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History Of The Barbican Site Cultural Studies Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Cultural Studies
Wordcount: 2753 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The name Barbican originates from “Barbicana”, a latin word used to describe a defensive castle or tower situated over a gate or bridge of an outer city wall. During the Roman times this area formed part of the walls of the old city of Londinium. Ruins of these and later additions are still apparent around the estate, though the wall which is visible today is mainly made from medieval or Tudor bricks.

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The district presently known as Cripplegate derives its name from access gate in the city wall that existed since the Roman Empire. In Anglo-Saxon times, the gate in the wall was called ‘Crepul-Gate’ meaning ‘low gate’ or ‘gate for creeping though’. The Normans took this even further to mean ‘cripple gate’ and the name is preserved in the area to this day.

By the 18th century, the rapid pace of the Industrial Revolution resulted in the Cripplegate area becoming a warren of slums and red light areas, which were later replaced by warehouses and train yards towards the end of the 19th century.

The next key moment in the district’s history took place in December 1940, with the Luftwaffe destroying almost every building from Aldersgate Street to Moorgate, with only St Giles church still standing, though heavily damaged.

As a result of major destruction from Nazi bombings in WWII, the population of Cripplegate had declined from 14,000 people to 48 [1] . Alarmed by the dramatic decline in the population, the City of London Corporation (CLC) set up a competition in 1951 to build a new community space that would entice people to move back to the district.

Chamberlin, Powell & Bon Background

Between 1938-40, Peter Chamberlin studied at University of Oxford before training part-time as an architect at Kingston School of Art, London, where he qualified in 1948 and began to teach.

Geoffry Powell studied at the Architectural Association in London from 1938 to 1943 under Frederick Gibberd and Geoffrey Jellicoe. He then worked for Gibberd for 18 months and for Brian O’Rorke for two years before joining the teaching staff at Kingston in 1948.

The Swiss born Christof Bon qualified as an architect in 1946 at the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule in Zurich, Switzerland, and worked there for a brief period as assistant to Ernst Burkhardt. Afterwards, he then moved to London and worked with William Holford on his plan for the City of London before returning back to Switzerland to design a few small houses and studios. From 1949-50, he joined with BBPR Architectural Studio in Milan, prior to moving back to London to teach at Kingston.

Collectively, Chamberlin, Powell and Bon, had relatively little to no experience in large scale building design, though this was about to change.

In 1951, the City of London Corporation (CLC) set up a competition in to build a new community in the north half of central London as part of the recovery strategy for the City. The brief was to provide council housing for the people who serviced the offices in the City, in particular caretakers, secretaries and police officers. Strong emphasis was placed on the design being aimed at single people and couples, rather than families, though this project was part of the bigger picture to redevelop the Cripplegate area.

The Golden Lane competition was under both the architectural and public spotlight, with well known architects such as Peter & Alison Smithson [2] submitting their entry for the residential project to house 1000 people. This competition entry first featured their “streets in the air” concept that was used in the later Park Hill project in Sheffield.

Before submitting their proposals, CP&B had agreed that should one of them win, the three of them would form a partnership to deliver the project [3] . In the end, CLC awarded the project to Geoffry Powell’s proposition for a 16 storey slab block. As agreed, he formed a partnership with Peter Chamberlin and Christof Bon to begin designing Golden Lane in 1952. As Le Corbusier’s design style had significant influence to CB&P’s projects, it became noticeable that the slab block development at Golden Lane had key features that was derived from Corbusier’s Unite d’Habitation, such as the use of coloured panels to add drama to the façades, roof sculptures, and double height spaces in living areas. Overall, this development was important in two ways; this was CP&B’s first major architectural commission, and it heralded the arrival of Le Corbusier’s planning ideas in England.

Two years into the design of Golden Lane, the CLC asked the architects to make a design proposal for the Barbican development. The Barbican project shared a similar brief to Golden Lane, except there was a requirement for a larger housing population of 6500, 2500 car parking spaces, and a range of public facilities including concert halls, schools, a library, art gallery and fitness spaces. This complex was aimed at the higher income rental population and City professionals rather than be used for social housing.

The underlying concept was to create a convenient and pleasing environment affording residents the opportunity to move freely around and enjoy the varying perspectives of terraces, lawns, trees and flowers against the backdrop of buildings or the reflection in the lake. [4] The whole estate has been designed to be an approximate replica of a small walled town in order to help provide the feeling of privacy and protection from noise of the surrounding city.

Between 1954 and 1968, the Barbican had been through 5 design revisions, with each plan becoming an increasingly more complex at realisation of the changing aspirations of a society with an increasingly optimistic and affluent view of the future.

Design 1:

Design 2: more housing and facilities were added including two schools, a theatre and concert hall, and a museum and art centre.

The estate pioneered the use of cutting edge building techniques and technologies, with even basic materials emerging straight from research laboratories. In order to make CP&B’s designs a reality, the celebrated engineering skills of Ove Arup and other less well known specialist engineers provided its architectural substrate and technical infrastructure using innovative and untried techniques. One key achievement included suspending the Underground rail service on rubber in order to keep the noise of the Tube trains down to near silence, along with new and specialist technology used for heating, power and ventilation.

Unlike Le Corbusier’s plans to destroy and replace the historic core of Paris, City reconstruction plans encouraged the preservation of monuments that had survived the Blitz. Other than the old defensive walls, one notable monument that was preserved was St. Giles church, which CP&B decided to incorporate into the heart of the Barbican and make it into a public space for workers to eat their lunches.

The entire complex was constructed in five stages:

The Barbican Complex

The residential estate consists of 13 terrace blocks, grouped around the lake and green squares within the complex. The main buildings rise for up to seven floors above a podium level, which links all the facilities in the Barbican, providing a pedestrian route above the street level. Some maisonettes are built into the podium structure. There is no vehicular access within the estate, but there are some car parks at the periphery of the estate. Public car parks are located within the Barbican Centre.

Though they will be surpassed by the Pan Peninsula development near Canary Wharf, the estate also contains three of London’s tallest residential towers; (east to west) Cromwell Tower (1973), Shakespeare Tower (1976) and Lauderdale Tower (1974). All these towers are 42 stories and 123 metres high, with the top two floors comprising of one penthouse flat.

Other than being a residential estate, the complex also houses the Barbican Centre (an arts, drama and business venue), a public library, the City of London School for Girls, the Museum of London, and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Additionally, a YMCA building was constructed between 1965 and 1971.

There are also plenty of National Rail and London Underground links providing transit services to the estate, with Barbican being part of the Circle, Hammersmith & City and Metropolitan lines.


The architects wanted to create a new living environment for Londoners that had an English living space with European ambience and American technology. In order to do this, the architects aimed to emulate the design of European Baroque formal gardens through a Modernist interpretation.

Between 1954 and 1968, the plans for the Barbican had been extensively altered four times before settling on the fifth and present layout of the estate. There were some design features that were carried over from the Golden Lane project, notably the Corbusien use of double height living spaces. Originally, the overall style of the buildings used brick bearing wall structure for the block of flats, whilst the towers were enveloped in an intricate steel lattice and glass cladding. Over time, Brutalist style of the Barbican became strongly noticeable in the materials used in the housing, such as exposed concrete with bush hammered finish, timber framed windows, the dark purple brick and vaulted penthouse flats. In the later designs for the towers, it is increasingly evident that styles from other architects are more apparent. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Price Tower in Oklahoma created a more layered form to the towers, whilst Le Corbusier’s Notre Dam Du Ronchamp’s roof line would be reflected on the parapets and balconies on the towers.

At that time, Brutalism was a was greatly associated with the principle of honest use of materials, expression of form, functionality and spaces.

Evidence of the architects experimenting with Brutalist finishes is evident in the lower levels of the Barbican. Various exterior concrete finishes were applied to establish which looked and weathered best whilst being at a reasonable cost. The initial proposals in 1959 were going to use riven marble tiles on the facing of the terraces, but as a result of increasing building costs, the bush-hammered finish was adopted instead. The technique of Bush-hammering involves the use of a power hammer with a special head to expose the aggregate, altering the surface of the concrete. Despite Bush-hammering being a time-consuming and relatively expensive process, this also demonstrated the commitment of both the architects’ and the Corporation in creating a high quality environment at the Barbican.

Even though this was an experiment being tested specifically for the Barbican design, the unchosen small pebble finish made a found its way onto a few later LCC buildings and bridges.

Many of the terrace blocks are raised on columns in order to provide continuity between the different parts of the layout whilst trying to avoid blunt and oppressive enclosures by buildings in a vast scale, as seen on most other high density developments.

Throughout the Barbican project, it becomes increasingly evident of CP&B’s architectural style maturing from the formal geometry used on Golden Lane project to the contemporary Brutalist interpretation of the old Mediterranean barrel vault on the roof line on the medium rise blocks that borrowed the new geometry based on Le Corbusier’s 1950s architecture.

The Demise of Modernism and high density Post-war Developments

The main part of the estate was built between 1965 and 1976. Within this time, the general Zeitgeist on high rise developments had changed from one of post war optimism and aspiration to a public rejection of large Modernist redevelopment of UK cities [5] . This was partly fuelled by the Ronan Point disaster in Newham, East London. The tower had been assembled using a technique known as Large Panel System building (LPS) whereby pre-fabricated concrete panels were made off site, then lifted into position and bolted together on site to form the overall building. This allowed for the tower to be assembled quickly and cost effectively. (Politically, as people were able to see these tower blocks being assembled swiftly, it was felt that the government in power was fulfilling it’s promise to tackle the urban housing issue). However a serious lack of quality control meant that short cuts were taken, mainly with the mass of the concrete panels being held in place by two bolts allowing for rainwater to seep into the joints and crack the load bearing concrete panels*. On the 16th May 1968, a gas explosion on the 18th floor blew out a load bearing panel, causing all the floors on the corner of the block to collapse. Four people died and an additional seventeen were injured. Consequently, this led to major changes in building regulations and a partial rebuild of Ronan point. Despite these changes, public opinion of high rise housing schemes was very negative, and the Ronan Point was eventually demolished in 1986 and replaced with 2 storey houses and gardens.

Unlike Ronan Point, the Barbican’s overall structure was designed to last 300 years.

As the backlash against Modernism gained momentum from the mid 1970s, Brutalism bore the brunt of this resentment. In the visionary hands of Le Corbusier, raw concrete (with the aid from the French sunshine) became something beautiful, whilst in the United Kingdom, Brutalist buildings gave the impression of a tough, hard, and uncompromising feel to them and were therefore considered to be simply ugly.

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Most Critics argue that the abstract nature of Brutalism gives the style an unfriendly and uncommunicative to it, rather than being integrating and protective, as its proponents had originally intended. Further criticisms go as far as to say that Brutalism disregards the social, historic, and architectural environment of its surroundings. The placement of such structures in existing developed areas appear starkly out of place and alien. [7] 

With many Brutalist buildings, the feeling exists that the needs of expressing an architectural ideal comes before the needs of the human beings who have to use them.

Despite the decades of negative criticism the Barbican has received, the majority of the flats still have their original tenants, while an increasing number of young City professionals love its appeal of having the convenience of urban proximity and whilst offering suburban privacy.

(Personal Viewpoint)

The Barbican estate was a pioneer in the technologies used in high density building design that was built to a high standard. Unfortunately, this image was tarnished by cheaper “knock-offs” that had gained a poor reputation for quality (eg. Ronan Point) that consequently lead to the increased public dislike against Modernist urban design schemes.

Within the last decade, Brutalism appears to be experiencing a renaissance, with well known buildings such as Zaha Hadid’s BMW Factory and Enric Miralles’ Scottish Parliament building using increasing amounts of exposed concrete. Had these buildings been constructed during the 1980s or 1990s, they would have been shunned for their aesthetic quality. [6] 


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