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In celebration of London Festival of Architecture, we take a look at the Barbican - London's monument to Brutalism.

Nestled in the heart of the City of London, the Grade II listed Barbican Estate is one of Britain’s finest examples of Brutalist architecture. The estate took no less than a decade to build and was officially opened by Queen Elizabeth in 1982, who declared it to be ‘one of the modern wonders of the world’.

The post-war complex, designed in the 1950s by British architects (and Le Corbusier devotees) Chamberlin, Powell and Bond, represents their utopian ideal for inner-city living. The 40-acre site, previously devastated by the bombing during WW2, provided an almost unparalleled opportunity for redevelopment. The result is an extraordinary accomplishment that manages to combine schools, museums, shops and restaurants within a high-density residential neighbourhood.

Architectural Merit:

Formed with a vision far beyond its time, the architects’ unique approach not only provided London with a landmark, mixed-use development but one that defined a clear distinction between private, community and public domains. In today’s world, it is hard to fathom the significance of their achievement. Celebrated architect, Piers Gough explains that the timing of the project has been a major reason for its  iconic status: “From a civilisation with apparently no word for dimensions of less a foot, came a totally complete, stonkingly powerful, three-dimensional city wrapped around a sumptuous landscape of green squares and lakes.”

Constructed in the iconic Brutalist architecture that defined the era, the Barbican style remains divisive amongst critics and Londoners alike. The word ‘Brutalism’ is derived from Le Corbusier’s term ‘beton brut’ and translates literally as raw concrete. The style and form of the building are drawn from its intended purpose, doing away with the ostentatious and unnecessary design features popular in the pre-war movements. The result is a complex of unapologetic coarse concrete surfaces (purposely bush hammered to reveal the rough texture of the aggregate), elevated gardens and a trio of high-rise towers. 

Barbican 2

While many consider this style to be gritty or gloomy (the Barbican has been ‘awarded’ the dubious title of ‘London’s Ugliest Building’ multiple times) others have more favourable views. Long time resident and previous Guardian critic, Jonathan Glancy commented that “The sheer number of ramps, decks, stairs, handrails and balconies here, plus the overtly nautical detailing, makes the Barbican feel, particularly on rain-soaked, windswept days, like some great concrete ship that has come to berth in the City of London.” Similarly, Architect Ken Mackay, who lives in the Estate’s converted development office, describes the whole complex as “a brave new world.”

Whichever side you stand on, there is no denying that there are many who aspire to live there. Amongst the noted residents are: architect Adam Caruso, artist Martin Creed and Wallpaper editor-in-chief Tony Chambers. While many of the 2,113 apartments are relatively modest when compared to modern day living standards, it is the attention to detail that still sets it apart. Floor-to-ceiling windows, mahogany interior features and suspended staircases all demonstrate the architects’ attention to detail. Each unit also boasts a private balcony with views of the centre of the estate. The landscaped gardens and lake remain truly unique to the Barbican and grant residents a sense of peaceful seclusion that remains so rare in our city.

At the time, their system was considered revolutionary, it has since been replicated the world over and arguably represents one of the UK’s finest architectural achievements to date.

A Symbol of Social expertise and Cultural Cachet:

One of the most significant roles of the Barbican is in its position as Europe’s largest multi-arts and conference venue. Built with the aim of creating a complex to rival New York’s Lincoln Centre, the Barbican Centre boasts ten floors, a concert hall, two theatres, three cinemas, and an art gallery. Owned by the City of London, the Centre acts as the headquarters for several landmark creative bodies, including The Royal Shakespeare Company, London Symphony Orchestra and the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

Barbican 3

Over its thirty-four years, the Centre has established a long-standing reputation for presenting outstanding architecture and design exhibitions and experiences. From regular architecture tours of the iconic building to presenting exhibitions by leading international figures from the worlds of architecture and design. Amongst the most significant include: Le Corbusier’s ‘Art of Architecture’ (2009), Alvar Aalto in ‘Through the Eyes of Shigeru Ban’ (2007) and Daniel Libeskind in ‘Space of Encounter’ (2005).

Today, the Barbican stands as a testament to progressive architecture but also acts as a beacon of the future. With ongoing improvements and a host of landmark exhibitions lined up, this extraordinary complex is sure to retain its iconic status for generations to come. 

The Banda Journal