Barbican ghosts

During my visit to London last week I finally summoned the discipline to visit a place that has long haunted my imagination: the Barbican Estate in the Cripplegate area of the City of London.

It's somewhat alarming to think that my last visit there was 25 years ago, a brief excursion to the Arts Centre within the Barbican complex that was sufficient for impressions of those forbidding towers and blasted plazas to entangle themselves in memory for all those years.

I arrived somewhat earlier than expected, just before 9am on a Sunday morning. Unsurprisingly no other idiots like me were around to enjoy the freezing wind bringing in isolated spots of rain from the east, outliers presaging the deluge that was to follow later that day, the sky an angry blur of lowering greys. The perfect conditions, I thought, to see the Estate at its best. This is Brutalist concrete modernism at its most uncompromising, the tower blocks a silent sisterhood of jagged sentinels, last year's leaves spiralling across the open spaces, the wind jotting quicksilver patterns on the artificial lakes.

Constructed during the 1960s and 70s the Barbican is a Brutalist experiment that worked. It is not so different from the many estates of similar style that went up across Britain around the same time and subsequently deteriorated into dysfunctional concrete wastelands, now awaiting demolition. Crucially, though, this one is in the City of London, and its apartments have attained cult status as weekday boltholes for the wealthy. The Barbican Estate has been well maintained by caretakers, and has a support system of shops, cafes and, of course, the adjoining Arts Centre.

It retains its utopian quality, a vision of an alien-modernist urban future that has yet to arrive. Hard to believe then, as I wandered through the silent spaces, that the site covers much of the heart of ancient London. Before the Luftwaffe flattened it Cripplegate was a dense sooty warren of tottering tenements cramming 14,000 people. That was built on the ashes of the medieval City, engulfed by the Great Fire of 1666. The Estate harbours a remnant of that old City, the 14th century church of St Giles-without-Cripplegate, attended by John Bunyan and Oliver Cromwell, burial place of John Foxe, author of the Book of Martyrs, Elizabethan adventurer Martin Frobisher, and John Milton. The Barbican's futurist plazas and walkways and sci-fi towers are haunted by so many ancient ghosts.

And its history goes back much further, to ancient Londinium: the Romans built the London Wall here, parts of which remain, with its 'Barbecana', defensive towers and outposts.

So it is strangely appropriate that the architecture of today's Barbican is so evocative of a fortress. The Brutalist style is so often derided for its unapologetic rough-hewn directness, its angry rejection of prettiness, of pastoral, of Merrie England. This is industrial design on an industrial scale, design that in its way is just as true to the British tradition as thatched cottages, pastel shades, window boxes and Tudor beams. Because our overcrowded island is not and has never been an Arcadia, whatever we might want to believe: this is the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, and before that a land of Norman keeps, Saxon hill forts, Roman walls and Celtic hedges. The Barbican is a Brutalist masterpiece rooted in that ancient heritage.

I have posted a few more images on Flickr.

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