Barbican: Architecture Tour

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Having already completed a fascinating backstage tour of the Barbican, I thought it was about time to undertake an Architecture Tour too. I actually rather like the centre’s Modernist aesthetic, and the history of the site is fascinating, so I  I don’t know why it took me so long to sign up.

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The meeting place for the tour was by the Advance Ticket Desk at the Silk Street entrance. The majority of the tour, however, took place outside – I was very thankful that the weather was so good. There were several people on the tour and our guide was incredibly knowledgeable.

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The Barbican site is Grade 2 listed, and consists of a residential estate, housing approximately 4,000 people, and an arts centre. Before the Second World War, the area contained warehouses and red brick housing, but it was destroyed in bombing raids in 1940. Eventually, in 1955, a site was planned to fill up this now-empty space.

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The plan resulted from the modern concept that the centre of a city should not be a purely industrial area – there should be people living there. However, the City of London, which was slowly seeing its privileges being eroded owing to the fact that many people had moved out of the area, wanted a certain “class” of people to move in to ensure that they were of the “correct” demographic. Therefore, the flats, though they were owned by the Council, were not like normal council housing – they were luxury flats lived in by the rich. Later, most residents bought their flats when the Right to Buy scheme was brought in. At the time they were built, they were among the tallest buildings in Europe.

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Building work began in 1960 and the residential area was ready in 1974. The arts centre, however, was not completed until 1982. 6 complete redraws of the plans had taken place by then. The resulting design incorporated elements of modernist design with some decoration, such as the semicircle, and a medieval influence: for instance, the rampart-style pattern which echoed the Barbican name (the word means a fort or city wall). In addition, the modern concrete walls had a stone-like finish.

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We were taken to the roof of the concert hall, originally planned as an outdoor theatre space but never used as one because of residents’ noise concerns. The semicircle building in front houses many flats, including the top three floors, which used to be the City Business School and Cinemas 2 and 3 before, again, noise complaints forced them out. By the time the arts centre was built, there was only a small space in the centre of the site, so it had to be built largely on a “vertical” design, with many floors. The Pit Theatre in the basement was so called because it was built over a plague pit.

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We then went into the Conservatory, which I had been into earlier in the day; I was, however, interested to learn that the large jutting part is actually the theatre’s fly tower. The design, covered with plants, contrasts with the National Theatre on the South Bank, which is bare. We were also able to get a closer look at the stone finish on the walls. This was done by hand, with handheld pneumatic drills used to remove the concrete and reveal the granite beneath. This probably wouldn’t be allowed now: it would be far too much risk for workers.

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Once on the outskirts of the arts centre once again, we went for a walk over some of the walkways of the estate. A remote, inner private garden for residents apparently invited controversy as it incorporated architectural elements normally suggestive of open public access. I was fascinated by the moat-like layout of the outside of the estate, with tennis and basketball courts dividing us, on the rampart-like walkway, from the road. It does feel very secure and cut off from the noisy road outside, particularly given the arrow-slits in the wall.

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Not all of the estate is modern: a few buildings escaped the bombing, such as the pink Ironmongers’ House, mock Tudor in design, which dates from the 1920s. There is a real mix of styles to be seen. As we walked around the estate, we passed the artificial lake which lies next to the arts centre: it was apparently built as a noise-cancelling measure, to drown out the sound of the Tube which runs underneath.

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As we ventured back to the centre, we passed yellow lines: these were put in place to mark the original planned route to the arts centre from Moorgate station via the Barbican estate. However, people kept getting off at Barbican station and coming in via the car park, as it was much faster: eventually this way in was transformed into the Silk Street entrance. We ended our tour inside the building, as our guide explained that a redevelopment not too many years ago made the inner layout more “horizontal” so that people didn’t have to go up and down so many times. The hole in the floor near the Advance Ticket Desk, which has always fascinated me, was left here as a reminder of how the building used to be organised. It still isn’t perfect – I’ve ended up directing confused theatregoers myself in the past – but it’s clearly much better than it was.

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Architecture tours are available throughout the year and cost £12.50 per person, with discounts for concessions. I thoroughly enjoyed mine: it was absolutely fascinating, and I completely recommend it.

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