For fans of Brutalist architecture, the iconic Barbican Estate is one of the most recognizable and universally admired locations in the world. Despite London’s ever expanding skyline, its three towers are still claiming their delectable spot at the edge of the City, each gracefully revolved at an angle to each other to provide a different perspective of their stylish shape to the viewer. It’s no coincidence that it is also one of the most photographed buildings in the capital, and one that never fails to impress even repeat visitors with its grandeur and ambition. Until recently, I was among those who believed they’d seen it all – and if you are too, please read on : This is one for the initiated, and might pleasantly surprise yet.
Some time ago, I’ve had the chance to meet Mr Steven Wilson – he joined my Brutalism for Beginners walk one Saturday, and I was delighted to hear that his interest in the genre actually stemmed from the fact that he is the owner of a flat in the iconic Blake Tower. We walked through London that morning, admiring the significant Brutalist heritage of the capital, and exchanging views and information on architecture. The last part of the walk begins at the section of the ancient London Wall beside the Museum of London – it is a fine spot to talk about opus cementicum , the Roman precursor to modern concrete, and talk about the fortification’s connection to the modern estate, while taking in the first views of the Barbican from a less known vantage point. London’s Cripplegate stood close to here in Medieval times, one of the many entrances to the old walled city, and lending its name to the ancient ward. After this area was obliterated during the Blitz, the City of London Corporation decided to erect the Golden Lane and Barbican estates in an effort to repopulate the ward (just over 50 people resided there up until 1951, about 1% of the City’s population), and did so with elan, to attract the upper middle class professionals who would aid the post-war regeneration of the City as the global financial powerhouse it is known as today. Notice the towers that guarded the gate on either side : In fortification architecture, these are called barbicans , structures designed to protect it from attack.
Beyond the historical connection with the site, there was also a symbolic reason why the Barbican Estate derived its name from the ancient fortification that preceded it. By the 1950s, the Labour-dominated, and much more powerful London County Council was the premier local authority in Greater London, presiding over and looking after the needs of the residents of the entire metropolitan area. The tiny electorate of the depopulated post-war City of London meant that the its diminutive, traditionally Conservative council had its ancient powers and privileges encroached, and under threat to be absorbed into the broader, popular authority of the LCC. Therefore, the modern Barbican estate was part of a plan to repopulate the City and restore its electoral powers. And much like its predecessor, it was meant to become a new type of civic fortress – according to Barnabas Calder, “built in order to preserve the privileged autonomy of the City” **
“Can’t we go this way?” Steven asked, pointing towards the St-Giles-Without-Cripplegate church courtyard inside the estate, after I indicated that we now had to go back and around the Museum to enter. “Sadly, there’s a gate” I explained, “and it’s always locked”. “But I have my resident’s key” he responded. “It should work, shouldn’t it?” . He then proceeded to try his magic key on the gate’s lock while I stood by bewildered. It didn’t seem to work initially, and time froze for what seemed like centuries before the lock turned with a triumphant click, and the gate sprung open. Incredible ! Heaven awaited ahead of us.
One of the key reasons for Barbican’s enduring appeal as a brutalist icon, is its seemingly never ending capacity to surprise the observer with its brilliantly designed angles and perspectives. I have been walking past it nearly every day for the past 15 years as a City worker : it dominated the view outside my office window, like an old friend who has always been there for me when I needed a brief visual escape from the world of business. So the first thing that struck me after taking a few steps into the estate from that private entrance, was how refreshingly different it looked – taking it in from a standpoint never experienced before was like re-engaging with it from the start. My old friend never ceases to amaze.
Past the gate, we found ourselves in the bricky part of the estate. This tasteful detraction from concrete is not coincidental : The moat, footbridge and brick facades provide a gradual flow into the all-concrete heart of the estate. It’s a great design choice, and with deference to the adjacent ruins of the old wall and medieval grandeur of the St-Giles-Without-Cripplegate church, both stubborn survivors of the Blitz and the unrelenting passage of time.
The Barbican School for Girls is a key part of this transitional brick ensemble : it almost acts like a screen to the secrets of the Lakeside Terrace, the heart of the estate and possibly the most rewarding publicly accessible viewing platform for its architecture. Its brick columns resonate with the “Roman” theme of this part of the estate, but also provide a collegiate elegance to the building of this outstanding school.
Sure enough, the unremitting views around the corner leave no space for stylistic questions. This is the focal center of the estate, and there’s a rewarding feeling of exclusivity as I witness it in a reverse angle for the first time. I stood detached from the usual hustle and bustle of the public area : this vantage point is more reminiscent of an eagle eye view of an architectural model, as I watch the flow of people utilize and enjoy this tranquil space dedicated to them. And I reckon the Shakespeare Tower looks a bit like Cromwell Tower from that angle, doesn’t it? (I am only joking)
One of the most mesmerizing features of the Barbican is the Sunken Garden. I always admired this unique feature : The circular islands are set inside the residents’ area part of the lake, and resemble small amphitheaters connected by pergola covered corridors. It’s a space full of nature and tranquility, and I couldn’t resist sitting on these steps and taking a few peaceful moments to reflect.
I can clearly see and hear the waterfall from the Sunken Garden, almost grasp it. As another feature usually seen from what seems an infinite distance, its proximity is both visually and audibly pleasing. Sitting with one’s head just above water level might sound like a gimmick, but in this specific setting it’s simply awesome, and makes me feel like an entirely different creature. This private part of the lake is boxed in by the Andrewes, Brandon, Speed and Gilbert blocks, and their intimate proximity to this majestic feature assures me that this is indeed must be one of the most soothing and privileged views anywhere in central London.
From the furthest island at the opposing end of the Sunken Garden, there’s another visual feast right under the magnificent Gilbert Bridge and across the Lakeside Terrace :
As I exit the Sunken Garden at this furthest point, there’s a beautiful cascade that provides a nice visual barrier between the public and private spaces. The water level is much lower for the common folk of the Lakeside Terrace, just like the physical barrier that separates the public terrace with the space of the prestigious Guildhall School of Music and Drama – making that part of the lake and the estate both visually and physically unattainable, almost a different plane of existence. This is clearly a border between different worlds, and elevates the residents’ and collegial private space to the exclusive commune it was intended to be.
I turn around, and walk along the path next to the private lake. The lower level maisonettes of Andrewes block look beautifully appointed, their large windows offering me a glimpse of what’s inside : It’s a row of tastefully decorated two level apartments, mostly minimalist, decorated with eclectic works of art and designer furnishings. Although each one is an individual display of the resident’s stylistic taste, they all seem to be carefully curated, attuned to the overarching theme of the estate. I decide not to pry, so you will have to take my word for it, but they are indeed very privileged, waterfront apartments with the green lake only a few steps from their lower ground windows. This is the view from the one across the waterfall :
This pivotal feature is now beckoning at me for further exploration. There’s a footbridge across the water, and an appropriately brutalist passageway under the waterfall is linking it up with the gardens outside Speed House. There’s a wide cascade to the right, directly behind the main waterfall feature, softening the view for the maisonettes of Brandon House that face it :
There are two flights of stairs going up the waterfall. Coming up the first, I reach a metal grate platform, and I am now standing at the waterfall’s edge, whose cascade flows under my feet and crashes into the pond. The view is agreeable from this rarely accessed vantage point :
Coming up the second flight of stairs behind me, I notice a really nice bit of detail : Their metal grate is suspended a few inches above the concrete steps below, and the water that feeds the waterfall flows under these steps to reach the edge. The ever flowing mini cascades underneath me have given the concrete steps a layer of green moss, which makes it look even more attractive. There is evidence of illumination at night, and I can only imagine the visual effect after dark. This is amazing, and makes the space come alive. We simply don’t get enough water features in architecture these days – it should be compulsory.
We’ve now reached the end of that private area, and beyond the steps there’s an arcade and the publicly accessed “streets in the sky” of the estate. Steven has been with me all this time, patiently showing me around and sharing in my unbridled enthusiasm. He then proceeds to extend an invitation for a tour of the Blake Tower. I am pleasantly surprised, and this being a unique opportunity to see the inside of such an iconic building – we agree to meet up again the week after to continue this brutalist saga.
We reconvene with Steven a few days later at the Barbican Wildlife Gardens. This is another private area next to the Blake Tower, and a Grade II Site of Importance for Nature Conservation. There is a wildflower meadow, trees and shrubbery, and various bird and bee boxes and feeders. The site aims to enhance biodiversity in the City, and of course provide another exclusive and peaceful area for the residents. Blake Tower looks refreshingly different from this end : it’s apparently emerging from the nature that surrounds it, and radiates with a different visual quality than the ordinary busy street views of Goswell Rd and Fann St I am accustomed to.
At the edge of the garden, there’s a newly installed bird hide : residents can spend time sighting for birds here, which can then be reported to the British Trust for Ornithology. It’s a wonderful and relaxing pastime for those who can appreciate it. We didn’t see any birds during our brief stay inside the cabin, but the view outside was rewarding nonetheless.
But it was high time we ventured inside the iconic Blake Tower. I had recently read an intriguing article by Darmon Richter about his holiday at Belgrade’s Genex Tower, this definitive ex-Eastern Bloc high rise – once a monument to Yugoslav prosperity and commercial power – and I was curious to discover what my experience would be inside one of London’s most celebrated brutalist high rises. The Barbican Estate was borne into the much contrasting socioeconomic context of the West, but shared a similar goal with the Genex Tower : to project power and prosperity on behalf of its sponsor – the City of London Corporation in this case. Surprisingly enough, the original usage of Blake Tower somewhat contravened this mission : it housed the City YMCA, a youth hostel belonging to the well known organization. I am not aware of the specific circumstances of this, however I knew the City YMCA for its affordable gym, a facility many of my office colleagues used regularly as it was less pricey than the more upmarket City gyms in the vicinity. A few years ago, the site was acquired by Redrow, a developer who turned it into luxury apartments – riding on the same wave of gentrification that also swept nearby Shoreditch in the last decade, turning it to the hipster’s paradise it has become today. I am not particularly fond of rampant redevelopment, but in the case of The Blake Tower I must admit that returning it back to residential function was probably the right way to go. Still, I am very curious to see how the developers approached the restoration of this unique building and eager to evaluate the degree of conservation of its brutalist character.
The entrance and main stairwell leading to the lifts at the mezzanine was a mixed bag. There’s a lot of plasterboard covering the original walls, but the beams and the stairs remain uniquely brutalist, with the familiar chunky aggregate feel of the Barbican almost intact. But wait – haven’t I seen this style of golden weaving somewhere before ?
It is indeed a style of fixture one could find inside a Soviet TV studio set in the 70s, as witnessed in Eduard Khil’s 1976 famous Trololo video. Here’s a redeeming socialist modernist feature, and an obvious throwback to the ornamental art of the era the Blake Tower was built. All in all, it’s not a match made in heaven, but it dos work to propose a cleaner, minimalist feel to the development while not departing entirely from its distinctive character, an aspect that has been marketed heavily by the developers.
We take the steps to the basement next, just below the now disused, glass-clad Fann St. stairway (another pity…), and I observe that this is where the regeneration has been assuredly arrested somewhat : There’s a lot of the grey stuff, plain and sobering. It has been given a visible facelift with a smooth cement plastered surface, but this is where the intervention stops. The visual result with the shadow play on the sparsely lit walls of the basement is very rewarding, and a throw back to the building’s original concept.
We make out way to Steven’s 11th floor flat. He relates how this area of the building used to be YMCA’s staff recreation room – but it is most definitely a far cry from it now. I like what he has done with the space, and recognize in it the individual style of a very refined man : his flat is a brutalist design heaven. I particularly liked this chair, made of moulded concrete on reinforced steel bar legs. As a result, it’s as heavy as an armchair, but exceptionally smooth and soft to sit on – a true throne for a brutalist king, and an excellent match with the character of the Blake Tower.
It is the only zone of the tower where flats have a balcony, rather than windows, and this is an amazing extra feature : Although it results in a somewhat smaller living space, the views from the balcony are astonishing – one can view the entire East and North London for as far as the eye can see, as well as a privileged vista of the City’s skyline and Barbican’s towers.
To the left, an equally astonishing view of the iconic Golden Lane Estate in all its newly refurbished, modernist glory. Chamberlin, Powell and Bon’s first engagement with the City’s architecture can be admired in all its majesty. Steven is pointing out an important piece of information I wasn’t aware of : “The Blake Tower is the oldest part of the Barbican Estate, the architects began construction of the project here in 1968. It is visually different than the rest of the estate, and somewhat reminiscent of the modernist lines of the Great Arthur House, because the architects intended it so : they wanted Blake Tower to be a visual and architectural link between the Golden Lane and the Barbican Estate” . This makes absolute sense.
“Why did you choose the Barbican Estate”, I ask Steven. “Well, I didn’t choose it, I’d say it rather chose me” he responds, and goes on to explain the stellar alignment that prompted him to acquire his flat. He is politely modest about his knowledge of the brutalist style, but his taste and appreciation is evident : There’s designer concrete furniture everywhere, the dining table, the chairs and even a smart concrete stool on castors. He has also commissioned this beautiful concrete cube seen on a pedestal, and apparently this is only the beginning ! For fans of brutalism, this is an enviable living space, and a celebration of the style. I take my leave, thankful for the opportunity to admire such a delectable residence.
It is true that I have visited the Barbican Estate countless times, and seen thousands of its photos – and yet, this still felt like a brand new take. Its very familiar external architecture gained a new context after this internal examination, as I have been able to experience it not as a public visitor, but as a resident – a fundamental difference that’s probably lost to many a surface observer. Walking through the residents’ only gardens and spaces, I was able to better understand the sense of elitism the estate radiates : I felt transported to a modernist version of the privately owned Bedford Square, this outstanding Georgian experiment in upper middle class urbanism. Barbican has the same distinguished presence : we know it today as an upmarket council estate, but it performs equally well in the original context of estate as a stately home with its ancillary gardens, grounds, outbuildings and spaces that surround it – and this upper-class manorial presence has been designed to tie in with the heritage of the Roman fort that preceded it. It’s an urban fortress planned to look great and also feel great. And it’s an Estate built to provide a new golden standard in physical accommodation, but equally designed to cultivate its distinguished residents’ spiritual well being, and thus it has performed, and still performs admirably, in the crucial civic function it was tasked with – to attract and retain a specific citizen class, and through them, to perpetuate the authority of the City of London as a council. I’ll be looking forward to a new opportunity for an inside visit, and for meeting more of its residents.
* Special thanks to Mr Steven Wilson, whose hospitality made this article possible
** Barnabas Calder , Raw Concrete : The beauty of Brutalism , William Heinemann, London, 2016 p93
All photos © explorabilia
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