Barbican, Concrete Boy Wonder

featured image/illustration by Jennifer Yu

On the homefront the stark realisation of the Second World War became ever more apparent with the destruction of houses across the country. Homes and livelihoods were reduced to rubble, so when post-war architects were given this architectural land of gold, they saw the opportunity to build past the war, to build upwards, both literally and figuratively. This was the birth of Brutalism in the UK. This movement divides critics with a fury. The popular crowd screams the idea that these grey, formidable buildings are an eyesore and insult the picture perfect Victorians, Edwardians and Georgians. Many of them are actually put on the list of buildings that should be (and have been) torn down.

I, however, am a lover of Brutalism, and I am of the camp arguing that this part of modern planning is an amazing historical, social and political upheaval with more character than most of the glass skyscrapers which are currently taking over the world. Brutalist buildings are typified by their concrete facade (the name originates from ‘breton brut’, the French for ‘raw concrete’), functionality and fortress like atmosphere. Their seemingly intimidating nature means that they have been featured in a number of  (usually dystopian) films.


In England, the Barbican estate is the darling jewel of Brutalism. Having escaped the seemingly inevitable ‘fate’ of urban decay, the Barbican is a cultural hub – home to the Symphony Orchestra, one of five City of London libraries, and the Museum of London. Situated in east central London, the Barbican estate was built in the 1960s and completed in 1976. The three tower blocks reach up to 123 metres high and were at that point some of the tallest residential buildings in London.

Unlike most tower blocks, which went through shifts of middle class residents, to working class, then back to middle class again (the momentum of gentrification) the Barbican seems to have always held its middle class ‘target’ – and it’s obvious why. Despite the so-called ‘ugliness’ of the estate, the Barbican is located right in the heart of the City, with a plethora of restaurants, cinemas, theatres, and copious amounts of outdoor space. The flats and maisonettes are more than roomy – not enough for a family, but perfect for professionals whose income means they can hold their own.

Empty offices & yellow line leading to Liverpool St Station
Walkway under Shakespeare Tower

Given the raised levels of the estate, in the style of a ‘ziggurat’, walking around the Barbican feels a lot like being in another town. The walkways go so far up that you’re elevated from the hustling noise of London. I remember when I was in primary school, we were taken to see the Symphony Orchestra and our guide told us that the estate and arts centre were so colossal and maze-like that lines had to be painted on the floor, colour coded to where you wanted to go. Isn’t that insane?

Most Brutalist buildings were built to last, but they were also built with people in mind (after all, the Estate is a home). The flats have massive windows for maximum input of light, in a way completely contrasting the grey outer image of the buildings. People who keep the Barbican on their ‘most ugly building in London’ list fail to realise how structurally sound the buildings are, and how much impact they have on you when you stare up at the sky and see those giant silhouettes, not looming, but emanating. It’s visually dramatic and stunning.

Cromwell Tower

In the 1980s the arts centre was opened, the Barbican cemented itself as a cultural centre point and forestalled any prospect of demolishing the estate. Thank God.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for many other wonderful high towers and tenements belonging to the Brutalist family. As I’ve mentioned, the Barbican is one example of when high rises go right. Largely, it’s dependent on the money and maintenance that goes into caring for these buildings and it just so happens that the Barbican is fortunate to have a thriving arts centre fuelling it. But in an ideal world, it shouldn’t need to.

Originally posted on The Banderola (Dec 2014)