Barbican brutalist architecture: An unsustainable relationship with concrete?

10th Jul 2023

The Barbican's Brutalist Architecture concrete columns and water pool

The Brutalism of the Barbican furthered our foundational obsession with concrete in the 20th century.

Far beyond its pole position as the most consumed synthetic product in the world, and despite the catastrophic carbon cost of its production, concrete’s cultural identity in Britain today exceeds any economic or functional virtues to reach a dominant aesthetic role in architectural discourse.

As historic brutalist developments are denied listed status, left to decline and demolished altogether, the proponents of our modern architectural heritage are tested ever further in their convictions. The love is deepened, and the cult status of the pro-concrete position is pushed more and more into the mainstream.

“the raw-finished face that launched a thousand coffee table books”

This love, for the raw-finished face that launched a thousand coffee table books, ascends at its height into unrepentant fetishism. So why brutalist architecture, over other architectural styles?

Architecture and masculinity

We might, on the one hand, cite its formal properties: released from ornament and other frivolities. The scale and uncompromising rigidity granted by concrete structures allow for a muscular and heroic capital-a Architecture. One which neatly fulfils a patriarchal society’s inclinations towards the aesthetics of serious, stoic masculinity.

Nostalgia and politics

Alternately, just under the skin, we might look to the sense of nostalgia summoned by the brutalist architecture of towering blocks and complexes of the 1950s and 60s. Reminiscent of an era of post-war optimism and progressive politics, sweeping away the old hierarchies.

Enabled with cheap energy, unfettered by cognisance of its planetary cost, blitzed territories provided a blank slate onto which a social and stylistic revolution could be written into the centre of London.

Barbican Brutalist Architecture

Concrete and society

It is clear why brutalist architecture and concrete should have become the architectural language of a robust Welfare State from a practical perspective. But as decades have passed, the associations between the two have come to seem innate. Ideas about one are harder to extract from the other. This operates right across the political spectrum.

At one end, in assessing suggestions that the architecture of a concrete tower block is unequivocally hostile and productive of anti-social behaviour, it becomes unclear whether such claims are made in good faith, or whether the critic simply doesn’t like it when teenagers make use of public space.

On the other, advocacy for the brutalist approach and concrete’s cost efficiency as a great social leveller and a stepping stone towards a class-free modernity can conceal the reality of an individual structure’s social impact.

A poster child of brutalist architecture?

The Barbican stands as the poster child of brutalist architecture. It provides fertile ground to discuss how the shorthand of these aesthetic-political relations collapses so much of a site’s history and being into flatter narratives.

We can find ourselves lifted high above street level and lost within the fortress-like surroundings of this city within the City. Walking along the great windswept plain that covers Beech Street, we are inescapably held by the impressions of another era. All the stuffiness and nuclearity of the old order signified in the traditional terraced row with its soot-stained bricks and chimney pots, seems to have been blown away. It reveals the bare, hard-cast bones of an egalitarian landscape fit with the smooth technologies of modern life.

Building the Barbican

The conditions of the Barbican’s brutalist architectural construction were, however, far more socially conservative than is apparent.

The impetus for its entrance into the world has more to do with preserving the City of London’s political autonomy than with the provision of housing. The City of London Corporation’s initial intent for the 40-acre bomb site of broken-up textile warehouses was a predominantly commercial development.

At the time, most of the voting power in the City lay with a commercial electorate. Businesses based within its bounds were allocated votes according to their number of employees. This dwarfed the residential electorate of only around 5000. It created a hollowed-out borough that operated overwhelmingly in the interest of accumulating capital.

The situation shifted somewhat as central government started contemplating legislation that would place more power with residential electorates. The City had to gather more residents or else be subsumed by the Labour-led LCC. Although the Barbican estate was therefore commissioned and run by the council, the City only ever intended to let it at market rate. A higher-income population would likelier serve to preserve the continuation of their voting interests.

Barbican Brutalist Architecture

Golden Lane estate

By contrast, just prior to the initiation of the Barbican project, the City had purchased a 7-acre site to the north of the Barbican, just over (what was then) the boundary line with Finsbury. This was to become the Golden Lane estate, built as subsidised council housing for caretakers, nurses, dustmen, and other lower-income workers on whom the City depended.

Architects Geoffrey Powell won the competition for Golden Lane in 1952, and united with Chamberlin and Bon in practice to carry out the project. Notably, Alison and Peter Smithson also submitted a proposal, the principles of which would later be translated into designs for Robin Hood Gardens.

A smaller, less auspicious and quieter favourite than the bombastic Barbican, and far more welcoming in its relation to the surrounding city, Golden Lane was completed in 1962, and is exemplary (as one resident puts it) as a ‘lovely way to do urban living, designed for community and around green spaces at its heart’. Following their progress on Golden Lane, Chamberlin, Powell & Bon were subsequently tasked with the design of the Barbican, for which designs began in 1955.

The Barbican’s accommodation

Unambiguous with its intent, the Barbican was promoted by marketing campaigns running slogans such as ‘How to make Senior Executives happy in London’. Accommodation included studios, two or three-bed flats, five-storey townhouses and rows of mews houses. Residents might progress around the estate as they grew from a young professional through marriage, children, and retirement.

At Golden Lane, however, studios and one-bed dwellings dominate, making up 359 of the 554 units, to prioritise the single worker over growing families and build in the demographics of the estate.

Concrete of the Barbican

The bare-faced concrete of the Barbican’s brutalist architecture, of which the scheme now finds itself to be such an exemplary champion, was hardly chosen with an undressed or industrial aesthetic in mind. Chamberlin, Powell & Bon’s earlier proposals involved cladding the entire structure in brilliant white marble tiles. Similar in surface to Alvar Aalto’s Finlandia Hall – the tiles of which later bowed in movement between Helsinki’s climatic extremes, creating a gentle pillowed effect. The impact would have been more akin to a glittering Mediterranean town than the hardy grey musculature of the Barbican we see today. The idea was scrapped with advice from Ove Arup, the engineer on the project.

“Chamberlin, Powell & Bon’s earlier proposals involved cladding the entire structure in brilliant white marble tiles”

It was substituted for a painstaking process of pick- and bush-hammered raw concrete. This is what we now see as Barbican brutalist architecture. A surface effect more closely related to the masonry rustications of an older London than the everyman béton brut of contemporaneous developments like the National Theatre.

Barbican Brutalist Architecture

Concrete aggregate

A bulky granite aggregate was chosen for the Barbican’s concrete, over the river gravel used in Golden Lane. Iron pyrites in the gravel had begun to stain Golden Lane’s surfaces with rust, coats of paint added as a skin over a skin to conceal the problem. The granite caused no such issues, but was unforgiving in its construction, and would pool unevenly around any cracks in the formwork.

A sharp and finely honed cast surface was essentially necessary to achieve the final texture. Yet it was immediately and iconoclastically ripped apart to form the rustication. Working conditions on the site were challenging, with workers falling from height and the vibrations from the hammering restricting blood flow to the hands and causing ‘white finger’.

The scale and prominence of the project, among broader labour policies in the mid-century construction industry, made the Barbican the heart of intense industrial action in the mid-1960s.

There are clear intensities of labour, historical reference, and layers of political and economic significance embedded in Barbican brutalist architecture. It illustrates how the message of bare-faced honesty and revolutionary design that has come to be associated with concrete is so often illusory.

A recent structural survey indicated that the Barbican could come to stand for centuries further into the future. Whereas the material realities of its coming to being can only drift further into the past.


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Images: Chris Andrews, Tom Parnel, Luke McKernan