The Barbican & Brutalism

Thursday, 25 August 2016

IMG_8327 - Barbican Centre - 270Brutalism in Britain is often seen as post-World War II architecture at its worst. A period of heavy, foreboding, grey, often sinister looking buildings, a style at its peak in the ‘60s. No British buildings better symbolize the Brutalist movement than the Barbican Estate.

Although ‘brutal’ is often assumed to be the word that defines the style in fact the term comes from French, Wikipedia: ‘the French word for ‘raw’ in the term used by Le Corbusier to describe his choice of material béton brut (raw concrete)’

I’m a fairly regular visitor to the Barbican Cente, the arts complex within the larger estate, whether it’s for theatre, music or exhibitions.

I was living in London in the early ‘70s as the Barbican developed so I’ve always had an interest in the Barbican and recently I took a Barbican architecture tour. The 90 minute tours run regularly, cost £12.50 and certainly opened my eyes to many elements of the Barbican story.

Construction phases – the area was devastated during WW II, but it took a long time to argue out what would happen to the site. Construction predominantly took place between 1965 and 1976 although the arts component, the Barbican Centre, did not open until 1982. Although it was a public construction it’s never been social/council housing, the flats were always rented out at commercial rates and now many of them are privately owned although there are still some residents from the original era. Brutalism (and particularly raw concrete in its British interpretation) has been much denigrated, but the Barbican today is a trendy place to live.

What didn’t work? Some would say the whole Brutalist thing! In 2003 the Barbican Centre was voted ‘London’s Ugliest Building.’

IMG_1635 - Shakespeare Tower - 270A big problem for first timers is simply finding your way into the complex. Everything is designed to operate at ‘podium level,’ the idea is that you don’t walk around at ground level, you’re up above the streets, there are no vehicles present anywhere in the estate. But come out of the Barbican Underground station and you’re at street level and that is where most first timers stay, they then enter the Barbican by a long, unpleasant road tunnel. The trick – and it is a trick – is to turn left up the not terribly inviting, not terribly well signposted, stairs to the podium level. I can’t understand why they don’t make a much better (more imaginative?) effort to funnel you upstairs.

◄ Shakespeare Tower

Having got into the Barbican Centre you can still get lost. From day 1 people couldn’t find the theatres or anything else for that matter. Within 10 years the Pentagram design group were called in to make it work better.


That didn’t work, another 10 years and another design group had another go at the problem, stripping out most of the Pentagram features. Let’s face it the fundamental design is confusing and looks likely to remain that way.

IMG_8321 - Barbican terraces - 540The three tower blocks – Cromwell Tower, Shakespeare Tower and Lauderdale Tower were once the highest residential buildings in London. Residents are not allowed to have anything that shows on the balconies, no flowers or plants, so that raw, brutal, concrete look is at its most evident here. It’s a contrast to the terrace levels where residents really seem to have made an effort to soften things with flowers.

Walking around the Barbican look for design clues like the semi-circles or the arrows which relate to the original Barbican fortress. Or the crenellations from the St Giles Church. St Giles-without-Cripplegate used to stand outside – ‘without’ – the city walls and near the Cripplegate entry. The original 11th century church was replaced in 1394, got through the Great Fire in 1666 (one of the few medieval churches to survive), but was gutted during the Blitz in WW II and was rebuilt after the war.