Beyond Buildings


The Barbican: A Beautiful Estate

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Image credit: Graeme Robertson /


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 city.


barbican plan

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,


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 negative image.


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.



Comments (1 Total)

  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 3:48 PM Thursday, November 17, 2011

    I assume that Betsky admires OMA's work, and therefore I am shocked that anyone who admires OMA's work would appreciate the Barbican. They are litterally at opposite ends of the architectural spectrum: human scale vs. a gigantic abstract scale; memory and continuity vs. an alien, "brave new world" that is the setting of dystopic SF; expression of individuality through permutation and nuance of part to whole vs. a collective mass with minimal articulation. I agree with his evaluation of the Barbican. It is the best of an era and has everything to teach us about urban design.

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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.