There’s no place quite like the Barbican. A brutalist conglomeration of terraces and tower blocks in Central London, it was built in the 1960s and 70s on a World War II bomb site.
It’s an astonishing place. A labyrinth of walkways and terraced squares watched over by three looming skyscrapers. I have got lost every single time I’ve been.
Years ago, I helped out friends who were taking part in the 48-hour film challenge there. We had no sleep and no permission to shoot. We spent the weekend dodging security guards along the raised paths and gloomy tunnels. The exhausting experience stuck with me, and was the seed of the Barbican as it appears in my book – as a nightmarish sink estate.
However, the real version is very different. It’s utterly gorgeous. Stunning architecture filled with fountains, greenery and unexpected surprises. A world-class arts centre, one of my favourite museums, a gothic church and the second biggest conservatory in London are all hidden within its maze-like paths. Even the smallest of its airy flats are in such demand they start at above 400,000 for a studio and larger pads often go for over 1.5 million.
But most of that is obvious to anyone who has been there. Here are a few things you may not know.
1. The remains of the original Barbican – the Roman Fort – are hidden in a car park.
The Barbican is named after the Roman fortifications that were built here in what was Londinium, not long after Boudica razed the city to the ground. The fort was adjacent to the northern edge of the London Wall. The London Wall itself isn’t hard to find. It pops up all around the City of London, because although it was built around 190-225AD, it was used as a fortification for 1,000 years afterwards. The fort was dismantled in the 3rd Century.
All that remains is part of the western gateway and the remains of the turret and guardroom – bizarrely located in a car park. They can only be seen as part of special tours organized by the Museum of London.
2. The Blitz started in the Barbican.
Of course, there was no Barbican then. But it was the site of the first bombs to fall on London, on August 24, 1940, right before the start of the main blitz. A bomb exploded close to St Giles, Cripplegate, apparently knocking over a statue of John Milton, who is buried in the church. There were fires in Fore Street. It was a mild bombing, compared to what was to come. The entire ward of Cripplegate – the site of the Barbican – was completely destroyed on the evening of December 29, 1940 – in the Second Great Fire of London – by tens of thousands of incendiary bombs. 160 people died that night, and many more in the following days. You can see St Giles church (where Oliver Cromwell was married) almost alone in the aftermath below.
3. It used to be far, far more crowded, and far less.
The Barbican is home to around 4,000 people living in 2,014 flats. Although it’s hard to imagine fitting more people in that space than are currently housed in high-rise towers and 7-story terraces, there used to be 14,000 people living in Cripplegate ward in jammed-in tenements in the 1850s. That’s equivalent to about 7 people per modern flat. You can see what the streets looked like in this Pre-blitz map.
But after the destruction in the Second World War, the area virtually emptied. In 1951 the census revealed only 48 people living in Cripplegate.
4. It only covers 40 acres of land (16 hectares).
This isn’t that much for the amount of stuff they’ve squeezed in there (including 130,000 cubic meters of concrete). It’s about 20 football pitches. If you’ve got lost there as often as I have, you’ll be ashamed at how little space that is.
For comparison, the whole of the Barbican fits into the same amount of land as this lovely home in the south of France, which, incidentally, costs the same as one studio flat back in the Barbican.
In many ways, the Barbican of my book has more in common with another, less successful brutalist complex– the Tricorn Centre in Portsmouth, near where I grew up, which by my childhood in the 80s was the neglected, crumbling mess I’ve imagined the beautiful Barbican to be in Transferral.
Another list of interesting facts on the Barbican can be found at Time Out (including the fact that it almost looked like a toilet).