart­ment to your heart’s con­tent. I re­mem­ber there was a fam­ily with chil­dren in the apart­ment across the cor­ri­dor from us, but apart from them I don’t re­mem­ber see­ing any other kids. The res­i­dents’ gar­dens were bar­ren and, in the sum­mer, I was of­ten the only per­son sun­bathing there. I don’t know when it started to change, but slowly my best-kept se­cret was no longer a se­cret. The Bar­bican be­gan to be ap­pre­ci­ated. De­sign­ers, artists and ar­chi­tects with fam­i­lies be­gan to move in and to­day the gar­dens are pop­u­lated with chil­dren run­ning about, as the ar­chi­tects en­vis­aged.

With its hous­ing – from tiny stu­dios to town­houses – across 20 dif­fer­ent blocks, it’s a unique and spe­cial place. Next year will mark the 50th an­niver­sary of the first res­i­dents mov­ing in. It’s hard to imag­ine any­thing like it ever be­ing built again. ➤

‘I’VE SEEN THE DE­MO­GRAPHIC AND THE PUB­LIC PER­CEP­TION OF THE BAR­BICAN COM­PLETELY TRANS­FORM’

A BRIEF HIS­TORY OF THE BAR­BICAN’S BE­GIN­NINGS BY JOHN AL­LAN

The Bar­bican es­tate in the City of Lon­don is the most com­plete re­al­i­sa­tion of a Cor­bu­sian vi­sion of modern ur­ban­ism any­where in Britain. As the achieve­ment of a re­ced­ing era, it has now be­come in­creas­ingly hard to comprehend how a work of such mag­ni­tude and tenac­ity was ac­com­plished, and im­pos­si­ble to imag­ine that any­thing of com­pa­ra­ble am­bi­tion could ever be achieved again. It is wit­ness to an or­der of civic val­our of which this coun­try no longer seems ca­pa­ble. The Bar­bican was born from the War, when aerial bom­bard­ment ef­fec­tively cre­ated – ex­cept for some rem­nants of The City’s Ro­man wall and the shell of St Giles’ Church – a tab­ula rasa site so ex­ten­sive that noth­ing less than a strate­gic plan of com­men­su­rate scale would be an ad­e­quate re­sponse.

Af­ter years of de­lib­er­a­tion, in 1960 the noble vi­sion emerged of cre­at­ing an en­tirely new res­i­den­tial quar­ter, com­plete with all the as­so­ci­ated ameni­ties and cul­tural fa­cil­i­ties wor­thy of its cen­tral lo­ca­tion in a great city, with ar­chi­tects Cham­ber­lin, Powell and Bon at the helm. The vast plans in­cluded 140 dif­fer­ent types of apart­ment, each one a pro­gres­sive model of do­mes­tic de­sign. Uni­fy­ing them all was a stan­dard of qual­ity, in­deed opu­lence, that would dis­tin­guish the Bar­bican from the con­ven­tional mu­nic­i­pal equiv­a­lents. Best ex­em­pli­fy­ing the quest for in­no­va­tion were surely the kitchens. Of crit­i­cal im­por­tance to the vi­a­bil­ity of most of the type plans was the need for kitchens and bath­rooms to be in­ter­nal, thereby en­abling floor­plate depths to be fully ex­ploited and ex­te­rior walls to be re­served for hab­it­able rooms, tak­ing in­spi­ra­tion from the de­sign of boats.

The Bar­bican demon­strates that, con­trary to pop­u­lar myth, dense ur­ban es­tates can work splen­didly when they are well planned, well built and well man­aged. Its pres­ti­gious lo­ca­tion, schools, Arts Cen­tre and abun­dant pub­lic realm con­trib­ute in­es­timable added value to the area, but its last­ing les­son – so painfully learned in in­nu­mer­able un­der-funded sys­tem-built es­tates – is surely that there can be no short­cuts when cre­at­ing a durable com­mu­nity. Ex­tracted from ‘The Bar­bican Es­tate’ by Stefi Orazi, on sale now (£40, Bats­ford)

‘IT IS HARD TO COMPREHEND HOW A WORK OF SUCH TENAC­ITY WAS AC­COM­PLISHED’

Pho­tog­ra­phy CHRISTOFFER RUDQUIST

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