Homes with history: The Barbican



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    Residents can enjoy the gardens

    ‘Living here is like a secret,’ says Alex Mitchell, 24, a personal assistant who moved into a studio flat in Breton House, one of the low-rise terrace blocks, in May with her boyfriend. ‘Only the people who live here know how great it is. It’s a real institution and everyone else thinks it’s just a concrete block they walk past.

    Inside the heart of the complex, the good life is more evident. The 38-acre site houses 6,500 people inside three towers and a series of terrace blocks, yet there is a sense of space and order emphasised by wide walkways, footbridges and split-levels. Much of the estate is built on a podium that is higher than street level,separating the estate from the surrounding area. Accommodation ranges from studio apartments to three-bedroom flats and even a row of terrace houses. Each block is limited to one or two types of accommodation, which allows for a cohesive design – and also creates a subtle social stratification. Those residents with larger properties are effectively sequestered from those with smaller ones.

    Although Mitchell’s one-room studio is small, a picture window running the width of the flat and opening on to a narrow balcony fills the space with the light essential to successful small space design. ‘The only way we could contemplate moving in was because there was the window and balcony to compensate for the size.’With the money they saved on floor space the couple were able to splash out on the interior. A stone tiled bathroom with beech fittings adds a luxurious finish as does the twentieth-century classic furniture and accessories, like Yngve Ekström’s 1956 ‘Lamino’ beechwood chair.

    The Barbican is more than a collection of flats, it is a community. In its cloistered confines, the architects have created a self-contained urban village. ‘It’s very community-led – almost a university campus feel,’ says James Mallinder, 34, an oil trader who has lived in a three-bedroom flat in Ben Jonson House, another terrace block, for nine years. ‘There are so many societies to join and we get discounted access to the Arts Centre [opened in 1982] and special evenings to attend. We’re encouraged to be considerate to one another. In summer, there are even notices reminding residents that smoking on their balconies might be unpleasant for others. It’s immaculate on the estate because if anyone sees rubbish, they will pick it up straight away.’

    One of the flat's space-saving kitchens

    Residents have exclusive access to the gardens tucked away in the centre of the estate. Here, the sense of this Home Counties quirkiness is most evident. Full-grown horse chestnut trees throw shade across immaculate lawns and flowerbeds studded with alliums, while squirrels
    gambol past. It’s the perfect vantage point to marvel at the acute angles of the towers, which loom above the lawns, and their ocean-liner balconies.

    For Mitchell, though, the best thing about her new city-centre location is the weekends. ‘On Saturday mornings, I can wander down to the gardens to read the papers, and go to a fantastic exhibition in the afternoon. I can buy all the ingredients for a decent meal to cook for the evening and then spend Sunday in the cinema. There’s everything that you could want for a perfect London weekend and it’s all in my home.’

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