Believe it or not, the Barbican is one of the most peaceful places in London
Look beyond the coarse concrete walls of the brutalist housing estate in the hustling-and-bustling East End, and you’ll find an urban jungle hidden in plain sight. Entered via large metal gates, to which only residents have the key, the Barbican gardens are home to more than 2000 species of plants and tropical flowers. They are linked by a shallow lake. It features igloo-style reading pods, and even a cascading waterfall. All this lush greenery cracking the concrete feels slightly unreal. I didn’t know the old brutalist had such a wild side. So why not go for a walk off the beton track.
My tour guide is Anton Rodriguez. Born in Erlangen, Germany, the Liverpool-raised photographer has lived in the Barbican for five years. He is your go-to man if you want to catch a through-the-keyhole glimpse inside the homes of one of the world’s most iconic brutalist icons. Anton is the creator of the website barbicanresidents.co.uk, which has evolved into the bestselling book of photographs Residents: Inside the Iconic Barbican estate – a photographic study.
What drew him to the project? «I was always intrigued by my neighbours’ flats – you’d get a glimpse when walking through the corridor and maybe someone would open the door. I began to look online and tried to find images of different flat types, but there was not many to see. That’s when the idea of photographing the residents and their flats came to me.»
As we are moving on, the spatial and visual scenery keeps changing: one moment, we stroll along modernist mews, then Anton opens the steel mesh security door to a stairway that has all the optimist vision of a menacing Clockwork Orange council estate. One level up, we have a wander round the resident-run coop. Moving down the barren walkway we pass by the remnants of a Roman amphitheatre. Everywhere window boxes overflow with flowers, turning Barbican’s blend of brutalism into a rather baroque one (keeping balcony plants is mandatory for terrace blocks). Suits and pupils from the estate-based, private City of London School for Girls walk past. On ground level kids play football.
The towers are recovering from a particularly unforgiving downpour lashing hard against the balconies just hours before my visit – as if to prove the sheltering function of their overhanging construction works as envisioned. The other purpose of the distinct cantilevered shape is an altogether altruistic one; they are meant to «contribute a feeling of protection to the inhabitants, some of whom might otherwise dislike the impression of living on the edge of a cliff,» as the Barbican’s architects Chamberlin, Powell & Bon rather poetically put it.
Still, the sight of the polygonal towers against bleak skies brings to mind JG Ballard’s 1975 novel “High-Rise” about the slow decay of a luxury hig-rise building as the well-off inhabitants descend into violence and chaos. Does living in an inward-looking, self-contained brutalist monolith ever drag you down? Anton entertains no such fears. «I like the fact that it is a city within a city. Sometimes I can go days without needing to leave the Barbican. We have the lake, arts centre and resident-run shop that makes inner city living so easy.» Add to this the opportunity to attend the premiere of Ben Wheatley’s 2015 film adaption of “High-Rise” at the Barbican arts centre.
The Barbican was officially opened by the Queen on 3 March 1982. Her description of the estate as “a wonder of the modern world” is certainly no understatement: the complex is home to approximately 4000 residents – half the population of the City of London – who live in 2014 apartments, organised in 140 types, ranging from basic studio flat to seven-bedroom houses. These spread across three tower blocks, thirteen terrace blocks and two mews. The original marketing brochures by the Corporation of London specifically targeted middle management and executives working in the city. Until the 1990s, it was however still possible to snap up a small flat quite cheaply in the “council estate for the well-off”. These days, Barbican properties are stratospherically priced. The high price in rent is about the only negative thing Anton can muster about living inside an architectural icon: «Although that comes with its bonuses, such as the very well run estate amenities.»
Residents are predominantly in architecture, design, marketing and finance. They share an uncommonly high level of neighbourhood spirit and are united in their taste for clean minimalism: resistance to modernist classics, such as Eames-chairs, is poor. Even the community-run food and plant coop has succumbed to Dieter Rams’ Vitsoe shelving system. «I think to live in such a Brutalist building, you have to appreciate the architecture and idea behind it,» Anton explains. «Many of the residents are very house proud and style the apartments to mirror this. There are a lot of different interior choices from mid century modern, minimalist and all the way to victorian.»
While the dimly-lit corridors are slightly claustrophobic to walk through, the homes themselves are airy and very well layed out. Floor-length windows flood the flats with light. But it is the exclusively designed and meticulously thought-out design features, such as the Barbican sink, that attract the highest levels of fetishisation among architecture aficionados and residents alike: Anton’s split level Type 91 flat has an original white, stainless-steel kitchen, designed by yacht engineers, complete with the iconic four hobs in a row. Aged 35, it is in mint condition and perfectly matches the sleek Italian espresso machine and pared down furnishing. Another feature fans of high-end 70s futurist design can and do obsess over: flats have dual access service cupboards built-in next to the front door. Originally intended for delivery of post and fresh groceries, they are used for daily rubbish collection by Barbican staff.
Despite its undisputed iconic status, the Barbican has always divided opinion. People either love or hate it. Those who don’t like it describe the concrete complex as cold, its walkways and stairwells as grubby and grim, its monumental scale as impersonal and its outlook utterly dystopian.
This is in sharp contrast to how the residents see it – a very lovely and safe place, especially for kids growing up and people growing old. Much is down to the uniquely happy habitat the combined forces of raw concrete architecture, nature and the course of time have created: «We love the Brutalist aesthetic that gives the Barbican the feel of inhabited cliffs overlooking gardens; the buildings look like rocks carved by an ancient civilisation. The stunning detailing throughout means that the architecture is as beautiful when you are close to it and it ages well,» an architect and land artist resident states in the book.
To me, the Barbican is a brutally beautiful clash of concrete and nature. I have truly fallen for its dinosorian defiance, bold futurism and unexpected sense of optimism. What about Anton? «I’ve toyed with leaving, but I can never bring myself to do it. It’s hard to imagine living elsewhere once you’ve lived in the Barbican.»