‘Boat edge’ balustrades in the Barbican Estate

A particular design feature of the Barbican is the massive upswept concrete balustrades or ‘boat edge’ balustrades which run along the edge of much of the podium overlooking the lake and the gardens. These were developed by Ove Arup and Partners, the consultant engineers on the development project, in consultation with the architects.

They are like a model of a liner split in half lengthwise from top to bottom. The hull of the boat sticks out, so that from below you only see its curved shape. On the podium itself, you are inside the hull. The gap underneath is not so massive as it appears, and there are neon lights under there which are turned on after dark.

The rather monumental use of concrete in this way was not a feature of Chamberlin Powell & Bon’s original designs for the estate, but developed as construction was under way. Peter Chamberlin is said to have been responsible for this design change, which was due to the influence of the later work of Le Courbusier whom he admired.

The idea was to stress the importance of the podium as the main pedestrian level. That’s what they say. I imagine the more practical reason was to stop people falling to their deaths, since the podium is quite a height above the gardens and the tiled walkways around the lake.

I do very much like the balustrades. They are unnecessarily huge, with the thickness of a mediaeval castle wall, and this perfectly complements the equally massive concrete columns of the nearby terraces. They give you something decent to lean on, so you can comfortably eat your sandwiches, and take the weight off your feet, while you watch people sitting in the gardens or milling around the lakeside. (Unfortunately, some people tend to leave their sandwich containers.) One strange feature I have noticed about the way people use the balustrades is this. When a couple stop to lean against the balustrade and look over into the gardens, they invariably do it next to a column. So other people can’t get past; they have to go round the column. (This may only be noticeable at Defoe House, where the columns are particularly close to the balustrade edge.) I have never been quite irritated enough to ask why they don’t just stop a few feet further along where they wouldn’t be in anyone’s way. But it seems that there is something comforting about being between the columns and the balustrades, even to the extent of having your shins kicked.