If you find yourself in London and want to spend a few hours immersing yourself in one of London's more controversial building projects, make your way to the Barbican complex. Often voted London's ugliest, does the Barbican really deserve the title? Buy tickets to the guided tour of the architecture in the Barbican complex and decide for yourself!
Text: Mallory Petersen Chamberlain, web editor at KOTE. Photos: Mallory Petersen Chamberlain & Åsmund Holien Mo.
The Barbican complex, designed by architects Chamberlin, Powell and Bon and built over several decades in London. The project was designed to function as a microcosm within the city, offering housing and commerce, as well as social, cultural and public functions. While often cited as an example of brutalist architecture, the Barbican complex contains a number of elements that suggest something closer to an amalgamation of genres. Also contained within its walls are pre-existing elements such as the medieval church, St Giles-without-Cripplegate.
The scope and scale of the project are both enormous, due in large part to the history of the site; after extensive bombing during World War II the area was razed to the ground, making it available for development.
The Barbican housing estate was the first part of the project to reach completion, officially opening in 1969. There are roughly 4000 people living in the Barbican housing estate today. During the 1980s when then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher enacted the ‘right-to-buy’ scheme, many of the residents were able to buy their flats with a significant discount. Today nearly all of the housing in the Barbican complex is privately owned, with prices reflecting this; the average for a flat in one of the high towers is around the £1,000,000 mark. The housing estate comprises a broad variety of building typologies such as high rise tower blocks, terrace blocks, mews and townhouses. The diversity of housing plays a part in why the three high rise towers feel integrated rather than isolated in the landscape. While their scale is massive, they remain grounded by the cohesive buildings around them and connected to shared walkways and outdoor spaces.
The Barbican centre aims to fill all of your cultural needs. It boasts a cinema, a theatre, a concert hall which is home to the London Symphony Orchestra and the BBC Symphony orchestra, an art gallery, a library, exhibition halls, conference halls and restaurants. It also has a conservatory wrapped around the theatre’s fly tower. If you enjoy botanical gardens, the conservatory is the place for you. If you are more interested in landscape design, make your way outside to the lake and adjacent terrace.
Why you should go: do you like architecture? The Barbican complex has plenty of it. The guides are knowledgeable and point out genuinely interesting tidbits during the tour, as well as giving you access to areas normally closed to the public.
What if you’re more into landscape architecture? The greenery in the Barbican complex is beautiful. And it’s everywhere! Elements of the landscape design are reminiscent of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and they were one of the seven ancient wonders of the world so you know it has to be good. It really is stunning.
What about fans of city planning and development? Have you been following the car-free argument at all? Do you want to see what an urban space with no cars looks like in real life? If you’re answering yes to these questions, get yourself to the Barbican complex. It is a great example of what happens when designers program their space for a specific pattern of movement and usage, but don’t entirely succeed, because people will not be told how to move. Most first-time visitors approach the Barbican by walking along the B100 under it. This space was intended for cars, but since the intended elevated walkways for pedestrians are not accessible in any kind of intuitive way, many find themselves in a dark, noisy and dusty tunnel before arriving at the Barbican complex.
What if you really enjoy the interactive aspects of design? The Barbican is the perfect place for you to visit. It is such a tactile structure with strong guiding design principles. Everything was designed for this specific project, from the light fixtures to the window frames. Even the concrete surfaces covering the high towers and interior and exterior of the barbican centre were tested extensively before being hand-drilled by workers. When you look up at the three 123 metre high towers, you can appreciate the incredible hard work and craftsmanship that went in to the project.
These photos cover only a fraction of what the Barbican complex has to offer, so be sure to visit the next time you're in London!