*** How growing up in the Barbican pushed me closer to nature, by Jacob Collett ***

When architect trio Chamberlin, Powell and Bon began to draw up the first sketches of the Barbican Estate, they had a vision of city living which was bold, exciting and futuristic. Their striking concrete village would become an iconic example of a brutalism success story. Yet, as someone who grew up here, I found my experiences pushed me away from the smoke and instead towards nature.

My parents decided to move to the Barbican in the late 1990s. Newlywed city workers looking to get a foot on the housing ladder, they put a deposit down for a two-bedroom flat in Thomas More House. I lived here for the first year or so of my life until we moved to Lauderdale Tower where I have lived ever since.

My earliest memories are of concrete – I took my first steps in the resident’s garden, walked to school across the estate and played football under the highwalk. Growing up I barely noticed that I was surrounded by huge geometric shapes, squatting over pillars and walkways. Inside my room the roaring noise of the street filtered out until it became ambient.

It wasn’t until later that I started to think about what my childhood would have been like if I had grown up elsewhere. Some of my friends lived in distant, sleepy suburbs where it was quieter, less polluted and there was plenty of green space.

When I moved to Bristol to go to university, I was struck by the change of pace and how much calmer I felt. I had the green expanse of the Downs to roam freely and, if I hopped across the suspension bridge, I had acres of woods to explore. 

As soon as I came home, I felt less relaxed without nature at my fingertips – the nearest place I could escape the city was Hampstead Heath, which still involved traversing central London. As I studied for a degree in Psychology, I discovered that my feelings were not entirely unfounded either. 

Stephen Kaplan’s attention restoration theory (see footer reference 1) suggests that exposure to natural environments can reduce mental fatigue, as the calming features of these environments require ‘effortless attention’. In contrast, dense urban environments contain disruptive stimuli which increase stress and mental fatigue by placing greater demands on our attention.

Leaving aside psychology, the health impacts of air pollution alone – currently above safe limits (see footer reference 2) set by the WHO in the Square Mile – include sleep disturbance, anxiety and cognitive impairment in children.

Is this what the architects envisioned? It’s no secret Chamberlin, Powell and Bon cited Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation in Marseille as an inspiration for the Barbican – a staunchly urban housing project which turned its back on the garden city movement of the 20th century.

"Rue Intérieure" at the "Cité Radieuse" by Le Corbusier at Marseille Captainm, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

“Rue Intérieure” at the “Cité Radieuse” by Le Corbusier at Marseille Captainm, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

This unapologetically urban spirit continues to beguile residents and baffle visitors. Some see the appeal in its other worldliness; the band Saint Etienne included the following phrase in their 2003 documentary Finisterre

“The perverse possibilities of the Barbican. You could be invisible here. You can get a notion of floating across the city.”

To be brutally honest, I think I prefer the countryside. 

1 https://blog.interface.com/the-attention-restoration-theory/

2 https://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/assets/Services-Environment/city-of-london-transport-strategy.pdf Page 73 (42 on the pdf), 3rd paragraph beginning “Air quality in the Square Mile…”

“How growing up in the Barbican pushed me closer to nature, by Jacob Collett” published in the spring issue 2023 Barbican Life magazine