Barbican, City of London

Originally a defensive structure atop the City walls (pulled down in 1267), then a street and now a housing estate in the north-west corner of the City

Steel Blue Barbican, © Jane Smith, click to learn more on Etsy

In the 19th century the Barbican was a warren of factories, warehouses, markets and shops. Much of it was razed by fire in 1902 and the remainder was devastated in the Blitz.

In 1956 housing minister Duncan Sandys recom­mended the creation of a model post-war neigh­bourhood with schools, shops and amenities as well as homes. The archi­tects Chamberlin, Powell and Bon were appointed to design the complex, and created a focal lake, residents’ gardens and the tallest resid­ential blocks in Britain. With 43 storeys, the Barbican’s three towers were not eclipsed the construction of Manchester’s Beetham Tower in 2006.

An airliner passes Cromwell Tower
Balconies on Cromwell Tower

The restored medieval church of St Giles without Cripplegate was retained as a centrepiece. The remainder of the estate consists of low-rise blocks of apart­ments, plus the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, the City of London School for Girls and a handful of shops and service providers.

The first of 2,000 flats were completed in the early 1960s and they were originally available only to rent from the Corporation of London. The idea of living in the City – where everything closed at weekends – met with consid­erable scepticism at first, but soon the waiting list for flats grew to several years. For nearly two decades the Barbican could lay claim to being Britain’s most upmarket council estate. However, the Housing Act of 1980 intro­duced the right of council tenants to purchase their homes. Many residents bought and sold as soon as possible at a consid­erable profit and the estate progress­ively became the preserve of well-paid City bankers and the like.

The Barbican’s rain-stained, hammered concrete slabs detract from its aesthetic appeal but it has achieved grade II listed building status by virtue of its distinctive character.

The Barbican arts centre was built between 1971 and 1982 at a cost of £153 million, which sounds like a bargain now but was a lot at the time. Its buildings are on ten floors, the lowest being well below sea level. The centre claims to be Europe’s largest multi-arts and conference venue and presents a diverse range of art, music, theatre, dance, film and creative learning events. It is also home to the London Symphony Orchestra.

The Museum of London has several paintings of the Barbican and its surroundings, notably Harold Hussey’s depiction of the scene before building began but after the clearance of the former bombsite, revealing the colossal scale of the project.

Postal district: EC2
Station: Circle, Hammersmith & City and Metropolitan lines (zone 1)
Further reading: D Heathcote, Penthouse over the City: The Barbican and Modern Urban Living, Wiley-Academy, 2004
Website: Barretts Solicitors guide to the Barbican area
See also: Aldersgate and Cripplegate