Barbican at 50: Brutalism for the consumer age

Charles Holland

From the Smithsons to the Garchey waste disposal systems, Charles Holland walks us through the estate’s history

During the time I lived in the Barbican’s Shakespeare Tower, I joined the residents’ association. Meetings would invariably end with drinks at a member’s apartment offering the chance to indulge in every Barbican resident’s favourite hobby: working out which flat type it was and whether it had an original kitchen. The first time this happened I was momentarily bewildered by the flat I visited, unable to work out what had been done to it. The plan was initially disorientating and bore little relation to my own ostensibly identical home.

It took a while before I realised that the owner had filled in the balconies, claiming an extra two or three metres along two edges of the flat’s perimeter. The dining alcove had been removed too, resulting in a vast L-shaped space, with a kitchen marooned in its centre.

But that wasn’t all. The interior had been decorated in a faux-Regency style with plaster swags and swirls on pink-striped wallpaper, ornate sideboards and decorative chinaware. And there was something else. The familiar arched fire escape door had disappeared, obscured by a fake fireplace. The owner revealed that – in the event of a fire – the escape route involved knocking through a cardboard wall and climbing through the fireplace itself.

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