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
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’