“Unlike the other high-rise estates of the postwar decades, the Barbican was built for well-off residents, rather than people on council waiting lists and those evicted by slum clearance schemes. Here, the combination of immensely high apartment blocks (at forty-three storeys, they were the tallest in Europe) and enjoyable and usable open space really seemed to work. The public spaces and linking walkways were well maintained … and the well-heeled residents were there because the wanted to be, not because there was nowhere else to put them. It was an estate, in short, on which even architects and town planners would have been prepared to live.”
Roy Porter, ‘A History of London’
Why I love it
Why I love living in the Barbican
I love living in the Barbican. I have been here for more than 30 years. There is nowhere else in London – or even the world – I would rather live.
From my flat overlooking Shakespeare Tower, I can see people coming out onto their terraces for a drink and a view across London to St Pauls and onwards. People love their flats in the tower blocks. They are not marooned, they are elevated.
Most homes are in the lower terrace blocks. The entrances to the terrace blocks are mainly at podium level. One of the acts of brilliance of the architects was to put car parks at street level and to build the estate above it. As a result, once you are in the Barbican, you are almost unaware of the traffic which passes underneath.
The ‘podium’ level is simply ground level to you. There are walkways between some buildings and right round the estate at this level. Elevated walkways don’t have a happy history in this country. It raises images of bad Council estates. But ours are certainly not like that. They are reassuring links between buildings. They are full of variety, with trees and views.
The crime rate must be among the lowest in the civilised world. Criminals don’t like places where they look out of place and feel locked in.
The Barbican is incredibly diverse. Everywhere there are plants and bushes. You can walk round the lake and disturb the ducks, or sit in secluded piers right in the water. There’s a private park next to the lake and if you want peace, you can find it there.
And the flats? I love mine. One whole wall of my flat is a window over one of the residents-only gardens. It’s a glass wall which slides open onto my balcony. Sometimes, when we get an absolute deluge of rain, it’s so dramatic, I stand out on my balcony and watch it for ages. All along the terrace other people are doing the same.
At night I have a panorama of city lights. I can’t bear to spoil it with curtains. Everything is solid, everything was built with quality – not like all those cheap Clerkenwell conversions. I can’t hear my neighbours’ TVs. Insurance salesmen can’t get to my front door.
The Barbican was built by the City Corporation. It is sometimes referred to as the City’s gift to London. They manage the estate to this day and they must be among the best and most effective landlords in England. My rubbish is collected each day. There is someone on hand to deal with any problems or needs. When I can’t find my keys after a particularly convivial evening, the car park attendants let me in to my flat. Everyone is friendly and helpful. The car park attendants are more like a concierge.
There are supermarkets so close you hardly need get wet when it’s raining. The Arts Centre is on our doorstep. Nearby Smithfield is now almost London’s Mecca for up-market restaurants and clubs.
It’s simply a great place to live.
Why you’ll love it
Why you’ll love living here
People who move in rarely want to leave. As a property solicitor, I bought and sold Barbican flats for clients for 30 years. People choose to move out for various reasons, but not because they found the Barbican Estate an unpleasant place to live – and not because they thought living in Islington would be more attractive to them!
These are a selection of the Barbican’s attractions which occur to me.
Peace and quiet
The Barbican estate is very quiet and peaceful, partly because the roads are buried underneath, and partly because it is a very non-touristy part of town. At the weekends, the streets are virtually deserted.
In a Barbican flat, you can hear a pin drop. I am typing this in my flat. I can’t hear a thing. No TV in someone’s flat downstairs. No couple rowing next door. Just those bloody pins. I really should put them somewhere safe.
Ease of living
There is always someone to turn to for help, no matter what. There are car park attendants in all the car parks, within easy reach of any flat – taking in parcels from Amazon, getting you a spare key when you come home a bit pixillated. There are porters 24-7 in every tower. There is the Barbican Estate Office during the day. Your rubbish is picked up from outside your flat door every week day.
My shower handle broke one time and I had water just pouring and pouring. I can’t tell you what a feeling of helplessness you get when you can’t turn off the water and it’s late at night (if you’re as impractical as me anyway). The car park attendant had an estate plumber round to my flat in quarter of an hour to turn off the water at the mains – and this was 11.00 p.m.
One of the acts of brilliance of the architects was to put car parks at street level and to build the estate above it. As a result, once you are in the Barbican, you are almost unaware of the traffic which passes underneath. Podium level is simply ground level to you. There are walkways between some buildings and right round the estate at this level. Elevated walkways don’t have a happy history in this country. It raises images of bad council estates. But ours are certainly not like that. They are reassuring links between buildings.
Wall to wall, floor to ceiling, sliding windows in your living room, leading out onto your balcony. Just to repeat, that is one entire wall of windows. Where could you find that? Look at the wood frames too. Louis XIV didn’t have such wood in Versailles.
Waitrose, M&S and Tesco’s
Waitrose and Tesco’s are right next to the estate. M&S is a little bit further away but very walkable. I have my own scenic route via Frobisher Crescent, to avoid the tunnel.
Links to everywhere
If you want to go abroad, there is Liverpool Street station for Stansted and St Pancras for Eurostar, each just two Tube stops away. (You may go abroad but you’ll always look forward to coming back.)
The Barbican estate was built like a castle, with castle walls, and that seems actually to deter the nastier elements of the outside world. You can walk round the Barbican Estate late at night and feel safe.
The theatre, the concert hall, the cinemas
I am so used to them being here, that I almost forgot to add them to my list. We actually have a theatre, a world class concert hall, and three cinemas right on our doorstep. You literally don’t have to take your slippers off. Dressing gowns and pyjamas are generally frowned on in the concert hall. There’s even a church inside the estate.
The gardens and the lake
I love our gardens. They are very natural. Lots of trees and bushes. The gardens and much of the lakeside are residents-only and you will have a key. Other estates probably have their own gardens … but a lake? … with a waterfall? … and water fowl?
In the summer, at the weekends, the gardens fill up with residents lying out on the grass, reading books or getting a tan. In the summer evenings, there are candle-lit dinners on rugs. On week days, there are always the yoga enthusiasts. Otherwise, there are the squirrels and the foxes, which you can see in the early mornings.
Restaurants and bars
If you want restaurants or bars, there is Smithfield, Clerkenwell and the City itself, virtually on our doorstep. You really do get the best restaurants in the whole of London in this part of town. In Knightsbridge they can afford to be complacent, with an endless supply of tourists who will never come again. In Clerkenwell, bars and restaurants have to be good to survive and they have to provide a service to attract repeat customers. So the Barbican area has become full of ‘quality’ affordable restaurants.
Gyms and swimming pools
There is a massive Virgin Health Club tucked in under John Trundle Court, with a swimming pool, and you can also use the swimming pool (no-one seems to know about) in the Golden Lane Estate, the Barbican’s older sister, next door.
The Barbican is beautiful
In decades past, the Barbican used to take quite a panning from writers (who lived in Surbiton in mock Tudor suburban houses with avocado toilets). The Barbican estate was dismissed as ‘brutal’, grey, concrete, with desolate high windswept walkways. And, of course, it’s unfortunate, from a public relations perspective, to be built in a style christened ‘Brutalist’.
That name actually came from ‘béton brut’, the French for ‘raw concrete’. So, nothing to do with ‘brutal’ at all. But what the hell, Let’s just embrace it. There’s no getting round it. The buildings of the Barbican Estate do look like NCP car parks filled in with windows. There, I’ve said it.
And you know what? I like it. Those three great bruisers of towers thrusting up against the skyline. That is beauty to my eyes. You should see them on a Summer evening. They are almost golden. Certainly there is concrete, but it’s varied and beautiful. I’m fed up being told that only bricks are beautiful.
To me, real overdose-inducing, depressing, ugliness is a wet February afternoon walking round endless streets of identical Victorian terraced houses in Fulham. As for windswept, if the weather is windy, the Barbican is windy. So is Hyde Park.
You only have to take a stroll round the Barbican Estate to see how dramatic and beautiful it really is. And if you don’t like it, thank god you bought a return ticket to Surbiton.
Wherever you stand in the Barbican estate there are interesting and unexpected lines and angles. Most dramatically – although we tend to be blasé about it – there is the tremendous suspended bridge across the lake, joining the Barbican Centre to London Wall. But everywhere there are juxtapositions between walkways and towers which are very pleasing to the eye.
If you go out after dark, you can see all the lights in the towers reflected in the lake, and they all seem to expand away from you like lights on a runway. (I like runways as well.) The only sound is people laughing and talking as they cross the walkways above you on their way home from the theatre. Apart from that, there’s just you and the heron which is usually perched in the middle of the lake. The heron lifts his wings and floats away. Your spirits will be uplifted too.
The Barbican is great for ‘buy to let’
If you are thinking of buying a Barbican flat as an investment property which you can let out, you’ve got the right idea. These are some of the reasons.
Lock up and leave
There is nothing to fuss about with the Barbican Estate.
I have got a little flat in an Edwardian block in Stretham which I let out. There’s always something. A smell under the bath no one could figure out. The communal hot water going off line. Redoing the roof. You name it, I have to sort it out.
Not the Barbican. Nothing ever seems to happen here. It all just works effortlessly.
The Barbican Estate Office as back up
The Barbican Estate Office keep a spare key, if you want, and they can give access to anyone you authorise to go round, either to view it or do any works.
Tenants like Barbican flats
Lots of prospective tenants specifically want to find flats in the Barbican to live in.
Not much work required
This flows from the fact that tenants are specifically seeking the original Barbican look. You don’t have to re-do the kitchen or the bathroom. All you have to do is have it all seriously cleaned, and repaint the walls white.
Ease of maintenance
You are responsible for the emersion heater, but for the most part, important maintenance is down to the City and is handled as part of the service charge.