A chip of the old block

I can remember my father telling of his surprise when the ‘newly completed’ elephant house at the London Zoo was vandalised. The structure up to that point was adorned with vertical flutes of poured concrete. On that day workmen with hammers started to chip off the newly poured flutes exposing the rough aggregate beneath [left]. Little did we realised at the time but that moment was probably the day that extreme Brutalism architecture had come to London.

[T]he Balfron and Trellick Towers followed in the mid-60s with the most controversial child of this style of architecture – The Barbican Estate.


Balfour Tower


Trellick Tower

Loved and loathed in equal measure the Barbican’s concrete was allowed to set for at least 21 days before workmen with hand-held pick-hammers exposed the coarse granite below the surface.

Built upon the biggest bomb site I’ve ever seen this gargantuan scheme took several decades to complete with many design changes. Its modest sized arts centre enlarged to compete with the newly completed South Bank Centre. The existing railway was moved to accommodate its ambitious design. Spread out over 40 acres the plan was for a place to live and work, with a school and landscaping including a pond where it was hoped the middle-classes might be tempted to stay and work. By its completion it had become the largest self contained development in Europe.

The site was originally known as Cripplegate before the Luftwaffe finished its work. For over a century London was an exodus of people leaving and the design hoped to reduce the trend which had left just 48 people living in the Cripplegate area.

In the event he scheme was dogged with problems extending its completion date the escalating the final cost. Major design flaws coupled with health and safety hazards made for very poor industrial relations with workers subject to backward and dangerous conditions.


Barbican balconies

Now Grade II listed it gets its name from the Latin ‘Barbecana’ referring to a fortified outpost or gateway such as the outer defence of the city.

Now an exhibition in the main foyer traces its progress over that 20-year period. The Barbican Exhibition: Building a Landmark runs to 29th November. Three decades of the estate’s construction from the mid-1950s to 1982 with rarely seen photographs of the construction trace the progress of the gargantuan scheme which saw the bomb site turned into a Brutalist architectural landmark.

Picture: Barbican balconies Andy Mabbett (CC BY-SA 3.0)

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