We took a guided architecture tour of the Barbican estate at the weekend. Built in the 60s to provide post-war inner-city housing for the middle classes, it’s now home to 4,000 people – nearly half the population of the City of London borough. It’s perhaps now better known for the adjoining Arts Centre, opened in 1982 and containing galleries, theatres and a cinema. There’s always something interesting going on there, from film festivals to a Japanese fashion retrospective (which I must pop back and see another time).
Brutalist and challenging in architectural style, the 3 main towers of the estate – named Cromwell, Shakespeare and Lauderdale – are identical right-angled triangle designs, but appear to morph and move depending on the angle you’re viewing from (doesn’t the left-hand one above look square?). This was an intentional decision by the architects to keep the design interesting, but means people often get rather disoriented while walking around.
The estate was designed to be like a ‘sky city’ with raised high walkways and very little at street level. We saw the Roman remains of the city walls, St Giles church (where Oliver Cromwell was married) and a secret passageway lined with ‘swatch’ test slabs for how the building would be clad.
We also learned some interesting factoids, like that the distinctive pitted concrete finish was achieved by hand-picking the concrete – every square inch of the building’s vast exterior was chiselled by hand with a pneumatic drill (a practice now outlawed for being too dangerous).
Tours run once or twice every day; find out more here. Make sure you pop into the new Food Hall in the arts centre as well – you’ll find Monmouth coffee, yummy cakes and a nice buffet-style lunch menu.
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