The Barbican: A Beautiful Estate
Image credit: Graeme Robertson / guardian.uk
One of the joys of visiting Progress, the exhibition of the
work of the Office of Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) in London (see my blog of
two weeks ago), was walking through the Barbican to get there.
To most Londoners, and probably to most visitors who have
ventured to this housing project at north side of London’s City, that might
seem like a very odd statement. The
Barbican, built between 1965 and 1976, is an expanse of low-rise apartment
buildings that seems to go on forever, punctuated by three residential towers
and organized around open spaces that all seem to exist at different levels both
from each other and the city around it. It is a 35-acre, 2,000-apartment monoculture of New Brutalism.
And what a glorious place it is. I am speaking as a visitor, and I did not
peer into any of the flats, but as a set of spaces and structures, the Barbican
has all the exhilaration proper to the building of a new world. The slabs coursing across fountained plazas
on columns, the towers piercing past them, the walkways shooting from one level
to the next, the concrete carrying the trays of housing, the counter-punctual
rhythm of the whole composition, and the way in which it together creates a
complete environment, all make you believe that you really could build a better
Image credit: The Barbican Centre
The Barbican, designed by the firm of Chamberlin, Powell,
and Bon (and "Grade II Listed," meaning the British authorities think it might be worth keeping), replaced a neighborhood that had been almost leveled by Second World
War bombings. It arose towards the end
of an era in which London and all of Europe sought to rebuild their cities not
as they were, but as planners and politicians thought they could be. The estate had all the amenities you might
want, including a major arts center. It
was designed to offer its residents the kind of light and space they would
never have been able to enjoy in their old neighborhoods, where the houses
stood packed next to each other.
The public spaces have a scale that matches that of the
residential blocks, and together they answer the City’s office blocks, bank
buildings, and monuments with the grandeur of ordinary lives. The Barbican represents the glories of
collective housing and services, and remains a paean to the welfare state. The ramps and expressive bits of concrete
enhance that monumentality, while also making connection and framing into the
focus of our attention. This is an
–albeit artificial and huge—village that shows its social bonds as well as its
relations to the outside world as its emblem.
Image credit: O. O'Brien, momondo.com.
Over the years, the Barbican lost its initial allure to many
inhabitants and certainly to many who only looked at it from the outside. Its sheer scale and unified design, the usual
maintenance problems--the result of a universal inability of our governments
to support what they have made for us, partially because we will not give them
the means, partially because yesterday’s demands pale compared to tomorrow’s--and well-publicized problems with the Arts Centre, all gave the development a
Recently the place has been fixed up. Some of its most glaring shortcomings in
circulation and, at the Centre, in acoustics, have been remedied, and, on a
sunny day in the fall, the place looked terrific. It looked, in fact, like the kind of
progressive architecture OMA says it wants to build, and that some of us think should
be at the core of today’s architectural project.