The Barbican Complex, architecture with nature in the City of London

I am pleased to welcome landscapelover as guest blogger for this post about architecture, nature and  gardens within a urban context.  Together, we have tried to explore the Barbican Complex in London and Jill Sinclair has contributed with a fantastic text, a perfect complement to the images, in which the concept of Barbican is explored and its meaning explained.  The images try to present  the association between architecture and garden spaces, in an intertwined design.  We hope you enjoy the post and we look forward to reading your comments. Lula

The Barbican, London.

Barbican is an old word meaning fortification. It is a perfect name for this monumental, modernist development in the heart of London. Covering fifteen hectares, and having taken twenty years to construct, the Barbican consists of more than two thousand high-rise and low-rise apartments with associated cultural and recreational facilities.

It was designed as a series of vast geometric blocks, all finished in the same hammered concrete, creating a distinctive texture and striking sense of coherence throughout the site. At forty-three storeys, its three high-rise towers were for a time the tallest residential blocks in Europe. But the Barbican is not simply concrete: its buildings are geometrically arranged around open squares and gardens of lawns, trees, flowers, canals, massed fountains and pools.

Hidden away are roof terraces, allotments, even a wild garden. Accessible only on foot, architecture and landscape are linked together by raised walks, steps and pedestrian bridges. Cars and parking have been relegated to the concealed street level, with the Underground [London metro] in tunnels further below.
The Barbican was designed in the late 1950s to revive the largely deserted Cripplegate area of the capital that had been bombed to dereliction during the Second World War.

Despite pressure to provide commercial facilities, the City of London Corporation—the public body responsible for this square mile of the city—decided on a largely residential development, wanting to attract a stable population of young professionals working in the nearby financial and cultural institutions.

t was thus never intended as social housing, but to some the Barbican feels like a modernist rendering of England’s early twentieth century Garden City Movement, which sought to create utopian communities for the working classes by balancing carefully placed housing with allotments and forests, and combining agriculture and industry, nature and the man-made, all designed on a human scale.

More obvious as an influence on the Barbican is Le Corbusier’s mid-century vision of high-rise developments that replaced urban slums with large, light-filled apartments situated in wide green plazas, integrated with public transport, shops, communal gardens and cultural resources.

The purpose and design of the Barbican was dramatic and brave. Yet its reputation was sullied by the general unfashionableness of modernist design and, more practically, by the impossibility for visitors of finding the major Arts Centre in its midst. 
Tales abounded of ticket-holders missing first movements, sometimes whole performances, as they raced through a nightmare labyrinth of corridors, squares, and walkways, unaided by signs or maps, and unable to locate the obscured entrances of the centre. 

Signage has much improved, but the reputation lingers of a place requiring Theseus-like ingenuity to navigate.  
Today the associations of the Barbican are shifting. In 2001, the scale, cohesion and ambition of the design led to virtually the whole estate being listed—that is, designated by the government as a part of the UK’s heritage and worthy of protection.  
The decision raised wry smiles, even some hackles, given the common perception of the Barbican as a maze-like concrete monster. 

But, as we move further into the twenty-first century, there is a growing appreciation of the value and beauty of this modernist fortress, of its repeating geometric patterns and huge architectural proportions; of the way that the Barbican celebrates both fertile, lush nature and Brutalist urban design.


Adam said…
Fascinating. I've never really properly visited, although I love going to the Museum of London which is situated there (somewhere!)

What strikes me here is how well it seems to have aged, despite people insisting that this is the biggest problem with concrete constructions.
Gabriel Rochard said…
A great article born from a fruitful partnership between you and ladscapelover and her great blog! Thank you both.
Anonymous said…
You two make a great pair. Works and photos at their best. You took me right back to architecture school with this post.
Lula said…
Adam, I have seen other concrete complexes in other cities and for many reasons they receive similar critiques, photos here were taken in summer sunny skies, which makes everything nicer, and I have not been inside the homes, maybe inside there are reasons to complain. It also talks about aesthetics and preferences, I definitely concentrated the essay on nature inserted in the urban design.
Lula said…
Gabriel, thank you for your compliment
Lula said…
Donna, thank you very much for your comment.
What a fun project. I have attended several Shakespeare plays in the Barbican, taking both the underground and taxis to get there, and never had any problems. I don't really remember it during the day though. Actually quite beautiful and functional looking.
Anonymous said…
Adam's point about the concrete having aged well is interesting. I think it's a result of the City having been prepared to invest properly in the construction: the hammered finish is apparently a sophisticated and expensive way of treating the material, improving the appearance and reducing the effects of weathering. I guess that, after 50 years or so, that investment shows. In other concrete constructions, a lack of care during the construction is horribly apparent as the concrete ages.
Like Lula, I have never seen inside the apartments but from photos it's clear that they can be very attractive and highly desirable - the 3 bedroom ones sell for over a million pounds. And the views of London from the tower blocks must be stunning!