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Residents: Inside the Iconic Barbican Estate (Anton Rodriguez)

This article was written 4 years ago.

Residents – foreword, The Barbican, 11 October 2016

In March 2016, I was approached by The Barbican to write the foreword for a new photographic book documenting the interiors of the Barbican Estate. Residents: Inside the Iconic Barbican Estate by Anton Rodriguez was published in October 2016. All copy as provided.




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“The Barbican key, known as the ‘Magic Key’, is entrusted to those who live here, and only to those who live here. Distinct in shape and form, it opens doors that take you beyond the estate’s public realm into the areas where the daily lives of the Barbican community traverse, convene and unwind in private.” Max Fraser, Barbican Resident

A sense of privacy and protection is built into the Barbican estate’s architecture. Designed to shield its residents from the outside world – whether that was the aftermath of the Blitz, the surrounding industry of the city, or the traffic below – this holistic experiment in urban housing is both of the city and apart from it; a place whose unmistakable ‘otherness’ inspires both devotion and distaste, and somewhere which has a captivating power to spark curiosity and speculation among those looking in from the outside.

Once known as Cripplegate, and the site of London’s principal Roman fort built between 90 and 120AD, the Barbican area survived both the Plague and the Great Fire of London relatively unscathed, only to be razed to the ground in one extraordinary night of bombing on 29 December 1940, when more than 124,000 bombs turned it into the largest continuous expanse of Blitz destruction anywhere in Britain.

After the war, thoughts turned to reconstruction, but a housing solution was by no means a foregone conclusion; how the site should be regenerated was hotly debated for years. The 1943–44 County of London Plan and Greater London Plan both proposed easing traffic congestion by moving people out of London to new satellite towns, and the 1947 City of London Plan focused entirely on commercial redevelopment. It wasn’t until 1951 when the City of London’s population dropped to 5,324 (and Cripplegate’s to just 48), and new legislation gave the Corporation of London powers proportional to its residential population, that housing was even considered.

At the same time, ideas about how people should live were changing. The need to rebuild London after the war and increasing difficulties in commuting began to challenge more than a century of suburbanisation – people wanted to live in cities again. There was also a growing desire to escape ‘English-ness’ and its post-war austerity. A shift that began with the 1951 Festival of Britain saw people yearning for Italy’s ‘dolce vita’ and looking to France for new ideas – and in particular to one architect: Le Corbusier. His Villa Savoye with its reinforced concrete stilts, non-supporting walls, open floor plan, long strips of full-height windows and roof garden, was already influencing young architects in Britain, who were hoping to set the scene for a new, more international lifestyle.

Three such architects were Peter ‘Joe’ Chamberlin, Geoffry Powell and Christoph Bon. All were in their 30s, lecturing in architecture at Kingston School of Art and relatively unknown when they entered a competition to design a new seven-acre social housing project on the Cripplegate bomb site. Only the second architectural competition in London since the Second World War, it received 187 entries. They agreed that if any of them won, they would form a partnership and work on the project together and so when Powell was awarded the commission to build what would become the Golden Lane estate on 26 February 1952, Chamberlin, Powell and Bon (CB&P) was formed.

Although they never acknowledged the term ‘Modernism’, preferring to think of their work as having a ‘style-less style,’ they did concede a debt of gratitude to Le Corbusier in the Golden Lane development. Powell’s original plans referenced pre-war London estates and German ‘Wohnsiedlungen’ housing, but Chamberlin and Bon added the barrel-vaulted roofs in Crescent House that echo those in Corbusier’s Maisons Jaoul – as well as the open-plan stairs and double-height stairwells in the estate’s maisonettes, and the roof styling on Great Arthur House, all inspired by Corbusier’s Unité d’habitation. Crucially, the idea of a self-contained housing estate providing its residents with everything they needed for comfortable living was clearly derived from Le Corbusier’s thinking. A public swimming pool and gym, a nursery, a public house and tennis courts (originally a bowling green) were all provided as part of the residential development. The estate was a success. Initially billed as social housing, it came to be seen as a model for social integration, where caretakers and cleaners rubbed shoulders with clerks and clergymen, and was held up as an exemplar of post-war recovery. Not bad for a young architecture practice’s first commission.

But the debate about the rest of Cripplegate raged on, despite mounting pressure to find a solution. In 1952, Harold Macmillan, then minister for housing and local government wrote to the mayor, saying, “Housing…is the greatest and most pressing of our social needs today. House production must be increased as rapidly as the resources of materials and labour will allow.” (The subsequent minister for housing and local government, Duncan Sandys, went further and recommended that the Barbican be developed as “a genuine residential neighbourhood, incorporating schools, open spaces and amenities, even if this means foregoing a more remunerative return on the land.”) A few visionary members of the Corporation of the City of London continued to push for a residential solution, and in 1954 finally persuaded the Corporation to speak to CB&P about replicating the success of the Golden Lane estate. And so the fledgling firm’s life’s work began.

Between 1955 and 1959 CB&P submitted three reports on the Barbican redevelopment to the Court of Common Council. In 1959, their third report was approved, reportedly with a one-vote majority, and in 1960 they were appointed as architects for the Barbican as construction began. Over the next 22 years, right up until Queen Elizabeth II officially opened the building on 3 March 1982, describing it as “one of the wonders of the modern world,” both the brief for what was required and the architects’ design response to it were in a constant state of flux – to the extent that today’s Barbican estate bears little resemblance to the plan approved in 1959.

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The original brief had been to establish the viability of “providing living accommodation for a large number of people, who could be expected to pay an economic rent.” CB&P’s report recommended that the Corporation acted as both developer and landlord, sealing the Barbican estate’s unique fate as “a council estate for the well-off” as David Heathcote puts it in Barbican: Penthouse over the City (2004). Chamberlin went on to explain that such people “expect their money to purchase, indirectly, certain amenities not confined within the actual walls of their home.” Inspired by Dolphin Square – a housing estate for 3,000 built in Pimlico in the 1930s – CB&P established the core design principles for all of their subsequent plans. The Barbican estate would cocoon its residents from the surrounding city, and – as well as providing homes “with characteristics which are outstanding or unique,” that “reflect the prestige of the City” – it would offer communal and cultural facilities such as car parking, a cinema, a concert hall and theatre, an exhibition hall, gardens and courtyards. 

Far from being stubbornly Brutalist or Modernist, the design for the estate was informed by familiar forms and a connection to the site’s history. Elements that survive from the architects’ early (largely medieval-inspired) plans include ‘arrow slits’ in the perimeter wall and the moat-like lake with drawbridges surrounding St Giles-without-Cripplegate Church, whose crenellated roofline is mimicked in the towers and terraces. Georgian and Victorian ruins were left in place where they fell on the line of the old London Wall, and the estate’s formal rectilinear layout reflected Georgian squares such as Bloomsbury. Walkways were positioned in line with, and named after, roads that were obliterated by the bombing, providing a sense of continuity. 

But, torn between the tradition in which they were educated, and the new Modernist ideals that were emerging in Europe throughout the project’s development, the architects increasingly wanted to create a utopian vision of the future. They did this by combining those local and historical references with ideas for modern living that responded to the aspirations of the post-war generation and suggested a distinctly European sense of ‘newness’. Chamberlin took the Barbican Committee to see the best examples of contemporary architecture in Europe – including Berlin’s Hansa district, Le Corbusier’s Unité d’habitation and the Theatro San Erasmo in Milan – so keen was he to secure their support. And it worked: Le Corbusier’s principles can be seen right across the built estate from the commitment to space and light in even the smallest flats, which feature dramatic double-height spaces and floor-to-ceiling glazing, to the flexibility of sliding walls between rooms. Admittedly, its execution is more faithful in some areas than others – although Milton Court (since demolished) clearly had its origins in the Villa Savoye, the terraces stand on a solid podium despite also being supported by Le Corbusien ‘pilotis’ (stilts), and the pick-hammered concrete finish unifying the site goes against the constructional honesty of ‘béton brut’ from which Brutalism derives its name. Concrete was in fact an economic compromise suggested by structural engineer Ove Arup, replacing CB&P’s original white marble cladding.

Eventually 2,014 apartments in 140 ‘types,’ ranging from studio flats to seven-bedroomed houses, were completed across three tower blocks, 13 terrace blocks, two mews and The Postern, Wallside and Milton Court. A series of raised walkways (originally planned as part of a network of 30 miles of ‘pedways’ across the city that was subsequently abandoned) separates residents from the traffic below. The arts centre that followed was built in such a way as to minimise disruption to the site’s inhabitants, buried in a 60-foot hole with its fly-tower draped in a pyramidal greenhouse revived from previous plans. Even St Giles’ church bell no longer rings, lest it disturb the residents.

Inside, space is both efficiently optimised – with sliding doors, mezzanine levels and compact kitchens designed by boat-builders – and yet gloriously ‘wasted’ with double-height spaces, barrel-vaulted bedrooms and functionless alcoves, which, as the architects put it, were “only included for delight”. Every detail has been considered, from handles that fold into doors, enabling them to sit flush to the wall, to double-access cupboards that allow deliveries to be made without disturbing residents. Perhaps inevitably, the kitchens have dated the most. Yet to acquire the status they have gained in recent times, they were treated as functional service areas and designed for efficiency. The bathrooms have fared slightly better – although some argue that’s only because the sheer weight of the bath makes it difficult to replace. The cleverly designed washbasin is testament to CB&P’s fastidiousness; it was a late addition following new guidance recommending that separate toilets should have their own sinks, and although the trio found the perfect solution in Twyford’s design for the Shell Centre, they insisted on developing their own version, which took six months to produce. 

Despite the current revival of Brutalism, the Barbican estate fiercely divides opinion to this day. It was granted Grade-II-listed status in 2001 and in 2003 topped a poll of London’s ugliest buildings. In 2014 it was both described by influential architecture blog Dezeen as “a utopian ideal for inner-city living” and voted London’s ugliest tall building – again. People either love the Barbican or they hate it. 

Personally, I love it. In his book, B is for Bauhaus (2014), Deyan Sudjic says, “architecture at its heart has to be about optimism,” and for me that is what makes the Barbican such a special place. Despite being completed long after the Modernist movement had reached its zenith and suffering at the hands of many compromises, it is an icon of altruistic architecture. Its creation was driven not by a desire for fame and fortune (in fact Powell destroyed most of the firm’s records), but by an aspiration to bring a better way of life to British people. Even the smallest flats are spacious and light – and complemented by culturally vibrant communal spaces, such as the arts centre, lending library and waterside café. Its success is less about what it’s like to look at and more about what it’s like to live in. As Tom Dixon says in Barbican: Life, History, Architecture (2014): “the Barbican reminds us of how different it all could have been.”

Today, the Barbican estate is home to approximately 4,000 people (half the population of the City of London), but such is the privacy of the estate that speculation abounds about what goes on behind its closed doors. What do the flats look like inside? Do listings regulations really protect the bathplugs? Who lives there – have the original residents stayed into their dotage, or is the estate once again full of the young professionals for whom it was originally designed? Are the interiors slavishly Modernist, or have people stamped their own personalities on them, as CB&P hoped they would? For such an iconic complex that looms so large on London’s skyline, relatively little is known about life inside. Countless books and magazine articles have been written about its history and architecture, but very little has been published about the people who actually get to experience it first hand. In this wonderful book, and in his on-going photography project of the same name, Anton Rodriguez is giving us a rare glimpse inside the Barbican estate and introducing us to some of its residents. In doing so, he is giving each one of us our very own magic key.

The book has been well received by critics, including The Observer / Guardian online, City AM, Creative Review, Dezeen, We Heart and The Spaces. All photography by Anton Rodriguez.