Robin's Website

The Barbican Estate, City of London, UK

The Barbican Estate, or Barbican, is a residential complex in central London, England, within the City of London. It his home to over 4,000 people in over 2,000 flats, maisonettes, and houses, each conforming to one of 140 different carefully specified plans. The site is one of the capital’s most well-known examples of brutalist architecture and as well as housing, contains a range of arts facilities, schools, an underground station (accessed via a walkway), a lake, hotels, restaurants, bars and cafés. The Barbican was constructed from 1959 to 1982 in an area within the City of London once known as Cripplegate ward. In the years preceding World War II, Cripplegate ward was characterised by its densely populated financial institutions. However, during a single December night in 1940, heavy bombing completely wrecked it. This left a site of some 35-acres (14ha) within the City in need of a new post-war development of one form or another.

After the Second World War, the Corporation of the City of London, sought to rebuild the area, making it residential once again. Whereas many of the post-war public housing developments of the time were intended to be built for tenants in immediate need of housing, the Barbican site was developed with city professionals such as teachers, police, and other ‘keyworkers’ in mind; its aim was to bring a substantial working residential population back to the City, attracting people with affordable rent. Recognising the need for comprehensive planning after the war, the Town and Country Planning Act of 1947 enabled such local authorities to buy land in order to redevelop large areas. Thus, a decision was made to build a new housing estate in this area of the square mile, which was to become known as Barbican. Barbican used to be the name of a street within the Cripplegate ward and initial ideas for the new estate made various references to the definition of the name (or word), which is ‘the outer defence of a castle or walled city, especially a double tower above a gate or drawbridge’. And so, it seems, the name stuck with the development of the new estate.

The young practice of Chamberlin, Powell and Bon was selected by the London County Council (LCC) to carry out the design for the new estate. These architects had just completed the Golden Lane Estate, immediately to the north of the Barbican site, and had begun plans for the latter as early as 1955. The Barbican was developed from their designs as part of a “utopian vision to transform an area of London left devastated by bombing during the Second World War”. Construction was to begin a decade after the initial scheme was proposed. Whist the idea of a utopia may seem far-fetched, a visit here is indeed a visit into a different world from that of the London to be seen beyond its outer walls. The LCC insisted on the design on having as many flats as possible, whilst at the same time having plenty of open space, whilst the architects drew inspiration from the Italian city of Venice, where foot and service traffic is completely segregated. In designing much of the Barbican on platforms and podia, a spacious layout could be created in which service vehicles were kept away from high density housing and open areas for pedestrians.

The Barbican Complex is a prominent example of British brutalist architecture. To the approaching visitor, it may at first sight appear to have an impenetrable exterior. The most prominent structures on the estate come in the form of three imposing triangular tower blocks (named Cromwell, Lauderdale, and Shakespeare Towers). Unmistakably “Barbicanesque” in style, if such a word exists. Each tower is over 40 floors high, with the Shakespeare Tower featuring in the Guinness Book of Records as the highest residential building in Europe for many years, and characterised by their upward-curving concrete balconies. The development also contains residential terrace blocks positioned at right angles to each other – a total of 20 blocks, including the three towers. All residencies were built to very high standards, with many bespoke fittings, including Brooke Marine kitchens, specially designed joinery and door furniture. Properties on the development still containing the original interior designs are have become increasingly rare. The building structures at the Barbican are raised on columns, creating a complete vertical separation of pedestrians from traffic; the various enclosures do not appear to crowd the interior and the overall design is one of wide open spaces. The design of the buildings and the spaces created between them bring about a sense of order, without the monotony characterised by other housing estates of the time. As various points and levels, vistas of pick-hammered heavily textured concrete, dark brick and tile, lakes and greenery open up and it is at this point, one can understand the utopian visions had, during its design phase. Whilst residents and workers may be going about their day-to-day business in this calm enclosed space, as a visitor wandering about, if it were not for the occasional glimpses of high rise buildings in the City contrasting against the sky, forgetting one is actually in the City of London can become an easy reality.

The Barbican looks across a lake to St Giles Cripplegate church and, in all, took decades to finish from its conception in the mid-1950’s, the arrival of its first residents in 1969, through to its completion in the early 1980’s. It was officially opened by Queen Elizabeth II in 1982, who declared it ‘one of the modern wonders of the world’. Indeed, many consider it as one of the most significant architectural achievements of the 20th century. Despite being brutalist in nature, the whole project is seen by many as a landmark in terms of its scale, cohesion and ambition. The eye-catching spaces created include resident-only lawns and water features and a seemingly quiet space for pedestrians away from the hubbub of London’s busy streets. Remains of a Roman fort have been retained in the structure, and these are reflected in the modern concrete’s hand-crafted rough finish. Furthermore, unlike many other housing estates, being within the City itself, the Barbican boasts a highly desirable location. It was originally built as rental housing for middle and upper-middle-class professionals, and remains today an upmarket residential estate.

The Barbican boasts much more than just housing; as part of the Barbican Estate, the Barbican Centre forms the City of London’s most important arts complex. It is home to the globally renowned London Symphony Orchestra and a concert hall, and also within the centre can be seen music, dance and theatre performances, films (in one of three cinemas), and various exhibitions. Its theatre has a seating capacity of 1,156 and was specially designed on four tiers so that no seat is located further than 20 metres from the stage. Some British readers may be familiar with the Barbican Centre on occasion hosting the BBC current affairs programme Question Time. The facilities in the centre attract some of the world’s top performers and artists. There is a convention hall and a library here, and the complex also has an array of restaurants, cafés, and bars, all designed in cohesive a style as the residential areas. The Barbican Estate also contains the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. The Arts Centre was the last phase of the development to be completed (opening in 1982), and as well as providing a more public aspect to the development, its completion in the early 1980’s may be considered, in a wider context, as marking the end of Britain’s Brutalist movement - the length of time between planning and completion of this vast project meant that by the time it was finished, it was perhaps out of stylistic favour as movements such as post-modernism came into fashion.

The Barbican Complex is Grade II listed as a whole (with the exception of Milton Court and some flats which made way for a new development) and renovation of Trellick and Balfron towers aside, is quite possibly the best-maintained brutalist development in the capital. Its overwhelming size and modernist style seems to some to look more beautiful as the years and decades pass.
It may be worth noting here that the photos on this webpage were taken on a damp, overcast day and whilst they may seem that monotone filters have been applies to them, no filters ware used - they just appear how they do… perhaps reflective of the brutalist nature of the subject matter. The thumbnail gallery below shows further photographs taken alongside the main ones on this webpage, and includes an approach by foot from the north (western side), along the edge of the aforementioned Golden Lane Estate (click on an image to enlarge):

Photos: March 2022, Text: April 2022


References and Further Reading

1. 2022. Barbican Centre - Wikipedia. [online] Available at: [Accessed 6 April 2022].
2. 2019. Brutalist London Map. London: Blue Crow Media.
3. 2022. Construction | Barbican. [online] Available at: [Accessed 6 April 2022].
4. Freedman, M., 2019. Best buildings. Antwerpen: Luster.
5. Glancey, J., 2001. 20th century architecture. London: Carlton Books.
6. Grindrod, J., 2018. How to love brutalism. London: Pavilion Books.
7. Irving, M. and St John, P., 2008. 1001 buildings you must see before you die. London: Cassell Illustrated.
8. 2022. Oxford Languages and Google - English | Oxford Languages. [online] Available at: [Accessed 6 April 2022].
9. Phipps, S., 2016. Brutal London. [London]: September Publ.
10. Rogers, C., 2017. How to read London. London: Ivy Press.
11. Williams, R., 2017. Top 10 London. London: DK.


Back to Top