At 11am on a Saturday morning Ruth met up with Dave and I for a walking tour we’d booked ourselves on around the Barbican Estate. I discovered the tours ran back in the summer but hadn’t had the chance to go along, but it proved to be a nice stop off on our way to Kings Cross before catching a train back to Edinburgh. We set off with our guide – Barbican employee Thomas – and one other tour member for a walk around the 35 acre site. Usually the guides expect around 15 people per tour, but it appears only super-keen individuals turn up for the first tour on a Saturday.
The tour was led at a quite relaxed pace, although it was only after the tour had finished that I realised we’d actually walked quite a big circuit around a lot of the Estate. Our guide pitched his commentary well, with a good mixture of historical detail and architectural interpretation. Having been to the Barbican quite a few times before I was really taken by what I now understand is a truly exceptional housing estate. Perhaps an indication of my broader interests in, and assumptions about, post-war mass housing, I have to admit that until I’d been on the tour I was completely oblivious to the fact that the Corporation of London’s decision to build a new high-spec housing estate to house 4,000 residents in the City of London (in the 60s and 70s) was in essence an example of the marketisation of the post-war social housing model. I had always assumed that some of the housing in the Barbican had (until Right to Buy came into force) been social. Behind the façade of modern standardised form lies many different types of housing from 1 bed flats to 3 bedroom penthouses. Take a look here for an indication of the prices these go for.
It was no wonder that the architects Chamberlin, Powell and Bon were heavily criticised for abandoning the principles of modernism. Their approach is particularly ambiguous when comparing the Barbican with the adjacent Golden Lane Estate, designed by the same architects, and completed in 1962 as a social housing project. Both the Barbican and Golden Lane Estates have been designated, Grade II and Grade II* respectively.
Aside from the socio-political peculiarities of a large housing estate smack bang in the heart of the nation’s financial sector we were also given plenty of insights into the design of the estate itself. Motifs that gesture towards the site’s long and complex history are difficult to ignore once they are pointed out (crenallated Medieval features appear everywhere, as do curved images taken from Victorian railway arches). Thomas’ thesis is that this speaks of ‘hidden violence’ that has echoed throughout the site’s past. This is visible today in remnants of the London Wall and other medieval relics that were incorporated into the layout of the estate.
It was strange to be walking around for most of the tour on high-walkways removed from the noise of traffic, yet to encounter hardly any other people. On occasion it almost felt as if we were the only people on the entire estate. We all made our own comments about why we thought this was: “It’s like a gated community without it actually being gated”; ‘Because I’m not from round here I just assumed that it was mostly private space”; “Did the architects even care that it wasn’t easy to navigate around the site?”
If you’ve never been to the Barbican before I encourage you to go on one of their tours, there are several guides and each gives a different take on the site, but I’m sure if they are as engaging and willing to answer random questions as Thomas was you’ll think it was a good 90 minutes spent (£8 full price, £6 concessions). Though I’m not sure I got a complete answer to my one about the ubiquitous geraniums! Even if you don’t fancy going on a tour it is well worth being far bolder than I’ve been in the past and following some of the walkways around the site. The reward will be a far better understanding about the estate as a whole, something that is often overlooked if you just head straight to the Arts Centre.