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Style and History of the Barbican

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Architecture
Wordcount: 3686 words Published: 18th May 2020

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The name of Barbican means fortification in English. It usually shaped like a square with four walls and four gates, one in each side, was being used as the outer defence of some ancient city. Barbican London now has been built on the historical site of Roman London Barbican. It is a terrific complex group of the building contains residential blocks and some supporting facilities.

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The recorded history of architecture in the site of Barbican London started from 90 to 120 AD, the main fort of Roman London was built on the site of the Museum of London. “Around 200 AD, walls were built around the city.”[1]Leaders hope walls can protect the settlement of the interior from wars but the truth was the position of the city was on shallow land so it was always being attacked by flooding water. A new wall joining together with the old northern wall has been built to prevent the water. At the 9th century, another three walls of barbican were almost being destroyed, but the North wall was still there and people named the north gate as Cripplegate. Barbican kept its military function until Edward III, he gave Barbican to Robert d’Ufford, 1st Earl of Suffolk who made the building his London home. After the 15th century, the London wall has been updated, it became a boundary of social class between north and south. In 1666, there was a great fire on the south side and the original houses were destroyed, the owner rebuilt it as a larger residential building and named it as Willoughby house. In the 19th century, with the development of modern technology, there were good traffic and factory development in this site, however, in 1940s German booms destroyed everything again. In the early 1950s, the plan of “build the city within the city”[2]  by Peter Chamberlin, Geoffry Powell and Christoph Bon was being accepted by governments.  1965-1976, Barbican estate and barbican centre was built, the name Willoughby house was being revived in this new group of building as a residential terrace block.

All object have its actual property, and all actual surrounds itself with a cloud of virtual images.[3] Time can be break into two parts with a gap in the middle. If actual can be seen as what already happened before, which is the past. Virtual can be understood as potential, which is about the future. Past and future are two separate unachievable parts, meanwhile, the future never stops becoming the past. The working process of actualization is a transmission process from the past to the future is the bridge between two broke parts. These two parts can never connect to each other without the progress of transforming, this process can be understood as the fragment. The fragment is the connection between the actual (what the building was) and the virtual possibility (what the building will become) in architecture. Actual and virtual are keep inverting, keep becoming each other which caused by some events. Virtual images never stop getting actualized while the actual image will keep becoming the virtual image. The process will never finish unless any accident happened.

In Roman London period, Barbican was being used as a defence building for military function. The idea of building a Barbican to protect city was being actualized by finishing of the building process. Defending can be seen as the primary actual function of Barbican building which surrounds by the virtual images. In this stage, there are a lot of different virtual images surround by the actual, but the virtuality of being a residential building was being kept during the whole stage as it was developing. The potential getting closer to the actual property and finally absorb the actual, became actual. The virtual images react with the degree of actual practice such as owner decisions, social reasons and wars. The virtual image has been actualized while the owner Robert d’Ufford made the building his London home. Virtual images both absorbs and effect Robert’s decision. After his decision, being a residential building can be seen as the actual property of Barbican meanwhile military function became one of the virtual images. Virtual images have a principle of uncertainty. It keeps changing during events happens. The fire burned everything in the 15th century, the function of being a residential building became a virtual image of the site again. The fire can be seen as a finish, a finish of previous architecture and possibilities, but at the same time, it can be understood as a virtual start of the possibility of new architecture in the same space. The idea of having a new residential architecture on the same site was kept developing during the process of actualization. It wasn’t being actualized until the reconstruction process by Willoughby family was finished. Actual and virtual keep becoming each other is the co-effect of potential and potential.

The design of Barbican can be seen as unrepeatable not because of the technical issue or the level of skill in architecture design but because of the special of the site. Wars, fires of the site bring barbican more meaning, also there is no more possibility of having such a big site in the centre of London city. But it doesn’t mean it is the end of developing in Barbican. Following the idea of “taking best for the past, and reshape it into future”[4], the meaning of buildings are kept developing while time pass, some property became past, and at the same time, some factors are getting actualized as a future.

Design of Barbican buildings is in Brutalism style. Barbican London was being built on the historical site of Roman Barbican and kept a small part of London wall which is in the corner of the Museum of London. They use raw concrete as the main façade material which is popular at that moment. The designing of furniture contains some old lamps, gutters and handrails in 1950s style which was being kept until now as historical detail and these details in architecture give us a sense of these items are adopted form World War 2 battleship. The concrete patterns on the facade were hand-made by labour in the 1960s. When visitors now come to Barbican, they can feel the sense of getting into a historical building in 19560s by seeing these details, they can image how labour here hold the mode and produce the patterns on walls, which is the memory. Memory might come from their personal experience, or form others description. “Memory is not an actual image which forms after the object has been perceived, but a virtual image coexisting with the actual perception of the object.”[5]  Actual of the concrete wall pattern and a virtual image of memory are coexist. There is a perpetual exchange between the actual pattern and the virtual image of the wall. When we see the wall, we think about how labours work. Also if we think about the working process of labour at that time, we will always think about these walls. The relationship between the wall patterns and the memory of labour working can be seen as a circuit. Even the actual and virtual are keep having a relationship of perpetual exchange, the virtual image of the memory of labour working by hand in the 1960s can never being actualized by any event or activity.  “Actual refers to the virtual as its own virtual”[6], this relationship of exchanging between actual and virtual was being defined as crystalized.

World War Two significant decreased the amount of population in London city. The architecture intends of “offering an opportunity to reverse the population decline by enticing new residents into this void in the city”[7] generated by the need of having a high-density residential public house.  At first, Barbican was being designed as a “luxury” residential housing to attract classy people to stay in the city of London. It contains not only a simple group of residential buildings but also surrounded by some cultural facilities like a performance art centre, church, restaurants, shops, conservatory and school. All functions which people might need was being shirked into Barbican as a smaller size, which created the small city within the city[8].

The shape of Barbican London kept the historical idea of Roman Barbican as a relatively closed space with high walls around the settlement. The entry of Barbican is hard to find from outside also the path was circuitous which shows the architect idea “one trying to get in, another lot trying to get out”[9]. The walls can be seen as a physical boundary and the boundary gives a lot of safety and privacy to the users inside Barbican. It prevents outside people from getting in unless they have the key of gates. Also, some invisible boundaries can be found in Barbican such as mental boundary. During the past 50 years, people living in Barbican already generated their own culture and rules which is different from the rest of London city. Some of the residents born here, get educated here and work here. Because they can get everything they need in Barbican, they have a limited circle of life and get used to rules in Barbican. Some of them went outside but came back at last because of their roots here. On the other hand, the Barbican building gives people a different feeling of history. The feeling is different from the outside London city, it generated by different material, different light result. It isolated Barbican to the rest of the city as an island, residents as voluntary prisoners accept the sense of self-imposed closures.[10]   A boundary can be understood as a break, a break of London city into two different parts, Barbican and the other part.

Instead of linking the idea of Barbican to the concept theme of the cave[11] by Plato, the concept of Barbican London can be more relative to the utopia[12]. The country of Utopia is the perfect dream place for living which is isolated from the rest of the world. There are two parts of utopia one is physically isolated as an island and the other is built on a corner of the mainland. They have their own laws, own rules in Utopia which creates a clear boundary from outside of Utopia even it’s on the same land. People outside can become a resident in Utopia or they can leave when they got permission from other residents. Just like people inside barbican can enjoy the knowledge and information of outside by education, reading books or even surfing on the internet if they want to. Also, they have traded between inside and outside such as online purchasing, also the goods in the store was coming from outside of Barbican. These connections based on people inside willing to break the boundary which can be seen as a bridge between the break, between outside and inside Barbican, which is the Fragment. There is some similar concept in eastern architecture history, such as Toulouse in Fujian Province in China. It was a kind of traditional Chinese high-density residential building made of immature soil. There are only some small windows towards to outside and the only entry was tiny. A group of people living inside the building normally with a water source in the building. These buildings also operate a defencing function with a clear division of inside and outside. The connection between inside and outside is the entry. What is different from the Barbican was Tulous are usually a group of buildings. These buildings separate from each other but at the same time, they work together on the outside ploughlands. These ploughlands linked those separate buildings together as a community which is the Fragment between Tulou buildings. The Tulou buildings, The Barbican, and the Utopia are completely separate pieces which can be connected by the form of architecture which is also Fragment between gaps.

 “The endless creates the fold.”[13] Infinite of characteristic generates the fold, inside and outside, light and dark, soft and solid can be infinite. The fold can be as small as ash, also can be as big as the universe. A number of infinite small folds associate together become an infinite big fold. No matter what size of the fold, it “does not invent things, but twists and turns the fold takes them to infinity, fold up on fold, fold after fold.”[14] 

The infinity of folding can be divided into two different levels. [15] One is the fold caused by the property of the universe and the other one was folding while developing[16]. The first one is like a coil, and it continues wire which takes the fold to infinity in one way such as natural sunlight or time. They sometimes repeating but never stop. One of the building in Barbican in the west can block some natural sunlight in the afternoon and cause some shadow on the surface of another residential tower. The angle of natural sunlight change caused the length of shadow keeps changing. It never stops moving and every day it was on the same path, it will never stop unless there is no more sun or no more time in the world. The moving of shadow is just like a coil, even it moves in one way, the continuity leads it to infinity. It has no change to the object and naturally caused by rules of the universe. The other one is like continue folding a piece of paper, which have different possibility due to different decision making during the whole process. It contains multiple different processes, which leads it to the infinity. For instance, the light and dark are the result of comparing. Just like getting into the inside of a building, it is the darkness relative to the outdoor space. But there is some dark spot in the room which made the rest of the room is the part of brightness. It just likes folding of paper, decision making can lead the contrast between light and dark to another level.

In Roman London, Barbican has four tall walls prevent people from the outside world come in. The outside and inside of Barbican can be understood as a fold, they have a connection in between as a gate but they are relatively isolated. People outside know there is an inside of the city from they know the property of walls have two sides. But those people will never know how does the inside of the city looks like unless they have permission from the leader of getting in. they can’t see what is inside the fortification doesn’t mean the inside is a non-existing space, it is because the outside façade has some window or gate only on one side, the inside is the next stage of the fold. “The problem is not how to finish a fold, but how to continue it.” [17] The permission can be seen as the key passing through the gate, the way of understanding unknown knowledge, which is also the necessary way of getting the idea of continue developing of the fold. But when the person gets into the Barbican, he will notice the definition of inside and outside for him is becoming different. What is an inside house, what is inside the room, what is inside the shelf, what is inside the pot? The relative “inside” became smaller when the relative “outside” gets bigger. The idea can be inverse. For residents inside the city, they will never know how does the outside world looks like until they come to go through the gate to the outside world. When there is no more exterior for them, only interior, this autonomy can be defined as the monad. The way of fold might affect the overall result. When visitors visiting barbican, they need to go through a lot of small turns which can be seen as folds. These angles led to an overall result together. They might have a lot of choices while folding which leads to a different destination. During the process of walking, unfamiliar people will never know what will the fold leads them to unless they arrived at the destination.

The developing of the fold can be understood both physically and mentally. The process of Barbican function change is folding. By the time of Robert made Barbican he’s London home, the building didn’t physically change but the meaning of buildings changed. It is a process shifting the building from the public to private, from before to after. The decision leaded direction of Barbican to another fold, which is the fold upon the fold. This way of folding in Barbican comes from the time change. Owner of the building enjoyed the power of key holder. The time is irreversible which means the relationship between now and past was “one set off the other”[18]. The previous decision can result in different next decision making, which leads to different function as the result of the fold in Barbican.

Barbican is a different Utopian way of living in a modern city. The boundary of Barbican is not about to break the community in Barbican as a separate part with the rest of the city, it is more about the enable an infinite fold of modern urbanism. Instead of making a city bigger, the theme of make a smaller city applied to the shape of the Barbican. This self-imposed closure created by the boundary do gives some more privacy to the residents inside and make the place of living closer to the place of working, studying and playing. People have a closer relationship with their neighbours due to the sharing of facilities and participation of community activities. But at the same time, the boundary in mental in will operate differently on different people which might block some new knowledge about the way of the outside world developing from outside to some residents. Some of older people might unable to use the internet and unwilling to know anything about outside of the Barbican, they possibly keep the same idea for years without any change. Also, the limitation of information might result in a negative effect on the progress of developing and folding in culture.

The issue of solving individual mental closure is a much harder physical closure. Education and globalization are the key points of breaking the mental boundary.

  • Publica, August 2015, Barbican and Golden Lane area strategy evidence base. Pp.11,London: City of London.

[1] A Microcosm of London. YouTube Video, 3:35, “Barbican centre,” 1 November 2013, Accessed on 15 June 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6oDi2Cy2lm0.

[2] Barbican, 1969. YouTube Video, 22:26, “LdnMetArchives”, 30 April 2012, accessed on19 June 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vLPlJsoVq8k&t=908s

[3] Deleuze, Gilles. (2002). “the actual and the virtual.” In Giles Deleuze and Claire Parnet. Dialoues.Translated from Diálogos. São Paulo: Escuta, by Eliot Ross Albert, pp.148-159. London: Continuum.

[4] “Barbican, 1969”. 2012

[5] Deleuze “the actual and the virtual.”  pp.150.

[6] Deleuze “the actual and the virtual.”  pp.152.

[7]  Bryant-Mole, Bart , arch daily, “AD Classics: The Barbican Estate / Chamberlin, Powell and Bon Architects”(blog), posted on 12 July, 2016, Accessed 14 June 2019.


[8] Aureli, Pier. (2011). “The city within the city” In The Possibility of an Absolute Architecture. pp 177-227. London: the MIT press.

[9] “Barbican, 1969”. 2012

[10] Aureli, “The city within the city.” pp 196-197

[11] Plato (1970). Republic, book 7. London: oxford university press.

[12] More, Tomas. Utopia. [ebook] Planet eBook. Accessed 27 Apr 2019.


[13]Deleuze, Gilles and and Strauss, Jonathan. (1991). the fold. US: Yale French Study. pp.227-247

[14] Deleuze, The fold. pp.227

[15] Deleuze, The fold. pp.227

[16] Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Philosophical papers and letters. Pp.743. Chicago: university of Chicago Press.

[17] Deleuze, The fold. pp.242

[18] Deleuze, The fold. pp.234


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