An appreciation of Barbican flat design finesse, by Paul Laugier 

The Barbican represents a high watermark in public architectural design, and the resolution of an unwitting alliance of unlikely forces, namely: the radical ideas of the designers at the Bauhaus in Germany in the 1930’s, the incendiary demolition work of the Luftwaffe in 1940 and a bankrupt city trying desperately to bring resident voters back to the area or risk losing the right to have democratic representation. In 1957, long forgotten politicians and city functionaries made the project happen, although the vote taken at the Court of Common Council approved the scheme by the smallest of margins, using the Chairman’s casting vote. The design was controversial and uncompromising but the young architects understood well the opportunity that they had been given. 

The Bauhaus (1919-1933) was a short-lived school of art and design that existed across three sites in Germany: Weimar, Dessau and Berlin. The school championed bold functional design that stripped out decoration and frowned on revivalism. The Futurist drawings of Antonio Sant’Elia predate the Bauhaus, and were the first glimpse of cities with high level ‘pedways’ or car free streets in the air that later became so central to the Barbican concept. These revolutionary design ideas stalled during the convulsions of the Thirties and Forties but the post war generation of young architects re-energised Modernism and took it in new directions. 1960’s building technology allowed the possibility of bold cantilevered balconies, bridges and high-rise structures, giving the architects the power to make slabs of concrete appear to dance as if defying gravity.

The Second Great Fire of London, on 29 December 1940, covered a greater area than the original fire in 1666 and Churchill, worried that a prime target would be lost to the nation and be a massive blow to public morale, declared that “St Paul’s must be saved at all costs.”  A fire-watch was established and 28 direct hits were extinguished by fire-fighters, allowing the great cathedral to be one of the few buildings still standing the next day. The area of destruction at the heart of the old Roman and Medieval City was vast and largely un-repairable and it remained a derelict site for most of the next twenty years.

The city took a bold step in 1957 and the history of those young architects, Chamberlain Powell and Bon, is well documented, from their bold Golden Lane Estate competition win to the sweeping and soaring concrete shapes of the Barbican, bush hammered into life as a result of a budget cut that replaced the original idea of white tile cladding.

More than half a century later, when new residents in the Barbican buy a flat in its original condition the subtle strength of the design features may not be immediately obvious, although most people quickly realise that high quality materials and fittings were used throughout the Barbican. The external sliding hardwood windows are balanced and can be slid open with one hand, with an ingenious rising handle mechanism that raises and lowers the window panels and doors, locking the windows in place against a vertical restraint and locking the doors in three places, to give a very high level of security.

Many of the flats – including the type 20 and 21 flats in the terrace block where I live, don’t (officially) have a kitchen! Building regulations in the 1950s insisted that kitchens were located on an outside wall and in order to allow them to be central in dual aspect flats they were renamed ‘food preparation areas,’ and a very efficient (and silent) mechanical extraction system was introduced to remove all cooking vapours immediately. The slogans of the Modern Movement, including ‘a house is a machine for living in’ and ‘form follows function’ were made real, tactile and practical in the Barbican and long before the kitchen design revolution, a system for the mass production of state of the art kitchens and fittings was invented after the designers turned to a firm of boat builders to design the innovative kitchen units. They also looked at the working surfaces as a professional caterer might, using stainless steel rather than the more fragile and easily damaged marble and wooden surfaces that have since become popular. Hot plates are set in a straight line, safely away from the surface edge, and controls are grouped at eye level. High level bulkhead storage cupboards fill otherwise unusable overhead space and the overall look is clean and modern.

And our bathrooms look nothing like their Fifties contemporaries, which favoured pastel coloured fittings, as the Barbican architects opted for a completely tiled wet room in white, white or white, and used a dimensional system that minimised cut tiles, resulting in complete tiles at all edges and junctions and confirming that even the functional spaces had been designed with the utmost care. Generous washbasins are set into a tiled counter running the length of the space in the larger flats, with a mirror that also runs the length of the room and at first glance the built in mirror-door cabinets can easily be missed. A huge bath with shower fittings is provided but there is no need for a shower curtain as the bathroom floor has a drainage outlet. Again, the ventilation system gets rid of moist air and condensation clears from the mirror almost at once. 

So although, at first glance, the original flat interiors can seem dated, they grow on you! On closer examination it is clear that the design of the Barbican was a long way ahead of its time and contemporary modern design is still playing catch up, so I would urge new owners to pause for thought – like I did – before opting to introduce exotic and decorative materials to replace the hard wearing, practical, industrial ones that are as much part of the Barbican aesthetic as the concrete columns!

This article appeared in the 2023 autumn issue of Barbican Life.