Barbican: the critics' verdict

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    Features_Barbican intro 6.jpg

    Enter the labyrinth: the upstairs gallery at the Barbican

    Architecture

    By Jonathan Glancey

    My mother’s father ran his printing business somewhere beneath the Barbican. Looking at old maps, I know where this must have been, yet the old parish of Cripplegate is almost invisible today. But not unimaginable. When, in December 1940, the Luftwaffe swept away the huddled houses, pubs, chop houses and businesses of the area, the parish church of St Giles survived as a reminder that there had indeed been life here.Here, though, was a chance for the City of London to rebuild a part of the capital as never before. Instead of crooked prewar streets, a mighty concrete bastion would arise, its three 400ft towers and 18 other residential blocks housing 2,104 flats designed according to more than 140 different, interlocking plans. Where the population of Cripplegate had fallen to just 48 after World War II, now it would reach more than 4,000.

    There is nothing like the Barbican Estate in scale, intelligence, ingenuity, quality, urban landscaping and sheer abstract artistry anywhere else in Britain, perhaps even the world. True, some of its inspiration came from Le Corbusier’s concrete housing block, L’Unité d’Habitation, in Marseilles, yet the ambition and complexity of the Barbican make it a thing apart. Covering 40 acres, it is a modern take on the notions of medieval walled cities, the castles of Crusaders and of the Welsh Marches; of ocean liners, of mountain ranges glimpsed through the interstices of city streets and, believe it or not, of Venice. The way residents can walk over bridges, besides water and away from cars were all directly inspired by a trip the architects made to La Serenissima. And because it promised to turn its broad, rough concrete back on noisy City thoroughfares, the Barbican really could offer those who lived inside it something of the serenity of Venice. I lived here for four years, and was astonished by the quiet. What the Barbican is not is a run-of-the-mill housing estate. Nor did its architects, Peter Chamberlin, Geoffrey Powell and Swiss-born Christof Bon, design much else in the way of housing. The three young architects, all born around 1920, had each submitted a design independently to the Corporation of London for the Golden Lane estate in 1951. Powell won, but quickly teamed up with Chamberlin and Bon. The trio stuck together until retirement or death, a tight-knit, effective team.

    Features_Barbican intro1.jpg
    The Barbican's stark exterior

    The Barbican project was never thought of in terms of rushing up a couple of thousand flats. The City wanted open and green space as well. The only way this could be achieved was by building upwards, at great density. The housing had to be raised above the Metropolitan and Circle Lines and, to take advantage of this, the whole megastructure was raised up on concrete columns. This allowed for 2,000 underground car parking spaces, and the installation of three miles of service ducts, sewers, pipes, conduits and waste-disposal equipment. The Barbican Estate is truly a machine for living.

    Chamberlin, Powell and Bon were able to give their concrete a superb, highly crafted, expensive finish. Although there are still those who think all concrete the same, this is a battleship among post-war housing estates built to Rolls-Royce standards. No detail escaped the architects’ obsessive eyes. From girder-like handrails to sliding balcony doors, to kitchen fittings and the interiors of lifts, everything was custom-designed and custom-made. In certain ways, its architecture is as much baroque as it is Bauhaus.

    A massive project that took decades to design and build has taken an equally long time to win recognition in Londoners’ minds. Long dismissed as a concatenation of brutalist concrete by those who lived outside its heroic walls, the Barbican has always been admired by those it was built for. Today, the estate is both fashionable and listed: Chamberlin, Powell and Bon can rest in peace.

    Jonathan Glancey is architecture and design critic at the Guardian.

    Architecture | Art | Classical | Dance | Film | Theatre

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The Barbican project was never thought of in terms of rushing up a couple of thousand flats. The City wanted open and green space as well. The only way this could be achieved was by building upwards, at great density. The housing had to be raised above the Metropolitan and Circle Lines and, to take advantage of this, the whole megastructure was raised up on concrete columns. This allowed for 2,000 underground car parking spaces, and the installation of three miles of service ducts, sewers, pipes, conduits and waste-disposal equipment. The Barbican Estate is truly a machine for living.Chamberlin, Powell and Bon were able to give their concrete a superb, highly crafted, expensive finish. Although there are still those who think all concrete the same, this is a battleship among post-war housing estates built to Rolls-Royce standards. No detail escaped the architects’ obsessive eyes. From girder-like handrails to sliding balcony doors, to kitchen fittings and the interiors of lifts, everything was custom-designed and custom-made. In certain ways, its architecture is as much baroque as it is Bauhaus.A massive project that took decades to design and build has taken an equally long time to win recognition in Londoners’ minds. Long dismissed as a concatenation of brutalist concrete by those who lived outside its heroic walls, the Barbican has always been admired by those it was built for. Today, the estate is both fashionable and listed: Chamberlin, Powell and Bon can rest in peace. Architecture | Art | Classical | Dance | Film | Theatre

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