Words Huw Griffith
and Tessa Nicholson
Photography Tobias Harvey
After being razed to the ground by German WWII bombing campaigns, the area now known as the Barbican in London was part of a regeneration process in the 60s and 70s, perhaps ironically, in the emerging style of Brutalism. It now stands as one of the city’s most creative hubs
On the evening of 29 September 1940, several formations of Heinkel HE 111 bombers were reported approaching the coasts of Shoreham and Clacton-on-Sea.
The “Luftschlacht um Großbritannien” or “Air Battle of Britain” was in its 11th week, with London now at the receiving end of a sustained bombing policy designed to break its will. This night was no exception. At 02:30 am, five hours after the first set of attacks had begun, additional bombers began their descent from the South and North East. On arrival at the city they promptly relieved themselves of over 100,000 high explosive incendiary bombs. One particular area, the ancient ward of Cripplegate, simply disappeared. Thirty-five acres in all. Every street from Moorgate via the old London Wall to Aldergate Street was razed.
The following morning, it was said you could walk for over half a mile without seeing a single standing building. Two notable exceptions were St Paul’s Cathedral to the west and the medieval church of St Giles-without-Cripplegate, its name never more appropriate, its skeletal cloistered arches still intact, standing alone as if stunned in the cold light of morning at its very survival. By the time the war had ended this newly created bombsite had adapted itself as a semi-rural retreat for office workers, with wild foliage flourishing amongst its nooks and crannies, the brick foundations and ruinous walls alluding to a lost city. It is telling that the 1851 census tallied a parish population in St Giles at 14,361 whilst the 1951 census records only 28 residents.
Thoughts on re-developing the area, or “Barbican” as it would become known (its name derived from the Latin word barbecana, meaning a fortified outpost of a city), hadn’t really got going until the mid-50s. Various failed ideas were put forward – dilly-dallying and bureaucratic indecision ensured that. It was planning consultants Martin-Mealand and recently appointed architects Chamberlin, Powell & Bon (CP&B), however, that put the ball firmly into play.
Martin-Mealand’s design proposed a like-for-like approach, to replace what had been lost with a combination of mainly commercial buildings and a few acres of housing near St Giles, as this had been predominantly what existed before the war. CP&B took a more radical approach and put forward a plan for a residential complex capable of housing 5,000 people. Both these initial tenders fell foul of senior town and government planning directives and had to be re-modified to accommodate a somewhat utopian vision that addressed all conflicting requirements. Three particular elements were identified as fundamental, “A provision of high density housing, schools, and a generous open space”. CP&B fell into line. By 1959 they had adjusted their plans accordingly and published a new strategy (Chamberlin, Powell & Bon, Architects Barbican Redevelopment, April 1959) “to turn an existing desert into a garden surrounded by flats and containing schools. The layout is spacious; the buildings and the ground between them are composed to create a clear and coherent sense of order without monotony… Unhindered by traffic, an oasis would be formed dedicated to pedestrians who, moving about, would be faced with constantly changing perspectives of terraces, lawns, trees and flowers all reflected in ornamental waters”. This report introduced the ground-breaking idea that by concentrating the large number of flats required into relatively small areas, more land area would be freed up not only to open spaces but also for concert halls, theatres and a cinema, “Owing to its unique position, the city had offered virtually no opportunities for ‘mental recreation’ in the evenings after the business life of the city closed down.” And so began the motion that would confirm the Barbican as one of London’s most vital cultural hubs.Above: Bomb damage near St Paul’s. Taken by David Wright in 1959, this Agfacolor photograph shows the degree of damage that remained untouched in the 14 years since the war had ended
- Chamberlin, Powell and Bon continued to modify and integrate all the relevant proposals. On 11 November 1959 the Barbican scheme finally got its rubber stamp.
The architects travelled extensively throughout Europe taking note of modernist architecture. Buildings by Le Corbusier, Ernesto Rogers and Ernö Goldfinger informed much of their ideas. Indeed the “Pedway” system or elevated walkways that link much of the Barbican took inspiration from Stockholm’s pedestrianised grid systems and even the Bridge of Sighs in Venice. Closer to home, the architects would take London’s Georgian squares into their plans, referring to “long terraces reminiscent of the London squares.” The Barbican terraces emulate these forebears, with their opposing semi-private gardens in the middle and how they join at rectangles.
One of the most contentious architectural styles emerging out of this post-war ravaged era was “Brutalism” – stemming from the French Béton brut, meaning “raw concrete” and most typically associated with fascist totalitarian regimes. Characteristically utilitarian, cold and anti-aesthetic, it is a look that conjures the urban landscapes of the Communist-era or dislocated housing projects of the 70s. On the other hand, some would champion it as heroic and distinct with its bold geometric impressions, its sculptural simplicity. In Britain, brutalism chimed with anti-establishment thinking, a kick against the class system and the bourgeoisie. It certainly puts the back up Prince Charles, who considers it an eyesore, “You have to give this much to the Luftwaffe – when it knocked down our buildings, it didn’t replace them with anything more offensive than rubble.”Above: Gravestones taken from nearby St Giles’s church have been repositioned onto plinths and arranged as a montage of ornamentation. The gas lamps, originally from Tower Bridge, line the waterside
- Fortress-like, uncompromising block buildings began to be stamped on cities the world over. Brutalism was having its day – a contemporary response to a decidedly traumatic past. This, then, was to be the chosen style for the Barbican. It certainly appeared to chime with the socialist, egalitarian attitudes of the time, when public welfare began to dictate urban planning. The then Rt Hon Duncan Sandys, Minister of Housing, suggested “decentralisation” as a solution to urban congestion suggesting that “new towns” or “town expansion schemes” would answer some difficult problems. His speeches read like a battle cry, “a lack of basic amenities, room to build new houses, traffic jams with long journeys to and from work, placed a great additional strain upon the nerves and health of its people and this problem should be tackled with vigour, energy and courage.”
Work began on the Barbican in 1963 with 13 terraced blocks and three towers going up between 1964 and 1975. This created 2014 flats and maisonettes, each with its own type or layout number. There are over 100 variant types. The arts centre was declared open as late as 1982. There were also buildings to house The City of London School for Girls, The Guildhall School of Music and Drama, The Museum of London and even a botanical greenhouse, all linked via podiums and walkways. The Barbican is a complex of many interconnected parts, owing to the fact that CP&B were masters of spatial economy – its openness, expressing a continuity from one area to the next; its spectacular vistas; the natural light and space in the flats themselves, and their infamous fixtures and fittings. The architects worked with compassion, ever mindful of the people that would live there. Consequently it is a place of odd serenity given its 4,000 inhabitants. The gardens and balconies teem with all manner of trees and hanging gardens that somehow soften the rough mottled concrete facades.Above: Detail of a stairwell, an example of “Bush Hammering”. A technique employed to add texture to concrete, expertly done by hand
Flat Type 19
Dr James Campbell
Dr James Campbell is a resident. An architectural historian at Queen’s College, Cambridge, he regards his Type 19 flat as a weekend retreat from his Oxbridge outpost. Enjoying the contrast of both worlds, he and his family appear to cherish the Barbican’s peace and tranquility. For Campbell, having private gardens in the heart of the city that, crucially, “don’t need tending” is a clear advantage. His flat is immaculately decorated and organised. Painted white, it is sparse and contemporary with clean lines throughout. Custom-made, white-lashed bookcases are filled with reference books and simple unfussy furnishings – a world away from the hallowed study rooms at Cambridge.
A world authority on the building methods employed by Christopher Wren and also the history of the brick, Campbell readily admits he is not really a fan of Brutal architecture or indeed the “bush hammered concrete” used at the Barbican. He explained that bush hammering creates a texture employed to hide the joints and disguise unsightly weathering, but as a technique it is laborious: “It’s perverse really because you take an industrial material like concrete and it is expertly finished by hand – an extreme skill.” The original 1959 plans had the buildings finished in a comparatively delicate, polished concrete but the city’s financial men clearly went for the cheaper, rough option.
The Barbican may not match the beauty of a Wren church, 16 of which were destroyed in the vicinity during WW2, but for Campbell it is no less majestic. “It is very grim in the rain but rather wonderful in the sunshine.”Top: A view from the bedroom window, the adjoining terrace in diminishing perspective
Middle: With views out onto the city, James on his balcony
Right: A view of James’s study, complete with sliding wall partitionLeft: A page from Barbican Redevelopment by the architects Chamberlin, Powell & Bon. Printed in 1959, it shows a layout of the proposed development
Flat Type 31
On the West side of the Barbican, nestled high up on one of the terraces, Michael Belben resides. Founding owner of The Eagle, London’s first ever Gastro pub and widely recognised as one of the finest, Belben’s arrival was the result of a divorce. “The Barbican is full of divorced men,” he confides, “judges and divorcees”.
His previous abode was a large Georgian family townhouse, which couldn’t be more different to where he now lays his hat, or rather, his motorcycle helmet. He explains how the Barbican seemed an ideal place to start over again after the turmoil of separation, “It was just right for me really.” Ideally located for his work, it appears a haven from his busy life down at street level.
It feels like a home as soon as you walk through the door, comfortable and worn in. Large canvasses adorn the walls by the artists he admires. The living/dining room is open-plan and littered with an eclectic assortment of designer furniture pieces by Eames, Marcel Breuer and Gerrit Rietveld. It’s cool, like a grown-up bachelor pad.
Where practically possible Michael has retained many of the original fixtures and fittings. He suggested that we photograph early in the morning to capture the best light. He was right. Beautiful autumnal light filtered through the large sliding doors and across the living room. When asked had the architects got it right, he replied, “Spot on. An urban heaven. I often have to pinch myself.”Top to bottom: Main living room: Lounge chair by Charles and Ray Eames for VITRA; coffee table in foreground by Marcel Breuer manufactured by Knoll, pale blue sofa and single armchair by Le Corbusier available from CassinaMichael Belben, at homeBuilt-in compartments beside the front door, originally intended for mail, milk deliveries and rubbish collections. These can be opened from both sides; inside and out
Flat Type 36
As editor-in-chief of Wallpaper* magazine, Tony Chambers is a busy man. But it is his great admiration of post-war design that brought him to another kind of lofty height – that of his Barbican maisonette. Tucked away on top of a terrace and arranged over two floors, it typifies CP&B’s intention of creating epic space. His flat type is designed without a ceiling over the main living room, giving way to wonderful proportions of scale. A stairway leads to a galleried landing; opposite this, an enormous teak-framed window replaces an entire wall, bringing the outside in.
Despite operating at the cutting-edge of contemporary fashion and design, Chambers himself is modest and unassuming. Moving to the Barbican was very much part of his intention and plan. He previously lived in the Spa Green Estate that was designed by one of his heroes, Berthold Lubetkin (the man behind London Zoo’s penguin house).
It is clear that design resonates with Tony – a fact displayed by his extensive reference book library that stands almost 10 feet high and spans the length of his living room. Large framed prints are stacked on the floor against one another, still to be hung; the bare white walls accentuating the sense of space still further. Tony and his wife have created a home as calming and informal as it is sophisticated. One of my favourite aspects of the flat is to be found through the study room upstairs: a private terrace, its potted plants dappled in sunlight, overlooking the Elysian landscape below. It seems somehow surreal, as I stand taking in the beauty of the Barbican’s lake, bridge, waterfall, gardens and adjoining terraces.Top: View from the gallery. The terrace can be viewed through a large window. Left: The main living room has sliding doors to a smaller balcony; Kennedee sofa by Jean-Marie Massaud for Poltrona Frau; Peter Behrens rug for Vorwerk; Barcelona chair by Mies van der Rohe for Knoll
- It is clear that design resonates with Tony – a fact displayed by his extensive reference book library that stands almost 10 feet high and spans the length of his living room. Large framed prints are stacked on the floor against one another, still to be hung; the bare white walls accentuating the sense of space still further. Tony and his wife have created a home as calming and informal as it is sophisticated. One of my favourite aspects of the flat is to be found through the study room upstairs: a private terrace, its potted plants dappled in sunlight, overlooking the Elysian landscape below. It seems somehow surreal, as I stand taking in the beauty of the Barbican’s lake, bridge, waterfall, gardens and adjoining terraces.
For two weeks now, I have stared out from the Barbican’s podiums and strolled along its walkways. This architectural vision of the future cannot be ignored, especially on account of the fact that it was built on socialist foundations. The Barbican opened in 1969, the same year as the moon landings. Fittingly, its look is pure science fiction – inhuman in scale and I wouldn’t be surprised if a Dalek suddenly appeared from around a corner. It has, however, a conspicuous gentleness throughout that runs totally counter. A certain kind of quiet.
John Milton, the great poet and republican freedom fighter, is buried in St Giles Church. I suspect he would have liked the idea of a fortified outpost rising out of desolation and ruin – an out-and-out Paradise Lost then Regained. When Milton published the second edition of his two most famous epic poems, he accompanied them with an explanation as to “why the poem rhymes not”. I like that as a metaphor for the Barbican – epic but resoundingly unsentimental.Above: Looking up from the main room; chair by Jens Risom Rocket Gallery; Stump side table by Pierre Charpin for Ligne Roset; Barcelona chair by Mies van der Rohe for Knoll, op-La tray table by Jasper Morrison for ALESSI
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