Brutalist buildings: Barbican Estate
by Chamberlin, Powell and Bon

| 13 comments

Barbican Estate by Chamberlin, Powell and Bon

Brutalism: described by Queen Elizabeth as "one of the modern wonders of the world", the Barbican Estate in London is one of the largest examples of the Brutalist style and represents a utopian ideal for inner-city living.

Barbican Estate by Chamberlin, Powell and Bon
Photograph by Luke Hayes, as main image

The post-war complex was designed in the 1950s by British firm Chamberlin, Powell and Bon – a team of three young architects who had recently established their reputation by winning the the 1951 design competition for the nearby Golden Lane Estate.



Barbican Estate by Chamberlin, Powell and Bon
Photograph by Luke Hayes

With its coarse concrete surfaces, elevated gardens and trio of high-rise towers, the Barbican Estate offered a new vision for how high-density residential neighbourhoods could be integrated with schools, shops and restaurants, as well world-class cultural destinations.

Barbican Estate by Chamberlin, Powell and Bon
Photograph by Luke Hayes

The architects – Peter Chamberlin, Geoffry Powell and Christoph Bon – sought to create a complex that created a clear distinction between private, community and public domains, but that also allowed pedestrians as much priority as cars.

Barbican Estate by Chamberlin, Powell and Bon
Photograph by Luke Hayes

Architect Piers Gough, who cites the Barbican as one of his biggest influences, told Dezeen that the project's "terrific complexity" is what makes it so unique.

Barbican Estate by Chamberlin, Powell and Bon
Photograph by Luke Hayes

"From a civilisation with apparently no word for dimensions of less a foot, came a totally complete, stonkingly powerful, three-dimensional city wrapped around a sumptuous landscape of green squares and lakes," he said.

Barbican Estate by Chamberlin, Powell and Bon
Photograph by Luke Hayes

The site had been left almost entirely demolished by bombing during the second world war, so the architects were tasked with developing an entire city plot from scratch.

Designs were finalised in 1959, construction extended through the 60s and 70s, and the complex was officially opened by the queen in 1982.

Barbican Estate by Chamberlin, Powell and Bon
Photograph by Luke Hayes

The basis for the design came from a vision for a podium, a car-free realm raised up over the city's busy streets to allow visitors and residents to explore the site on foot.

Brick pathways indicate different routes, while landscaped gardens and lakes offer a pleasant outlook for residents.

Barbican Estate by Chamberlin, Powell and Bon
Photograph by Luke Hayes

Flats were distributed between three 43-storey towers – known as Shakespeare, Cromwell and Lauderdale – and a series of 13 seven-storey blocks. Aimed at young professionals, the residences feature simple layouts with compact kitchens and bathrooms.

Barbican Estate by Chamberlin, Powell and Bon
Photograph by Luke Hayes

Balconies branch off bedrooms and studies, as well as living rooms, and give the towers their unique profiles.

Barbican Estate by Chamberlin, Powell and Bon
Photograph by Luke Hayes

Externally, the raw concrete surfaces were bush-hammered to reveal the rough texture of the aggregate.

Barbican Estate by Chamberlin, Powell and Bon
Photograph by Morley Von Sternberg

"The materials are solid, the details – lamps, handrails, gates, gutters – seem to have been adopted from a second world war battleship," said Jonathan Glancey, the former Guardian critic who moved into the Barbican in the late 90s.

Barbican Estate by Chamberlin, Powell and Bon
Bomb-devastated Barbican site before construction

"The sheer number of ramps, decks, stairs, handrails and balconies here, plus the overtly nautical detailing, makes the Barbican feel, particularly on rain-soaked, windswept days, like some great concrete ship that has come to berth in the City of London," he said.

Barbican Estate by Chamberlin, Powell and Bon
Henry Wrong surveying the Barbican Centre. Photograph courtesy of the Barbican Centre

With the Corporation of London as a client, the project was intended to create a mixed society of residents, but the change in politics brought in during Margaret Thatcher's term as Britain's prime minister inevitably led to the majority of homes being sold to private owners and landlords.

These days the address is highly sought after, with properties selling for as much as £4 million.

Barbican Estate by Chamberlin, Powell and Bon
Barbican flat interior, circa 1970. Photograph by Sam Lambert

Fenella Beevor moved to the Barbican in 1974 with her late husband. Forty years later, she says it's gradually developed into a settled and welcoming community.

"I've seen all sorts of people come and go, but I love my flat and I wouldn't dream of moving," she told Dezeen.

Barbican Estate by Chamberlin, Powell and Bon
Hadrian seating by Robin Day and sculpture by Michael Santry in the babican Centre foyer, circa 1980. Photograph courtesy of the Barbican Centre

The Barbican Centre was revisited ahead of its 25th anniversary by British architecture firm Allford Hall Monaghan Morris, with a scheme that rationalised what many felt to be the estate's only failing – orientation.

The £12.6 million project involved introducing new signage elements that would help to guide visitors around the huge site, adding a more legible public realm at the entrance to the arts centre, and improving acoustics.

Barbican Estate by Chamberlin, Powell and Bon
Chamberlin, Powell and Bon's proposal, 1956

"The architectural rigour evident across the estate, its mixed-use programme and the sheer scale of the undertaking make the Barbican a very significant work within the evolution of post-war British architecture," said architect and AHMM director Peter Morris.

"We weren't disposed to fundamentally change the building, rather to work with it, recognising and celebrating the building's best qualities while dealing head-on with its deficiencies. A combination of radical surgery and a series of robust insertions complemented the massive interior landscape rather than trying to compete with it, while clarifying and improving access to the multiple venues," he added.

Barbican Estate by Chamberlin, Powell and Bon
Site plan
Barbican Estate by Chamberlin, Powell and Bon
East-west elevation
Barbican Estate by Chamberlin, Powell and Bon
Typical tower plan
Barbican Estate by Chamberlin, Powell and Bon
Typical slab plans
Barbican Estate by Chamberlin, Powell and Bon
Typical flat plan
Barbican Estate by Chamberlin, Powell and Bon
Axonometric diagram of a split-level apartment
  • James Burt

    I love the Barbican Centre, the vision and the quality. I’d love to live there and I think it’s exactly the type of high-density living scheme needed in zones 1 and 2.

    • Adrian Chaffey

      To me it’s rather more a curate’s egg. I quite like some of the buildings, and I kind of feel it ought to be okay. But somehow it isn’t.

      The public spaces don’t work for me: mostly deserted, divorced from the rest of the city, impossible to navigate. Just finding your way in is a nightmare, and getting out is even worse; you have to walk miles along elevated walkways without seeing a soul. Very dispiriting.

      • Dean

        I live on the estate, hence I may be biased but I couldn’t disagree more. It’s rarely deserted. I walk through every day, but even when it is it’s certainly not dispiriting. And being ‘divorced’ from the city is partly what makes it so appealing: in a matter of minutes you can go from the traffic-choked Moorgate or London Wall to a verdant, quiet oasis, and its popularity with office workers, residents and visitors alike suggest that the mix works well.

  • Fred Masters

    I could have sex with the Barbican. I have the logo tattooed on my neck.

  • T,.T

    Bru-tifully built.

  • Mazen Jannoun

    Lovely warm pictures of a brutal piece of architecture. I visited the complex last year and spent an afternoon shooting. It made me feel that rough architecture renders a feeling of security, as if living inside the caves of a rocky mountain. The Barbican also feels a modern reflection of medieval forts. http://issuu.com/mazenjannoun/docs/2013-sept-barbican-issuu

  • The Czech

    Without doubt the Barbican is the ugliest collection of tall buildings in the City, and why anyone thinks any element of the stained concrete or soulless walkways have any architectural merit is beyond me.

    Indeed office occupiers considering space with views of the Barbican usually shun those spaces. Unfortunately, this is the view of the silent majority, not the fans of brutalism.

    • EdmundF

      Preach it Brother Czech! All I can say in their defence is that a large amount of housing was urgently needed after the war. Whoever came up with surrounding the beautiful St Giles with concrete monstrosities should be shot.

  • Eynak East

    Yo man, hold it right there, I won’t let you be talking about the B-Dog like a square. Shun those spaces with a fortress vista it’s gotta be said that don’t sound right Mista?! Where you getting that gem from, fact or fiction? ’cause it ain’t part of my diction!
    You better be talking fact when getting on your brutality attack. Opinion is fine and free for all, but don’t be getting fact lairy otherwise you’ll look like a fool.

  • Kay

    Let’s face it, this really is a mammoth masterpiece and London just would not be the same without it. And the way the rest of the area was developed (tunnels, walkways, streets in the sky, passages above and below London wall), just magnificent. A really inspired generation of architects who had a chance to put their imprint on the city like no other. There is no way you can get this sort of ambitious approach to projects these days. This alone warrants the Barbican nothing but respect.

  • Alex Roan

    Agree with some of the other posts that this is indeed a very ugly part of London. In my experience the walkways are often confusing and deserted. And the elevated nature means there are some ugly tunnels at street level.

    It doesn’t integrate at all with the rest of the city and creates a kind of black hole that separates Clerkenwell from the city.

    Given the properties are so overpriced, I don’t see how this does anything positive for the London community.

  • HHGeek

    I love the Barbican, and can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to live there. Part of its appeal is its level of confusion to novices – nowhere else in London is it possible to be so central yet feel so remote. I appreciate it can be confusing; I rarely get lost anywhere, yet I still find myself backtracking every so often when trying a new route through the estate.

    But I don’t think that it’s highly priced for what it is. An icon, centrally placed, almost on top of the best transport links in central London (Farringdon)? With an arts centre of international quality? From where you can walk to pretty much anywhere you want? People pay stupid money to live in areas like Notting Hill which are convenient for nothing other than fellow media/political chums. I think that if you can afford the level of space that you want, the Barbican’s a bargain.

  • Think

    I first saw the Barbican in a book when I was nine years old and living in Australia. I’ve been captivated ever since and I only wish I could afford to live there!

    My wife says it’s my ‘happy place’ and I can’t argue with that. A masterpiece.