London’s Barbican is arguably the greatest piece of urban architecture of post-war Britain.
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.
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.
In the mid-1950s, CPB were employed as consultant architects to what was to become the Barbican.
CPB’s appointment followed their innovative design of the nearby Golden Lane Estate.
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
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.
Pictured above is one of the estate’s three high rise blocks, showing the distinctive ‘boat edge’ balcony design which reduces wind resistance.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
Every detail was high-spec, created for the affluent consumer.
CPB also designed many of the fittings for the flats, such as stylish modern door handles and light switches.
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
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.’
CPB had always planned to create an arts centre as a cultural amenity for Barbican residents and the public.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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 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.
- Barbican Living
- Historic England: Building the Barbican
- John Laing Collection: Breaking New Ground was a 21-month project supported by the John Laing Charitable Trust to make available 10,000 images from the John Laing Photographic Collection. These photos are now available to browse in the Historic England Archive.