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. 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.
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. A few visionary members of the Corporation 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.
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.
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. But, torn between the tradition in which they were educated, and the new Modernist ideals that were emerging in Europe, 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 Teatro 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. Queen Elizabeth II officially opened the building on 3 March 1982, describing it as “one of the wonders of the modern world.”
Despite the current revival of Brutalism, the Barbican estate fiercely divides opinion to this day. 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.
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.
Residents: Inside the Barbican Estate, £30 from barbican.org.uk/shop