Aerial photo of the Barbican complex
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Brutal and Beautiful: The Story of London’s Barbican

London’s Barbican is arguably the greatest piece of urban architecture of post-war Britain.

London’s Barbican is arguably the greatest piece of urban architecture of post-war Britain.

A view from across the lake towards the Barbican Centre and Lakeside Terrace
The Barbican Centre, photographed on 3 March 1982. © Historic England Archive. JLP01/10/10205.

It’s a visionary Brutalist/Modernist scheme: monumental in scale, geometric, high density, multi-level with elevated walkways and multiple entrances and exits, a car-free city within the City.

Controversial when it was built, the Barbican’s design still divides opinion today.

There are over 2,000 flats with more than 4,000 residents, a lake with a lakeside terrace, gardens and fountains, shops, the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, the City of London School for Girls, the Barbican Library, and a world-renowned multi-disciplinary cultural hub, the Barbican Centre, with its tropical conservatory.

The Queen’s inauguration of the Barbican Centre, on 3 March 1982, marked the concluding act of the architectural vision, the completion of the Barbican Estate.

This is the Barbican’s story.

The site: Cripplegate and the Blitz

Aerial bombing by the German Luftwaffe during the Blitz destroyed most of the location the Barbican now occupies, about 16 hectares (around the size of 27 football pitches), once occupied mainly by the City’s rag trade: tailors, dress-makers, furriers, leather and fabric merchants. 

Aerial image of the bombed area with only a few buildings remaining, such as St Giles Cripplegate church
St Giles Cripplegate church survived the Second World War Blitz (7 September 1940 to 11 May 1941), despite receiving a direct hit summer 1940 and being attacked with incendiary bombs in the December. The streets around were severely damaged. This aerial image shows the area after clearance. The church was later incorporated within the Barbican Estate (see image later). Image in the Public Domain.

The name Barbican (from a Roman word for watchtower) once was a street in this area. In 1951, six years after the end of the war, it was home to only 48 residents.

The City of London Corporation acquired the bomb-damaged Cripplegate site after the Blitz with a view to developing a commercial area there before deciding, despite fierce internal opposition, to build and manage a mainly residential scheme.

The architects

Three men smoke and lean against a door
Architects Geoffry Powell, Christoph Bon, Peter ‘Joe’ Chamberlin in 1953. Source: RIBA Collections.

In the mid-1950s, CPB were employed as consultant architects to what was to become the Barbican.

General view of the Golden Lane estate, looking north across a water feature towards Bayer House
Part of the Golden Lane Estate, built as social housing to the north of Cripplegate. Chamberlin, Powell and Bon had all separately entered a 1951 competition to design the estate, with Geoffry Powell winning the following year. A prior agreement between the three close friends that they should become a team, should any of them win, saw them found CPB. © Historic England Archive. DP247472.

CPB’s appointment followed their innovative design of the nearby Golden Lane Estate.

A brochure for the Barbican with the words 'How to make Senior Executives happy in London'
City of London Corporation lettings brochure from the 1970s indicating the Barbican was aimed at well-heeled professionals working in the City. The luxury flats were originally all let at commercial rents. Many flats were bought as leasehold by tenants following Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s Right To Buy legislation, 1980. Source: Public Domain.

CPR’s Barbican design was aimed at, in the architects’ own words, ‘…young professionals, likely to have a taste for Mediterranean holidays, French food and Scandinavian design’. Their ethos was that architecture was for the greater good. It was an optimistic vision for a better society at a time of booming economic growth.

Between 1955 and 1959 the practice produced three different plans for the Barbican itself, including rejected ideas for the terrace blocks to be faced with white marble, the towers finished with polished concrete, and balconies surfaced with mosaic tiles.

In May 1960, CPB were formally appointed as Barbican architects – occupying the practice for around 30 years. Ove Arup and Partners were appointed as structural engineers. Construction in six phases began September 1963, with leading contractors such as John Laing and Son and Sir Robert McAlpine and Sons awarded major contracts.

Architecture and landscaping

Aerial photo of the Barbican Estate
Aerial view of the Barbican Estate, City of London, photographed May 2008. Listed Grade II. The restored medieval church of St Giles Cripplegate, shown centre right with the green roof, was incorporated within the building scheme, as were its grave slabs and fragments of the Roman City Wall. © Historic England Archive. 24987/009.

The Barbican Estate’s residential buildings comprises 13 seven-storey high terrace blocks topped with white barrel-vaulted roofs, and three triangular tower blocks of 43 and 44 storeys, with serrated balcony silhouettes. There are also two blocks of town houses and two mews.

Exterior view of a large high rise tower block
Shakespeare Tower. Some of the Barbican’s buildings were named after famous figures in history. © Jerry Young.

Pictured above is one of the estate’s three high rise blocks, showing the distinctive ‘boat edge’ balcony design which reduces wind resistance.

Exterior view looking along a balcony on the Barbican Estate
View of a row of the immense cylindrical concrete columns that support the blocks. © Jerry Young.

The Barbican is characterised by the monumental use of reinforced concrete – cheap and widely available in the 1960s and 1970s.

CPB was significantly influenced by the work of the internationally-renowned architect, Le Corbusier (1887 to 1965), a Swiss-French Modernist pioneer who embraced raw concrete, functionalism and sculptural forms. Their architecture can be viewed too as a reaction against the once-popular, lightweight quirky colourful design aesthetic of the 1951 Festival of Britain.

Detail of the labour-intensive ‘pick hammered’ effect on columns. The same effect, but more finessed, was used within the Barbican Centre. © Jerry Young.

The concrete columns were poured in sections, one on top of another, leaving ringed joints.  The surface of every column was then hammered by hand with pick axes, knocking out small pieces and disguising the joints to create a uniform textured effect.

View across balcony of the gardens with trees and benches
The gardens of the Barbican were designed for the private use of residents.
Image © Jerry Young.

Landscaping was always an integral part of CPB’s Barbican design, with the architects even specifying which trees would work best, including woodland trees and those that would provide autumn colour, retain their foliage in the winter, or display decorative twigs or leaves.

View of the lake and terrace running beneath Gilbert House.
View of the lake and terrace running beneath Gilbert House. To the left beyond the bridge is the City of London School for Girls. The three blocks at the far end are, left to right: Seddon House, Lauderdale Tower and Defoe House.  The Barbican Centre is just visible to the right beyond the Gilbert House bridge. © Jerry Young.

Water features and gardens were planned as a soft visual foil to the severity of the concrete. Large concrete planters filled with greenery lined the walkways and earth-toned brick pavers created outdoor floorscapes. Flats had their own built-in flower boxes on the balconies.

The flats

An interior view of show flat 2 in Speed House at the Barbican site, showing an open plan living and dining area with a kitchen behind
Archive image of an original flat layout within Speed House, the first block to be completed, October 1968, showing the then radical open plan living and dining area, with the kitchen behind curtains beyond the dining table. © Historic England Archive. JLP01/08/079476.

The Barbican Estate has over 100 flat types, of differing sizes and configurations. The interiors were well made, had underfloor heating, and were extremely modern in concept and design. The first tenants moved in early 1969. The Royal Shakespeare Company’s Peter Hall was one of the first.

Interior view of a narrow black and white kitchen
Example of an original kitchen. The dining table is just visible through the glass doors. Source: Creative Commons.

CPB designed radically modern kitchens – streamlined, fully fitted, with a built-in Creda refrigerator, dishwasher, eye-level cooker and grill, a hob set into the work surface, mechanical ventilation and a stainless steel double sink with a waste disposal system.

View of bathroom of show flat number one at the Barbican site at Moorfields
Archive image of an original bathroom, photographed in 1968. Toilets had their own 4 foot square separate space. © Historic England Archive. JLP01/08/079473.

Every detail was high-spec, created for the affluent consumer.

A view of a single bedroom in show flat 3 at Speed House on the Barbican site
A bedroom in Speed House photographed in 1968. © Historic England Archive. JLP01/08/079482.

CPB also designed many of the fittings for the flats, such as stylish modern door handles and light switches.

View along John Trundle Highwalk showing the flats with a courtyard featuring tropical plants in the forefront
View along John Trundle Highwalk, showing left to right: Ben Jonson House; Cromwell Tower; the exterior curve of Frobisher Court; and the base of the Shakespeare Tower. © Jerry Young.

The number of flats in the Barbican has expanded in the 20th century. What was originally built in the mid-1960s as the Barbican YMCA – a tower of single rooms aimed at young people working in the City – was reconfigured into 74 private flats in 2015/2016 and is now known as Blake Tower.   

In 2010/2011, the top three floors of Frobisher Crescent were also converted into 69 apartments. This crescent-shaped building was originally constructed mainly as offices by CPB. They had proposed a shopping arcade on the ground floor, but this did not materialise. Their planned Sculpture Court within the curved courtyard and adjacent to the Barbican Centre Gallery was never realised either. The space is used today for occasional art installations and performances.

The Barbican Centre

The foyer of the Barbican with a bold red low ceiling and cement columns.
One of the Barbican Centre foyers today. © Jerry Young.

There had been numerous problems and delays to overcome during the construction of the Barbican Estate, including straightening and covering the railway tracks that ran through the site in open cuttings, formidable technical challenges, escalating costs and a year-long site workers’ strike.

The opening of the Barbican Centre 40 years ago by the Queen, 3 March 1982, marked the Barbican’s final completion – in the sovereign’s words, it was: ‘one of the wonders of the modern world.’

An interior view of the concert hall at the Barbican Arts Centre, looking towards the stage from the seating area
Archive image of the Concert Hall in 1980. © Historic England Archive. JLP01/10/08328.

CPB had always planned to create an arts centre as a cultural amenity for Barbican residents and the public.

Red stairs lead to the concert hall
A view of the interior of the Barbican Centre. © Jerry Young.

From the mid-1960s, when the Royal Shakespeare Company and the London Symphony Orchestra were invited by the City of London Corporation to take up permanent residency, the idea started to come to fruition as the Barbican Centre.

The Centre was built by John Laing and Son. Extensive excavations below ground allowed the insertion into the pre-existing scheme of a 1,200 seat theatre, and a concert hall accommodating an audience of 2,000, along with attendant facilities.

A split level shop showing shoppers on the top floor and shoppers below.
The Barbican Centre’s split-level shop. © Jerry Young.

Today, the Barbican Centre is celebrated for its world-class programme of music, theatre, cinema and visual arts, staging over 2,000 events annually.

The Centre is undergoing a transformation to commemorate its 40th anniversary. The Barbican Renewal Project will respect and preserve the original architecture, while upgrading spaces and giving those areas that are underused a new life, continuing to evolve as a cultural hub that, along with arts events, will also support arts education and creative enterprise.

Interior view of the Barbican Centre’s roof-top tropical conservatory, full of lush green trees.
Interior view of the Barbican Centre’s roof-top tropical conservatory, a steamy green oasis open to the public, and built to wrap around and conceal the unattractive concrete fly tower containing the rigging system for the Theatre. © Historic England Archive. DP099364.

The Barbican Conservatory is the second largest in London after Kew Gardens. It opened in 1984 and is home to two fish ponds with koi, carp, roach and rudd, a terrapin pool, bee hives and over 1,500 species of plants and trees.

Barbican signage

The unique distinctive typeface used for all signage, guides and literature in the Barbican (almost always the letters are used vertically) was designed by the influential Modernist typographist, Herbert Spencer (1924 to 2002).

'hall' in big red letters on a red wall
Spencer’s font in gargantuan size. Source: Nicky Hughes.

CPB wanted the same visual grammar for both the Estate and the Barbican Centre to create clarity and optical harmony across the vast site.

The original watch tower motif on Cromwell Tower. Source: Creative Commons.

The watch tower motif, used around the Estate, is a graphic interpretation of a Roman barbican that inspired the Barbican’s name.

Written by Nicky Hughes.

The role of Historic England 
The Barbican is protected as a listed building. You can find out more about the Barbican, and other listed buildings, from the National Heritage List for England. 

Further reading

8 comments on “Brutal and Beautiful: The Story of London’s Barbican

  1. The only problem is that the building is a nightmare to navigate internally all sections have corridors between them at different levels,Example to get to building/section after next you would have to go either up a few floors or down then go through building/section same in reverse at other side of it to get where you were going!
    They seem all to have been built separately without this being thought out at the time! Easier to go to street and then to where you are going in some cases! Ask someone that lives or works there.

    • I thought it was older! So when it was featured on a daily live BBC series no-one else seems to remember, in the mornings in the school holidays in the mid 80s, it was quite new – Richard Jobson was one of the presenters if that jogs anyone’s memory.

  2. “London’s Barbican is arguably the greatest piece of urban architecture of post-war Britain.”

    Otherwise known as architect’s piles. Doesn’t say much for the urban architecture of post-war Britain. This in the land of Wren, Vanbrugh, Inigo Jones…

  3. The Barbican is great, but greatest? How about, for example, the grade II* Byker Estate in Newcastle upon Tyne. Perhaps greatest is a London-centric perspective…

  4. Deborah Mules

    The low ceilings, cement & impossible navigation make the Barbican feel like hell on Earth. Very clever architecturally no doubt, but sooo soulless. Sad its style has been dumbed down & copied all over the world.

  5. Apart from the architectural features of the residential estate, what also makes the Barbican special is the inclusion of the arts centre. This is a different type of building to a home or office, so the requirements for windows and floor heights etc, is totally different. Consequently the arts centre in the middle of the estate has completely different features to the rest of the estate, and does things architecturally that you could never do with a residential building. It is this which makes the Barbican special, in a way that purely residential developments cannot match. The Barbican is many things at once.
    Of course it has its difficulties, like all major projects. What surprises me is how many variations they made (of flat layouts and fittings, stairways, etc), and how many things they got right. It must have been a tremendous amount of work.

  6. Chris Rogers

    Not sure the flats had dishwashers built in, not in the 60s

  7. Awful blight on London, sadly here to stay, should be demolished, but they’ll only shove another monstrosity into the fray.

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