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The Barbican: In Defence of London's Ugliest Building

by Tom Armstrong
29 September 2014 18 Comments

It's been branded the Capital's biggest eyesore but the Barbican Centre, like the Get Carter car park and the Clockwork Orange housing estate are all reasons why brutalism is beautiful.

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Anyone familiar with the film Get Carter will remember the iconic car park scene in which Jack, played by Michael Caine hunts down and eventually kills the Geordie gangster Cliff Brumby by tipping him over the edge of the multi-story building. It came as sad news to fans of the film to hear that the bulldozers have been fired up and the wrecking ball is headed for the Trinity Centre Car Park in Gateshead, where the scene was filmed. It stood for over 40 years as a gloomy monument to Brutalist architecture, equally loved and derided by locals, as well as something of a Mecca to the bizarre cult of the film fanatic who made annual pilgrimages to relive the grittiness of the original film. As the credits roll for the ‘Get Carter Car Park’, it made me question and re-evaluate my thoughts on London’s best known, but perhaps least loved, example of gritty Brutalist architecture – The Barbican Estate.

Like the Great Fire of London in 1666 provided an architectural blank canvas on which the Baroque movement flourished, post-blitz London needed to rebuild with direction and relevance in what was to become a very different world from what we knew. That vision was the utopian dream of a new architectural movement named ‘Brutalism’. Getting its name from the French architect Le Corbusier’s term ‘beton brut’ translating literally as raw concrete, the style would focus on a building’s function rather than what were seen as the ostentatious and unnecessary design features of pre-war movements.

Pioneered by husband and wife design team Alison and Peter Smithson, this new anti-aesthetic philosophy would also change the social fabric of Britain – entire communities would live together in huge concrete blocks designed in the Brutalist style, with shops and amenities built into its internal streets. New housing developments would rise high above the ground with entire streets stacked one on top of the other – a truly revolutionary idea to a working class community used to living in Victorian terraces.

What the architects failed to see however (or chose to ignore) is the grey concrete of Brutalist buildings doesn’t lend itself at all well to our damp grey climate. While Le Corbusier, the Godfather of Brutalism, was creating bright stimulating structures in the charitable climate of the south of France, in the UK the inner-city social decay of the 1970s had started to set in. The country was in disarray, struggling to cope with public spending cuts – in a country that couldn’t afford to keep the lights on tasks like maintenance of housing estates were way down the bottom of the priorities list, leaving many in a state of neglect. This, coupled with a rise in anti social crime, meant inner-city estates and tower blocks, and therefore brutalism, had started to become synonymous with urban decay.

Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film ‘A Clockwork Orange’ famously used the Thamesmead Estate in South London to characterise the dystopian run-down society of Anthony Burgess’ original novel – a telling forecast of what Brutalist housing estates would come to symbolise in future years.

“What the architects failed to see however (or chose to ignore) is the grey concrete of Brutalist buildings doesn’t lend itself at all well to our damp grey climate.”

The Barbican estate built within a badly bombed area of the City of London. A stones-throw from St Pauls, it comprised originally of three tall residential towers and a collection of terraced housing blocks complete with gardens and a lake. In 1982 Europe’s largest performing arts development ‘The Barbican Centre’ was added to the complex, designed by Brutalist architects Chamberlain, Powell and Bon. Entering the estate induces a strange sensual feeling that I can only describe as travelling backwards and forwards in time simultaneously.

On the one hand the tough unforgiving concrete is unmistakably sixties, but instead of feeling like you’re walking around something out-dated or redundant, there is an atmosphere of hope – to explore the grounds is to gain an insight into what all of London may today have looked like had the pioneers of Brutalism realised their utopian dream – similar to watching an old episode of ‘Tomorrows World’. The bleak concrete, sinister looking car parks and imposing tower blocks immediately take me back to the futuristic street crime movies of the eighties – the Robocops and the Terminators. As a child of that decade I feel an excited nostalgia towards it all, but removing my rose tinted glasses for a second it’s easy to see how the combination of bleak potentially uninviting buildings and a community riddled with crime would make for a daunting place for anyone to have to live in.

Within the relatively safe streets of London’s financial district though, and with a vibrant hub of high culture within its grounds, social decay isn’t something the Barbican Complex has had to deal with, therefore it can stand as a working monument to the positive ethics of Brutalism. It’s an exciting thought that this was once the prototype for the future of urban architecture.

Those who voted the Barbican Centre itself as ‘London’s Ugliest Building’ in a recent poll have obviously never ventured inside, for the interior is simply sublime. Wide open walkways, exposed staircases and balconies overlooking each floor, all characteristics typical of the Brutalist idea of displaying a buildings function and workings in the same way a watch will be designed to show its movements. Everything is in the brutalist tradition of stark democratic concrete, which works so much better inside where it can be animated with coloured lights and protected from the elements. Despite its skeletal appearance, the general feeling is an air of relaxation and cosiness – it is a different kind of openness than that of say, the vast emptiness of the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall.

The first floor walkway overlooks a set of comfortable leather seats on the lower ground floor, with people reading under soft lighting and a warm orange colour scheme. The main entrance hall eventually leads out into a stunning courtyard. People play table tennis in the communal grounds, fountains flow and the benches are occupied by people chatting idly over lunch or reading newspapers, all the while surrounded by multi-storied terrace housing. To the right, the tower blocks pierce the skyline, the balconies jutting out with beautiful metronomic precision. This small peaceful square seems to realize the Smithson’s utopian dream. While it doesn’t give a true representation of what Brutalism came to mean for the general public it’s a nice thought nonetheless.

Though dated and unfashionable by today’s standards, The Barbican Centre does not deserve the title of London’s ugliest building, and the scorn that has become associated with the appearance of the Barbican Complex itself seems to me to be undeserved. Just as conceptual art may not always seem as easy on the eye as a renaissance masterpiece, is it fair that we judge them both purely on aesthetics? Surely the point of conceptual art, whether painting, sculpture or architecture is we appreciate the idea behind what we see. While Brutalism may have failed nationwide in its experiment to bring societies closer together, The Barbican Complex stands proud as a working monument to the ethics of the style.

Thankfully (or regrettably depending on your viewpoint) Brutalism has had something of a renaissance in recent years, in London especially. The Brunswick Centre in Bloomsbury, a former council estate which felt the full vitriol of the modernist backlash, is now a fashionable shopping centre complete with upmarket boutiques and an independent cinema. The Barbican Centre is now a grade II listed building and a recent one-off tour by London’s Open City Architectural Society around Erno Goldfinger’s Brutalist ‘Trelick Tower’ in Chelsea was fully booked within minutes. Let’s hope this renewed interest leads to Brutalism, and in particular The Barbican Complex, getting the credibility it deserves.

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Jason Regan 8:07 pm, 20-Feb-2011

I love the Barbican Centre and everything it stands for. Walking through it it's easy to imagine yourself in some early 70's sci fi movie – there's a beauty to it's bleak minimalism that conjures up Cronenberg, or Carl Craig, or Gattaca.

Lisa McCarthy 9:31 pm, 20-Feb-2011

So ugly its beautiful, and a true London landmark.

Tom Armstrong 9:54 pm, 20-Feb-2011

Definitely Jason. Another London building which has the same effect with me is the St Giles Hotel on Tottenham Court Rd. While more modernist than strictly brutalist it's got the same gritty sci-fi look about it, an overlooked gem if you ask me.

Dan 11:39 pm, 20-Feb-2011

I couldn't agree more - it's long been a favourite of mine, playing a crucial part in London's architectural eclecticism and generally being a great place to be. My vote for London's Ugliest would have to be the London Ark in Hammersmith - correctly described by the Guardian some years ago as a 'turd'.

Achal Narayanan 6:59 am, 21-Feb-2011

When I first visited London in 1971, I was taken on a guided tour of the Barbican Centre, which was then a showpiece of the capital city. I was struck by its design and general upkeep. Perhaps other people have other opinions about the structure!

biff_bifferson 10:37 am, 21-Feb-2011

ive never had cause to go inside but i dont know where the entrance is. it seems to be a massive block of flats behind a wall above a car park. perhaps its mysteries are meant to be forever denied to me. like the film, ET.

falik lunj 11:13 am, 21-Feb-2011

I used to live behind Goldfinger's Brutalist block on the Elephant & Castle. Ian Fleming hated it so much, he named his villain after the architect.

cleave 12:33 pm, 21-Feb-2011

Interesting piece. Another good example is Sheffield's 'hole in the road' which sadly no longer exists. Looked like a UFO had landed in the town centre!

Alexander Clement 1:15 pm, 22-Feb-2011

It is a style of architecture much misunderstood. Great article, I really enjoyed reading it. I've recently published a book on the subject which includes the Barbican and other buildings mentioned here:

Tom Armstrong 2:36 pm, 22-Feb-2011

Thanks Alexander. That's a huge compliment coming from someone who obviously knows the subject as well as you do. Look forward to reading the book.

Harold Monk 11:19 am, 25-Feb-2011

Beauty is in the Brutalism

Alex Urban 1:34 pm, 6-Mar-2011

Great article; completely agree that the Barbican is beyond brilliant. This line really sums it up: "Entering the estate induces a strange sensual feeling that I can only describe as travelling backwards and forwards in time simultaneously."

James Lewis 5:11 pm, 14-Mar-2011

I'm lucky enough to live 5 mins from the Barbican, I love it and would move in tomorrow if I could. Better than those plastic looking apartment developments popping up all over east London, wait for 20 years and see how shit they look.

Johann Cunce 11:40 am, 21-Mar-2011

Great building.

Ian 5:29 pm, 29-Jul-2011

Quality piece of writing Mr. Armstrong. Love the Barbican.

Oskar P 10:11 pm, 30-Nov-2012

Great building. However I dont believe it should be called a brutalist building. I.e thousands of working hours have been put into altering the shapes of the many columns in the complex. And the semi circle building is apparently a tribute to roman architecture and "being true to the material" wich is the main theme of brutalism does not correspond with the fly towers and many other features of the different buildings! Have the tour wich the cultural center provide and you'll find out alot more!

Stan Dalglish 9:30 am, 9-Feb-2013

Great article. Personally, I love it. Had a friend who lived there and it was like a 'who's who' of residents. I can still see the Barbican from my offices and like their place in the London skyline. They have a cracking Library as well!

Ketch 4:19 pm, 18-Apr-2014

Great article. For the record the Get Carter car park went in 2010 and has been replaced by a modern shopping centre that features possibly the world's biggest Tesco. Living in the area, I was pleased to see it go. Interesting piece by the BBC last year saw the original architect return to the site following its demolition.

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