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The Battle for the Barbican

London's Barbican and the adjacent Golden Lane estate are symbols of the two souls of post-war social democracy, and how it built for both the intelligentsia and the working class.

'Floating' gardens in the Barbican Estate, 23 September 1970. (Roger Jackson / Central Press / Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

‘She died with her telly on, eighty-seven and confused/With not enough hospital beds ‘cos all the money’s been used/On the end of the century party preparations/And they reckon that the last thing she saw in her life was/Sting, singing on the roof of the Barbican/Sting, singing on the roof of the Barbican‘.

This lyric is the culmination of an apocalyptic picture of the Millennium in Half Man Half Biscuit’s song ‘A Country Practice’, on their 1998 album Four Lads Who Shook the Wirral. One shouldn’t take HMHB lyrics too seriously, but these lines sum up a particular kind of New Labour culture—generous spending on cultural boondoggles while much of the welfare state was left to rot. I love the Barbican, all of its sublime layers of housing, walkways and water, with a cultural centre (and an excellent public library) at the heart of it, an image of the city we could have but don’t. And yet ‘A Country Practice’ captures very well how the place has always been a synonym for elite culture.

Work at the new Barbican development site in London, photographed 25 March 1966. (Harry Todd / Fox Photos / Getty Images)

Half Man Half Biscuit do not feature in The Barbican Centre: Building Utopia, a massive, lavish book on the arts centre at the heart of the housing estate (which was dealt with in an earlier volume, The Barbican Estate). The book reminds us from the start that the Barbican was built for one reason: the City of London’s residential population had fallen to the point where it was almost non-existent. This raised the possibility of this ancient rotten borough finally being abolished and folded into the London County Council.

So at the end of the 50s, the City hired Chamberlin Powell and Bon, the architects who formed to design their adjacent Golden Lane estate on the City’s borders (more of which later), to redesign a large bombsite into the most high-rent public housing estate in the world. Its flats were aimed from day one at workers in the financial centre and professionals. It became popular with politicians—although no blue plaques have been laid there yet, if they were the list would be impressive, including Benazir Bhutto, Arthur Scargill and John Smith, who died there. Central government helped out at the cost of the complex including a combined theatre, cinema, concert hall and art gallery.

Strike leader Lou Lewis talking to workers during a Barbican building site dispute in London, on 16 October 1967. (Terry Fincher / Daily Express / Getty Images)

The Barbican had a difficult gestation process, taking over twenty years to build. This was largely because of the poor workplace conditions, which led to several strikes and protests by building workers. At the time, the site was notorious—the work, with the bush-hammering of the concrete to create the textured finish that is today such a remarkable part of the complex, was heavy and labour-intensive.

Site conditions were primitive even for the time; in Building Utopia, the scaffolder Vic Heath remembers long queues of building workers being forced to use the toilets at St Paul’s Cathedral (the Barbican as it is today has probably the best public toilets in London). At the height of these cost overruns, one City Alderman asked why its money wasn’t being spent on something useful, like a prison.

In the event, though, the Barbican, funded as it was by the country’s wealthiest local authority, was given the nearest thing any post-war project had to a blank cheque—it’s just very little of that cheque was going on the pay and conditions of the estate’s builders. Because of the large budget, the architects got away with ideas that would have been ridiculed anywhere else, many of them arising from the intricacies of the multi-level structure: the Arts Centre, the most low-rise part of the estate, features nine different levels, mostly concealed. The outrageous, beautiful, J.G Ballard/Drowned World-style conservatory is partly there to hide a gigantic fly-tower for one of the stages.

Golden Lane Estate, photographed on 5 October 1964 after its completion in 1962. (Evening Standard / Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

The Barbican was unfashionable when it was finally completed in 1982, and it had a bad 1990s, under the direction of the ‘militantly Thatcherite businesswoman’ and Tory peer Detta O’Cathain, who commissioned an interior redesign by Theo Crosby, an apostate Brutalist clearly embarrassed by the architecture; the gold ‘muses’ Crosby added to the Arts Centre’s entrance are today in the South African estate of the founder of Nando’s.

After an early 2000s refurbishment by AHMM architects was designed with the building rather than against it, particularly helpfully given its notoriously confusing layout, the Barbican became the cult building it is today. There is little drama or tragedy to it all—a well-made, expensive and expansive complex that has almost always worked as it should. The title Building Utopia makes little sense, unless as a reminder that the most extravagant modernism has always worked just fine for the professional class—no failed utopias if you have the cash.

In many ways, the story of Golden Lane is much more interesting—the Barbican’s ‘weird little sister’, as one person who grew up there calls it in Stefi Orazi’s Golden Lane Estate: An Urban Village. To the architects’ great credit, there is little difference in quality between Chamberlin Powell and Bon’s two adjacent estates, one for ordinary council tenants, one for a different class of municipal renter.

There is however a difference in scale, with Golden Lane being comparatively modest, intimate and friendly, without the same sense of being in some astonishing futuristic castle. Architecturally, most of Golden Lane is in a bright, crisp style very unlike the Barbican’s flamboyantly gloomy Brutalism. Yet they have a similar use of multiple levels and clear public spaces, both are centred around public buildings—at Golden Lane, a swimming pool—and they are visually joined by Crescent House, a building which combines elements of both schemes.

A construction worker at work on the water storage of a building in Golden Lane in 1956. (Harry Kerr / BIPs / Getty Images)

Yet in the centre of London, Right to Buy has erased some of the differences. Around half of the flats in Golden Lane have been RTB’d—highly unusual for a high-density estate with no houses or gardens—and the new incomers have often moved there because of the architecture. Yet in this book, based around detailed, sensitive interviews with several tenants and owners, whether nurses or architects, there seems to be little tension between the two classes of resident.

Golden Lane was always a ‘successful’ estate, with little crime, something many residents put down to its density, and the way people use it as a thoroughfare, which means there are always ‘eyes on the street’ here, contradicting the current planning ideology that housing estates must be full of fences and CCTV. The residents association and its WhatsApp group includes both long-standing tenants and the incomers. What they almost all agree on, though, is that the City of London has consistently underfunded the estate compared to the Barbican.

The Barbican’s insulated status continues today, where the ideas of a socialist modernism became the architectural equivalent of our economic ‘socialism for the rich’. While its municipal cousin, the GLC’s South Bank Centre, under pressure of constant funding cuts, has flogged off every spare chunk of building and riverfront to restaurant chains and offensive nonsense like two-person geodesic wine domes, feeling ever less like a real public space, the Barbican is just the same as it ever was in 2022. You can always walk in and use the library, mill around, enjoy the views and sit by the lake, any time of day, and nobody will ever stop you, and you will not have to use the toilet in Wahaca while doing so, precisely because that blank cheque is still being written.

Yet it’s Golden Lane that feels like the real model estate today. The Barbican is an extreme place, an enclave, a one-off, a grand project that took decades, and for its architects, a life’s work. But there could be hundreds of Golden Lanes, and there should be.