The Barbican Estate at 50: why London’s brutalist concrete housing estate and Grade II-listed landmark is so prized by home buyers
Half a century ago this month, the first residents moved into the Barbican Estate, a brutalist concrete cluster of tower blocks that loomed over St Paul’s to the horror of many Londoners. Yet today it is a Grade II-listed landmark, the popularity of which seems to go from strength to strength.
Its austere grey towers, built on a 40-acre bombsite on the fringes of the Square Mile, are still connected by a bewildering labyrinth of often gloomy walkways.
Yet the estate’s 4,000 residents consider themselves lucky and newcomers are willing to pay a hefty premium to live within the Barbican’s boundaries.
The friendly fortress
In 1969 the new estate was very much a pioneer. It offered a range of property sizes, so could appeal to both young singles and families; the Barbican Centre, its cultural hub, quickly came alive with gallery shows, concerts and film and Barbican became home to the City of London School for Girls, and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
It meant, from the start, the Barbican attracted visitors who gave it a lively atmosphere throughout the day.
It had the three tallest towers in London and 13 terrace blocks.
Barbican means fortress, and it is built not far from the main fort of Roman London. Its architects Chamberlin, Powell and Bon, wanted to create practical homes for City workers. In 2001 their creation was listed.
As architectural appreciation for the Barbican has grown over the years, so has its value. Research by LonRes for Homes & Property found that the average price per square foot within the Barbican stands at £1,297 — down from £1,341 in 2016 thanks to Brexit and stamp duty pressures but still representing impressive growth.
In 10 years values have almost doubled, from £688 per square foot in 2009.
Seth Branum, sales manager at Stirling Ackroyd estate agents, says the market has picked up recently.
“We have had a situation of gazumping and a couple of sales going to sealed bids. We have not seen that for years,” he says.
“Buyers are tired of waiting and interest rates are so low, that they are willing to ride out any further falls in the market.”
What is it that sets the Barbican apart?
The sheer quality of its design and build is a key factor in the Barbican’s longevity.
Though it was built by the City of London, it was never a traditional council estate aimed at low-income families paying subsidised rents. At the Barbican the rents — about £12 a week for a one-bedroom flat in 1969 — were premium, and the City didn’t need to cut corners.
Ian Swale, lettings director of Frank Harris & Co, lived in the Barbican from 2003 to 2013. He says that critics complain that the estate is too big, too concrete and horrible to live in.
“But they don’t get it,” he adds. “You walk in and immediately you notice the sound levels drop. It is quiet. You can hear the birds singing, and it is not like anywhere else.”
Inside, the flats are well-built and generous in scale, with quality finishes including suspended staircases and bespoke bathroom sinks.
“There was no skimping, no chipboard, the window frames are solid teak,” says Swale.
“The flats are generously proportioned. When I moved to the Barbican it was to a one-bedroom flat and it was 700sq ft. In a modern development a one-bedroom flat would be 550sq ft — 580 sq ft if you are lucky. The Barbican ceiling heights are also good and there is good natural light, so they feel bigger than they are.”
Why the Barbican works
The simple reason the Barbican has succeeded where most “concrete estates” have failed is money. The City did not skimp on building materials or specification, and has kept on spending, assisted by residents’ service charges —thus avoiding out-of-order lifts and filthy communal spaces
“To me, it is almost 100 per cent about the maintenance of the buildings,” says Peter Murray, chairman of New London Architecture.
“The individual units are brilliantly designed, right down to the hatch by the front door for the milk delivery to be put in.”
Architect Alan Wright, a partner at Greenwich-based design-led practice BPTW, considers the Barbican among London’s best-designed apartment schemes, in part because of the ground-breaking layout of the flats.
“Positioning services and the kitchen on the internal side of the apartment enabled all the principal rooms to be pushed to the edge to maximise views,” he says.
Dr Barnabas Calder, author of Raw Concrete: The Beauty of Brutalism, believes the crucial point, however, is that right from the start, the people who lived at the Barbican really wanted to be there.
“If you have an estate where the local authority has a policy of clustering problematic tenants within it … then it very rapidly gets a bad reputation,” he says.
“People who have the ability to leave will leave, and people with less ability to leave … are stuck.
“The result is, not very surprisingly, a less harmonious atmosphere.”
What is it like to live in the Barbican?
Harder to quantify is the strong community spirit the Barbican inspires. Residents are enthusiastic about where they live, and run a website (barbicanlifeonline.com) plus a plethora of clubs and associations.
“You get people who do not want to live anywhere else,” says Jonny Pirouzi, sales lister for Hamptons International.
“It is a creatives’ market — architects, designers, musicians, lecturers — and a lot of people who buy already live in the Barbican and are either upgrading or downgrading, depending on what stage they are at in their lives.
“Everyone you talk to who lives there talks about its great community spirit and how access to everywhere is easy. They are all very fond of where they live.”
But the Barbican is not perfect. Its aesthetic is certainly polarising, and a common criticism is that it is incredibly hard to navigate. “I have got a pretty good sense of direction and it took me about a month to find my way around it,” admits Swale.
And, while it has some landmark institutions on site, the other amenities, including a Virgin Active gym, food shops, and a couple of cafés and restaurants, are useful rather than inspiring. A handy London village bursting with places to hang out over a coffee it is not.
Service charges are stiff considering the estate doesn’t offer any extras like gyms or residents bars.
Modernising: Barbican flats are listed and so need permission before any work is carried out – but it is possible, as this renovation by Emulsion Architects shows (Emulsion/Ed Reeve)
Pirouzi says the service charge for a one-bedroom flat would be about £3,000 a year, and for a two-bedroom flat about £5,000. House owners on the estate also pay towards its upkeep. About £4,000 a year is the norm.
Some of its owners are martyrs to authentic mid-century style. Among the Barbican’s groups is a free salvage store (barbicansalvage.org) which allows residents to reuse unwanted original fittings from each other’s homes.
But some buyers are deterred by the concern that, as a Grade II-listed site, it would be impossible to reconfigure homes at the Barbican to more modern tastes.
Not so, says Swale, though you will need listed building consent plus permission from the City of London. And the kitchens can’t be moved from one part of the flat to another because of the estate’s joint services.
At Ben Jonson House, the estate’s longest terrace block, Emulsion Architecture has redesigned a two-bedroom triplex flat with great success, inserting a mezzanine level to add floor space to the home, using a decor palette of calm neutrals to set off dark wood windows and restoring the original timber staircase, enlivening it with a teal-coloured wall.
Rare new homes — and Crossrail — are coming
In September Blake Tower, formerly the Barbican YMCA before being converted into luxury flats, will officially become part of the estate, while next year local transport links will be boosted by the arrival of Crossrail at Farringdon.
There are also ambitious plans for the Museum of London, part of the Barbican, to move to a new base in Farringdon from London Wall.
It will be replaced by a £300 million concert hall which will have the added benefit of opening up the slightly forbidding southwestern boundary of the estate to proudly face the rest of the City.