A PERSONAL REFLECTION ON THREE GENERATIONS OF FAMILY LIFE IN THE BARBICAN by Nadine Waddell
“And up there” said my daughter pointing high up to one of the famous tooth edge balconies of the Barbican tower, and speaking with the authority of a Barbican tour guide… “is where my Aunt’s visiting cat prowled its way along the balcony edge ….”
This is evidently going to be a Barbican architecture tour with a difference.
“Over there is the lift door where my mum’s veil nearly snagged on her wedding day, there’s the car park where Dad fitted the car seat for me when I came home from hospital only a few days old, and look…can you see the residents’ garden where Dad nipped home at lunchtime from his nearby office to meet us for summer picnics? That building is the children’s library where Grandma and Grandpa took us to a talk by the City Police dog handlers who (to our delight) let the dogs loose to sniff around amongst the books….”
My daughter gathers her little group of friends around her and, with a shift in tone, carefully guides the eye to a balcony on the east side of the estate: “My Mum says she thought someone was standing on the balcony hitting the glass with a sledgehammer…but it was the sound waves from the 1993 Bishopsgate bomb explosion hitting the glass. Luckily the strong glass held firm, so my baby basket, which was right next to the window, was protected by the Barbican architecture”.
So often, the Barbican is portrayed as a cold, impenetrable place, however behind the façade, family tales unfold, exactly as they do everywhere. For a place reputed to be brutal and austere, the inside experience of the Barbican is by contrast, eccentric, whimsical and warm. There’s even a distinct Barbican scent in the air. You know when you’re home.
My parents moved to a Tower in 1983. The removal men who carted our family possessions from a large detached house with a garden, in a leafy London suburb, to this tower flat, bluntly asked my mother if she had lost her mind. We all looked quizzically at these men, intrigued that they couldn’t see how thrilling it was to be in the heart of London in a home with its own lift and with multi-channel cable TV – an innovation which was unheard of anywhere outside the glamour of America. It felt as if we were living in our very own episode of ‘Tomorrow’s World’ one which had just been newly endorsed as “a modern wonder of the world” by none other than the Queen herself.
This was the beginning of our Barbican story, and now my children, that rare thing, third generation Barbicanites, are still as in thrall to the delights of the Barbican as we were nearly 40 years ago.
The Barbican emerged from the ashes of the Second World War, however it owes its unique character not only to the space created by the destruction during the blitz but to a post-war mood of optimism and cooperation which pervades the Barbican still. As with the newly created NHS which was established to provide excellent healthcare provision for all regardless of income, the Corporation of London’s Barbican vision in 1950 was to make excellent public housing similarly a universal expectation. It set out to showcase council housing which was not just intended to be a basic safety net for the most disadvantaged in society, but a source of pride for professional City workers to entice them away from suburbs to live in town. Young people today struggling to get on the housing ladder and facing expensive rents would no doubt appreciate this vision. Every resident was a council tenant and there was therefore an inbuilt equality. It was imagined that young professionals would start in a studio and gradually move up through bigger flats to a family home- all of which are included in the Barbican estate. Proffered as the City’s “gift to the nation” it was a trailblazing model of excellence in urban housing.
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s sale of council stock in the 1980s resulted in the permanent shift of ownership to owner occupiers and now only a few original council tenants remain. In 2006 the ‘City of London’ moniker replaced the old paternalistic ‘Corporation of London’, however the City is still the Freeholder landlord to the Leasehold home owners.
In a modern world, where housing is a pressing issue, the Barbican estate offers its residents the secure knowledge of being underpinned by the City of London’s financial heft and its careful stewardship, and offers protection from the scourge of rogue landlords. This security appeals to cautious thoughtful types such as civil servants, doctors, accountants, architects and lawyers of which there are many in the Barbican.
Back in the 1980s people didn’t know their Unité d’habitation from their Trellick Tower as they do now. The name Le Corbusier was only muttered in rarified architects’ circles. The Barbican was not the architectural star that it is today, but a quirky, daring choice of home in 1983 and I have spent decades being proud of an address which always elicits the response: “Oh!? The Barbican?”
People go on to enquire cautiously, with more than a little doubt and some awe in their voice, “So what’s it LIKE to live there?”
To be a Barbican resident is to be someone who likes peace and quiet, whose mood is lifted by the sight of the three towers silhouetted against a cornflower sky, to absentmindedly run your hand along the shady contours of rough concrete as you walk to the tube on a grey day. It is to smile indulgently at the consistently wonky estate Christmas tree lights, to be able to shout a cheery “hello” to the many familiar Barbican people from neighbours, to builders, cleaners and gardeners who traverse the Highwalk and keep the estate immaculate, to be the first to catch early morning shadows of sunlight creating new fleeting windows on the podium floor which will have vanished before anyone else has arrived in town from their commute.
A typical Barbicanite is someone who is private, serious minded, public spirited and a perhaps, on occasion, a teeny bit grumpy. Just ask Sir Nicholas Kenyon about that.
As Managing Director, Kenyon has built on the work of his visionary predecessor Sir John Tusa, he has coaxed the notoriously resistant residents and transformed the Barbican from a stuffy quiet corporate outpost to one of the coolest addresses in London. In 2016, residents, carefully reassured by Kenyon that installation art was not intrusive, spent the summer happily walking past Ragnar Kjartansson’s kissing Edwardian ladies rowing across the lake without a second thought. His adventurous and imaginative arts programme has lifted the Barbican to the status of hip world-famous venue which is used as the backdrop for fashion shoots and Skepta music videos alike. He tirelessly, and sometimes it seems thanklessly, drives the vision for the proposed Culture Mile which is intended to reinforce the Barbican’s cultural credentials for decades ahead. The Barbican is a confident, discerning London arts venue where the person selling you ice cream as their ‘side hustle’ probably has a Master’s degree and a cool career as a musician or photographer.
Imaginative community programmes, consistent with the original universal access values of the Corporation of London and architects Chamberlin, Powell and Bon, abound. Kenyon ensures these values are sustained by making the arts centre a democratic, inclusive and welcoming space which belongs to all and which is buzzing with young trendy looking people day and night. After an uncharacteristic mis-step with the cancellation of a Grime music event in 2014 Kenyon has been in the vanguard of encouraging BAME representation in the arts not only by welcoming young BAME creative talent with mentoring and creative opportunities, but by visual representation in advertisements for young new members and through curation of exhibitions such as the recent ‘Basquiat: Boom for Real’ which broke records for new audiences to the Barbican.
The free WiFi attracts the cool crowd from the nearby Shoreditch tech start-ups who hang out in the sprawling comfortable foyer space. Alongside them are studious, ambitious schoolkids from nearby Tower Hamlets determinedly using the internet to surf revision websites, and art students collaborating on avant-garde online film projects. All jostle with the rather sedate LSO audience, but most importantly, provide style ambassadors free of charge. Free foyer art and music, ‘Young Barbican’ access schemes and thoughtful staff carefully trained in gender neutral language and awareness mean the Barbican Arts Centre retains its democratic roots.
Despite its progressive arts programme, the Barbican estate still retains a suburban feel, underpinned by the weight and wealth of the City of London. Always intended as ‘a council estate for professionals’ its stolid, middle class heritage means that there are plenty of rules- which half the people are minded to follow and the other half are determined to stretch. People fret about soft noise intruding on their gentle life and about empty window boxes. It is absolutely forbidden to hang out laundry on balconies and I have never seen as much as a handkerchief billowing in the wind. No pets are allowed. Airbnb is utterly forbidden. You cannot install wooden flooring lest you disturb the neighbours below but there are complicated rules which ensure that you cannot breach the community trust by reporting a neighbour who has laid wooden floors. Residents were solemnly told to use their bathrooms as panic rooms if there was an emergency during the 2012 London Olympic games.
Children break bylaws, as children always do, by scooting noisily along the podium to the predictable annoyance of grown-ups. Wheelie bags dragged around by the ‘weekend break budget flight’ generation, echo teeth-jarringly, through the concrete structure on a Sunday night, a noise development unanticipated by the 1950s architects who were preoccupied with rubberising the tube track below the Barbican to dampen noise. Ball games are still prohibited in the private gardens but nowadays Millennials tend to indulge their ball loving Generation Z children as a way of keeping them busy while they themselves loll about on picnic rugs uncorking bottles of rosé on a summer evening, all the time managing to irk the older Generation Xs and Baby Boomers who are trying to quietly read their LRB recommended book or listen to an opera from New York via their phone under a tree.
However, despite the inevitable strains of a community living in the heart of a global city right on top of each other, there is an overall air of tolerance, cooperation and joy. Everyone recognises in their neighbour a kindred, contrary spirit, someone who appreciates the huge privilege of being able to dash over to hear the global star Rattle’s concert on a Sunday night or who warms to see the nursery children out for a walk together in high viz vests laughing and tumbling their way along the Highwalk. Residents set their clocks by the shrieks of the City schoolgirls bustling along the walkways early in the morning and again at 4pm, happy sounds -which are heightened when it snows or when term ends.
Like country folk, the residents know the sun is setting when they see the pigeons return to roost in St Giles’ church tower. People worry if there are fewer ducklings in the pond than the previous year, or if a blackbird moves tree to nest elsewhere in the gardens, and they get cross when the seagulls chase the heron away. The annual arrival of noisy transatlantic migrating geese is met with awe. Communal vegetable gardens have watering rotas. Sedate ‘Residents only’ garden parties are held on summer evenings. Notice boards in lifts tell of book groups. People rush to help elderly residents and offer babysitting to younger ones.
The anonymous residents chat website Barbican Talk torments the local councillors with small grumbles. A red and black City Planning Permission notice taped on to a wall immediately excites passions. There are murmurings half of joy about the proposed new concert hall and half of concern about building noise. As in all of the U.K. there are Brexiters and Remainers, but arguments fizzle rather than rage. Mark Field the local MP is said to be too nervous of the Barbican Residents to canvas here regularly – and a cheeky “Where is Mark Field?” Twitter account was launched in response to his perceived absence.
Christmas trees twinkle from flats throughout December and flags fly during Royal weddings and World Cups- but there are never ever any BBQs – they’re on the banned list. We once in youthful ignorance tried to light a foil tray portable BBQ in the garden, it lasted five minutes before we realised our stupidity, but we are still burning with shame decades later. There is no gas in the Barbican as the fear of domestic explosions was strong. The Grenfell Tower tragedy was met with an immediate and serious review of fire prevention which was an obsession of the original architects who made sure there are many sophisticated architectural devices in place to protect the residents.
My mother worked full time as a Headmistress during her Barbican years. She depended on an extended Barbican family infrastructure of Garchey (the famous gurgling refuse system) cleaners, window cleaners and porters to provide the support which allowed her to pursue what was still then astonishingly considered an unusual and modern choice of balancing a career with managing a family. She left a key with the porters and, free from domestic constraints, everything happened invisibly when she was out at work.
Now the porters hand a duplicate key to my own oft accidentally locked out children, manage swathes of internet delivered parcels, let lost Deliveroo drivers in to the block and keep a friendly, concerned eye on everyone.
This extended Barbican family gave us warmth and security. The porters, as discreet and professional as the famous Oxbridge college porters, knew exactly what time I had crept in past them during the night, and conveniently forgot it when my parents asked them the next morning. They helped my devoted father heave a huge trunk, bought from Petticoat Lane in the days before wheelie bags, to a taxi to take me to the station when I left for university. The porters bundled myself, in a Diana inspired wedding dress, and my bridesmaids, into a cosy beribboned car on a chilly June day in 1991. The following year they cooed over our new-born baby. It was the porters who were happy to shelter the residents from the 42nd floor of the tower during the Great Storm of 1987 when the architecturally correct swaying movement of the tower became too nerve racking. In 1994, they managed the world’s press after the sudden and tragic death of resident Labour leader John Smith.
For the summer holidays my parents bid me farewell along the Beech St tunnel, which yawning like a birth canal, was to deliver me to a world beyond the shelter of the Barbican. In the days before mobile phones and cheap flights, six weeks of backpacking round the Greek islands seemed daring and exotic. In search of comfort, after I had disappeared to the boat train, my mother wandered through the Whitecross Street market chatting to the famously cheery East-end traders. Unlike today’s trendy street food market, the market was mainly made up of clothes and fruit stalls, and stall holders lived nearby. On then, to have a cheery uplifting word with warm hearted Lambros in Safeway, who still works in what is now Waitrose and continues to be a source of happy optimism. The Bruno Caldi hairdresser’s business in Cherry Tree Walk was eventually displaced by his wife’s sunny, friendly café Passione.
By the 1990s my parents, now used to an empty nest, were glad not to have children at home who switched the fiendishly expensive Barbican hot water switch in the flat to ‘ON’ and then promptly forgot about it, offspring who had long teenage phone calls, long before mobiles were invented, in the flat’s snazzy, futuristic but noisily impractical echoing telephone niche located directly outside their bedroom door and who woke them at unsocial hours with the distant but definite high pitch ‘ping’ of the lift arriving and a borrowed porters’ key in the door. They had time now to spend at the new-fangled and newly opened Holmes Place gym, it is hard to believe that this was one of the first gyms in the UK, considered at the time a mystifying American import.
My eldest daughter, born in the only block named after a woman, the doughty Catherine Willoughby, worked, as I had done during my own university summer holidays, in the Barbican Arts Centre and consequently knows all the shortcuts which means we often rescue lost folk who, like homing pigeons distracted by architectural chaff, cannot find a way through. We still see people striding impatiently across the Girl’s School piazza, breathless and late, clutching tickets for a show. We watch, knowing, Cassandra-like, that they’re destined to be returning from that unmarked cul-de-sac in less than 60 seconds -only now even more flustered muttering how much they HATE the Barbican.
People who loathe the Barbican don’t have in their inner eye the memory of hundreds of colourful hot air balloons filling the sky over the Barbican one spring Sunday, the morning of my daughter’s baptism. The memory of glasses of wine on a pink tinged balcony on summer’s evenings watching both the sunset and distant crowds milling on Primrose Hill, of fireworks from the Honourable Artillery Club on New Year’s Eve and Christmas morning silence only broken by church bells as if in the deep countryside.
The Barbican for me is the gentle daily sight of my literary son, completely oblivious to the surrounding world of traders and banks, weaving amongst the Barbican architecture named after Milton, Shakespeare, Defoe and Bunyan, as he hurries to the library, of my youngest daughter musing how she might one day curate an exhibition in the Centre, of my eldest daughter running off to the Eurostar (no boat train for her) waving to my husband and I, who have now, in the blink of an eye, become the empty nest parents at home.
As a Barbican resident your life and your perception of the world is bound up with and shaped by the architecture and the values it instils, which have not been completely lost in the decades since the 1950s. As a resident you carry a constantly acknowledged privilege of living here and you nurture the special atmosphere for others.
Life doesn’t have a yellow line to guide you through it, as the Barbican has, but a Barbican childhood means you grow up with an inner yellow line, a sense of safety and belonging, of being relevant in a tiny village in a huge city, secured by values of civic pride, responsibility, tolerance, cooperation, and a sense that music and the arts can be an effortless part of everyday life .You also have an ability to scoot fast and to keep your music turned down.
So even though the rules say Barbican residents can’t own cats – instead residents have a secret key to a secure
Barbican world, they can lie down on carefully tended grass in the heart of the City and look through the branches of an oak tree to the sky on a summer’s afternoon, staring lazily at pigeons, who like them, are urban dwellers safely at home in the cat free embrace of the Barbican. With the sound of fountains in the distance and the close hum of a passing bumble bee, snoozing residents sleepily thank the architects, and their lucky stars, that they live here.