10 May 2014

Fantastic Architectural Tour of the Barbican

I have been to the Barbican many times and it is one of the few places in London that I go to whenever I can just to sample its architectural beauty.

The only excuse that I have to go there these days is the Barbican Centre, and that was why I was there on this day, but back in 2000 I was working for a consultancy just south of Smithfield Market and had a project in Finsbury Square and I often walked between the two offices by going through the Barbican. I took various routes through and got to learn the walkways reasonably well, but not well enough to stop me from getting lost occasionally.

The Barbican Centre runs Architecture Tours and I booked myself on one for an afternoon before an evening performance at the theatre there.

We started by going up the steps from the Centre and looking back on the large square there while our guide started to tell us about the history of the site. One of my misconceptions that was quickly cleared was that while this was build by the Local Authority, the City of London, it was never intended to be Local Authority (Council) Housing in the normal sense. These were always meant to be good houses for city workers.

We were soon walking over the roof of the concert hall. I had done that unknowingly many times before.

It was interesting to hear how the design of the development had to accommodate the specific needs of the Barbican Centre, particularly the theatre with its large fly tower.

In the same area we were shown where a cinema had been replaced with flats and the two large fire-escapes had been left in place and transformed in to gigantic plant-holders.

We also learned that a large part of the Barbican is unoccupied at any point. Like most of London, it has been blighted by buy-to-let with many short-term tenancies and a fairly high turnover.

From the Centre we moved west towards Barbican Underground Station which is linked to the Barbican by a bridge that many visitors fail to notice so they end up walking to the Centre through the ugly underpass shared with traffic rather than along the peaceful walkways.

Moving south and skirting the Museum of London we saw the only houses in the development and the garden square that they back on to.

At this point the heavens opened for a while and we were grateful that the walkways in that section of the Barbican were covered.

The south-west corner of the Barbican being furthest away from the arts centre is the least explored and is also the least interesting.

There were some signs of life in that quarter with a hard sports pitch, tennis courts and a playground. The Barbican is composed of a series of squares and what is in those squares is often more interesting that the iconic flats that surround them.

This corner of the Barbican is connected to the outside world by bridges as well as staircases down to street level. The thought was that eventually many paths in Central London would be moved up a level to leave the streets to cars but this never happened so the walkways inside the Barbican only have a few connections.

The access to these can be hard to find and you have to know where to look. Often you'll climb a bleak staircase and ask yourself if this actually leads anywhere before it opens up to reveal a crossing over the road.

Moving east along the south side of the development we came to its most dramatic feature, the central lake with a block of flats and a walkway crossing it. When we got there the rain had been replaced by sunshine and the tall pillars made strong shadows across the water.

Looking west from there gave us another view of the central square which we had looked at earlier from the far side.

The fountains in the lake seemed to be enjoying the returning sun as much as we were.

Looking west and the water was quieter. It can enter the lake dramatically and noisily from the chute at the far end but it was behaving itself this time.

There is a lot of greenery in the Barbican's many squares and there is plenty in the lake too. I especially like the circular planters in the bottom right corner. Circles and half circles are all over the Barbican and in this picture those in the lake echo those on the roofs.

There are some surprising things in the Barbican, it is not just an arts centre surrounded by flats.

It was intended to be a community so there is a school, the City of London School for Girls. The original plan was to have a girls school and a boys school for residents but there is just a girls school and it is private so it pulls in pupils from a wide area, not just from the Barbican.

Also hiding in the centre of the Barbican are St Giles' Cripplegate church and some remnants of the old London Wall. It was somewhat disappointing to hear the Cripplegate had nothing to do with cripples, which is what I had believed.

It is a sign of the Barbican's success that it can accommodate structures like these alongside its concrete towers.

I went on the tour as a Barbican fan and left it a much better informed fan. We learned a great deal on our ninety minute journey and I loved every minute of it.

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