This month, London’s Barbican Estate turns 50. Long admired (and reviled) as one of British Modernism’s most important set pieces, its harmony may be under threat.
The combined residential and arts complex welcomed its first tenants in June 1969, attempting to lure middle income residents to what was then a depopulating city center. The complex’s success, now recognized by historic preservation orders, has been all but total. The design by architects Chamberlin, Powell and Bon has created a dense, self-contained neighborhood that still stands as the best-known British reminder that Modernist architects can indeed create elegant, desirable places to live.
A new plan, however, seeks to add new buildings to the complex, filling-in some of its loftier spaces and altering the original footprint. So is this a case of greed spoiling a masterpiece? Or of mild adaptation enabling the complex to move with the times?
While some still dismiss the complex as an eyesore, there’s no denying that the Barbican is a striking, memorable space. Fortress-like from the outside, the estate’s interior shelters a dramatic set of courtyards where flower-lined balconies and sombre but internally luxurious residential towers overlook a reed-filled pond and fountains. The presence of the arts complex—with arguably London’s best cultural program—keeps people flowing through, while there is a great variety of texture and details to keep the eye interested. Indeed, with its occasional semi-circular windows, barrel-vaulted apartment ceilings and crescent-shaped buildings, there’s even a subtle Victorian undertow to this temple to modernity.
Currently undergoing public consultation, the new buildings planned for the site do at least try to fit with this. Designed by Nicholas Hare Architects, they would provide extra facilities for a prestigious private high school, City of London Girls. Two floors of a new building would box in an ornamental lake in the complex’s courtyard, another would get an extra floor, while glass walls would enclose a canteen creeping up a currently public staircase. This sounds anodyne enough, but as residents protesting the plans have pointed out, the Barbican’s empty spaces are a key part of its success, providing a roominess that makes its high-density layout still seem airy and generous.
“The grand columns that you see all around the complex are about creating space,” Barbican resident and campaigner against the development Joseph Reeves told Citylab. “You fill in that space, then you have something that was designed to be open becoming cluttered and oppressive. What makes the Barbican special would be lost.”
The staircase intended to be filled in is actually a remarkable space, a line of elegant pairs of columns and joists that resemble Japanese shrine gates make the massive building above them seem relatively weightless. Sliding a building in here could act as a form of architectural congestion that also masks the remarkable ceiling.
In an estate this large, some corners will remain untouched, but as things stand, the school is expanding because it is already straining at its capacity. It seems quite likely that it will need to expand beyond the limits of its Barbican site at some point in the future, and so will depart having left a trail of architectural damage in its wake. Meanwhile Britain is already losing much of its best late 20th century architecture. In Birmingham, the demolition of the city’s beautiful central library looks set to be followed by more losses, while a new refurbishment of London’s Balfron Tower has been damned for its insensitivity to the original architecture. Decisions like these matter, not least because it becomes ever harder to make an argument for protecting a space once it has been compromised by redevelopment. The time to start protecting the Barbican is surely now.
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