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Concrete poetry

Thirty years after the opening of the Barbican Centre in the city of London, Amanda Levete celebrate

You don't get gifts like the Barbican from the City of London any more. This was public patronage on a grand, glorious scale. Gone are the days when buildings cost what they cost, when the biggest development in London for decades could be awarded to a group of young architects who had built little, and when project managers barely existed.

The Barbican site in the Cripplegate area of the City was emblematic of the destruction of war and the failures of peace, having remained undeveloped for more than a decade after the Blitz. In 1952, Harold Macmillan, then minister of housing, wrote to the lord mayor of London with a plea to respond to the "the most pressing of our social needs today" - a lack of housing. It had been the policy of the City of London Corporation to reduce and relocate the population of the City in line with contemporary town planning orthodoxy. However, new government legislation would mean no electorate and therefore no power. The imperative to build on the site densely and on a huge scale was politically, as well as financially, motivated.

It was to the corporation's credit that it embraced modernity when appointing the architects for the project, work on which began in 1965. The chosen practice was Chamberlin, Powell and Bon, a young partnership with just a single completed project to its name - the now revered subsidised-housing complex of the adjacent Golden Lane Estate. The architects' plans reflected the changing aspirations of a society that had an increasingly complex and optimistic view of the future. They were eloquent seducers, too, playing to the backwards- and forwards-looking fantasies of the client with references to Venice and Georgian squares but also promising a blueprint for modern living and the latest technological advances.

Their brutalist (from the French béton brut, or "raw concrete") vision was an extreme reaction to the land-hungry, suburban ethos of the 1950s: a deliberate assassination of a semi-detached mentality. This was an opportunity to build on an unprecedented scale. The architects adroitly manipulated the density with three handsome 40-storey towers and by using a very large podium to create, in effect, two spacious ground levels with fabulous gardens.

This is architecture at its toughest and it commands respect. The serrated tower profiles are beautifully articulated, the jagged water stains on the curved concrete balconies only enhancing the form. Podium flats look on to a lush landscape and water, some on piloti striding across the lake.

The whole development is shot through with references. The balconies on the towers and parapets on the podium have their genesis in the roofline of Le Corbusier's Notre Dame du Haut chapel at Ronchamp in eastern France; the rough concrete and vaulted spaces of the podium allude to his more domestic work at Maisons Jaoul in Neuilly-sur-Seine outside Paris. For residents, the complexity of circulation on different levels, with spaces that compress and contract, is like exploring a medieval city. The landscape is a modernist interpretation of the elegance of baroque formal gardens.

Inside the flats, spaces are generous in feel but relatively small. The kitchens and bathrooms are like abbreviated rooms, designed purposefully but reductively for their function. Each element was conceived and prefabricated exclusively for the Barbican, a rarity then and almost unimaginable now.

Cupboards that are accessed from the lobby and from inside the flats allow you to receive deliveries while you are out. Paper refuse was collected daily from these cupboards and new brown paper bags were left in their place. Other refuse was ground up by a Garchey disposal unit in the kitchen. And this was long before the age of recycling.

Every element of design in the residential flats and the arts centre is imbued with a coherent sense of aesthetic intention and a fetish for detail. Lavish attention is given even to the most mundane requirements of health and safety. The entryphone for the high-rise flats becomes an analogue of the towers themselves; a light switch or fire hydrant an art piece recessed and framed by a change in the texture of the concrete. No other decoration is needed in this brutalist landscape. Later attempts to "humanise" the place with swirling carpets, dotted murals and gilded sculptures were a predictable failure.

The idea of integrating an arts centre - with theatres, galleries and a concert hall - with a library and a school (City of London School for Girls, still there) was utopian, creating a city within the walls of the City. Such amenities are rarely considered for large-scale housing developments. Circulation areas between venues were dramatised, generating an exciting narrative of texture, light and shadow that flows into the auditoriums. In the theatre, there is a magical moment when the doors to the seats close in unison, creating an intense relationship between actors and audience, due to the absence of aisles. The galleries are less successful: the bush-hammered concrete vision of the future is overbearing as a backdrop to two-dimensional exhibitions.

It is ironic that the complexity and intensity of the circulation spaces, which work so well for the residences, are what are least successful in the arts centre. The Corbusian ideal of high-level walkways fails because the connections to the street are hard to find. Perhaps this is a consequence of young architects grappling with an experimental ideology in which they were not entirely fluent. They had also been inspired by the very successful 1930s Dolphin Square estate in Pimlico, which turned its back on its surroundings, something that might not seem to foster easy connections.

The Barbican was conceived at a time when we were in love with the car, before pedestrianisation and outdoor eating became fashionable in England. It was geared towards the convenience of car users - but that has never really worked. On a recent visit, I got lost on the short journey from car park to theatre.

Other stories of disorientation are legion. One evening, two elderly ladies approached the building by walking over the frozen lake, a mistake easily made. They sank to their waists, had to be rescued and watched the play wrapped in blankets while the RSC wardrobe took care of their clothes.

The Barbican is a microcosm of the changing political and aesthetic mores of the past 60 years. The flats were designed during the heady years of the postwar social-democratic experiment and a significant number of them were designated for subsidised housing. The corporation would be the landlord and residents would be tenants. But by the late 1970s, the tide had turned towards private ownership. Today, two-bedroom flats in one of the towers sell for as much as £800,000.

When the Queen opened the Barbican Centre to huge fanfare in 1982, she proclaimed it "one of the wonders of the modern world". By 1990, however, the complex had become unfashionable and unloved. Yet only a few years later, it was rediscovered by the cognoscenti and became popular with architects looking for an inner-city dwelling. By the turn of the millennium, the Barbican was back in fashion with both home-owners and design critics and now, more than half a century after it was conceived, it is truly the vibrant and successful part of the urban landscape that its architects envisaged.

Today, the City is synonymous with discredited financial institutions. Perhaps it is time for their denizens to act with a sense of civic responsibility and to imagine a new model for financing and managing social housing. They could start by learning from the Barbican.

Amanda Levete's practice, AL_A, recently won the competition to design a new gallery for the Victoria and Albert Museum in London

This article first appeared in the 27 February 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The God Wars