I bloody love the Barbican Estate.
I’ve been living up the road from this controversial London landmark for about five years, and take any opportunity to visit and have a stroll around. I first visited the Barbican more than ten years ago, when I moved to London, and I remember feeling like I had slipped into the future. Not our future, but some other future that never came to pass.
The Barbican typifies the sort of over-reaching, Corbusian, architecture-as-social-engineering housing estate that sprung up between the end of the war and my birth, many of which informed–or were used in–the production design of the dystopian SF films of the sixties and seventies. It’s no surprise, then, that it feels to me like some alternate-history version of the 21st century.
There’s so much space. In any city, a building project featuring such a spread of water and greenery, so close to the centre, would feel ambitious. Here – a couple of minutes walk away from the financial district of the UK’s capital – it feels decadent. Stand in the heart of the Barbican Estate, and you experience quiet like nowhere else in the centre of London, so far are you from the surrounding roads and traffic. There’s no vehicle access. Residential buildings are connected by elevated walkways, and there’s a lake and a central court. The estate houses an arts centre, a music and drama school, a museum, and a prestigious private school for girls.
I expect it’s because of its proximity to the City, and its cultural features, that the Barbican hasn’t fallen into ruin, like many similar developments. Some of its residents are incredibly wealthy (residences go for up to £1.75m), and have therefore found themselves on the more fortunate side of the UK’s ever-growing rich-poor divide. The same can’t be said for Robin Hood Gardens or the Alton Estate.
The Barbican Centre itself is a fantastic place, right in the centre of the estate. It has two theatres, a concert hall, a massive library, cafes, restaurants, an art gallery and a cinema. It’s a sort of cultural pleasure dome. When I go there, whatever the time of day, it always feels like it’s about twenty past seven in the evening and the show is about to start. It has that sort of atmosphere: orangey light and anticipation. I love the open plan layout and the exposed concrete and the 70s-ishness of the whole thing.
The Barbican is also home to one of my favourite museums, the Museum of London. London’s greatest asset is its history and the Museum of London takes you right from the bronze age, through the Romans and the Saxons, the plagues and the fire, Dickens, the war, the swinging sixties. It has everything, and it’s just had a fantastic hi-tech makeover. It has saved me on countless rainy Sundays when the kids were going mad with boredom. I love the little Victorian street with its little shop windows and the pub you can sit in. I love the new augmented reality exhibits. I love the fact that the centrepiece of the Roman exhibit is just a huge window overlooking the actual Roman wall which runs through the Barbican Estate. (‘Barbican’ actually comes from the Latin for ‘fort’ and there was probably a fort nearby during the Roman occupation.)
The Estate was built to fill a massive area cleared by bombing during the Second World War. The ambition of the project was only made possible by the scale of the devastation it was established to repair. It’s therefore a classically London estate. This, after all, is a city which has been rebirthing, reforming, and rebuilding itself constantly for two thousand years.