The secret life of the Barbican
Did you know there’s a salvage store next to a Tube tunnel beneath the Barbican, where residents can get original door handles and light fittings?
Film artists Ila Bêka and Louise Lemoine spent an entire month exploring the estate for a new documentary. Andre Paine spoke to Louise about the Characters they met and what makes the Brutalist building so special…
Living in the Barbican may be out of reach for many given the premium property prices, but at least we can get a glimpse of life on the estate thanks to a new documentary, Barbicania. The intimate, absorbing film commissioned by the Barbican Centre is now available on DVD. The 90-minute running time belies the exhausting month of filming by the directors, Ila Bêka, from Italy, and Parisian Louise Lemoine. Based nearby in Great Arthur House, Golden Lane, they awoke every day to a bird’s eye view of their film set.
“This full immersion helped us to understand the Barbican, its architecture and its inhabitants,” Lemoine tells the The Post. You can meet some of the characters they filmed below. “We are still in touch with a few with whom we have very friendly relationships,” says Lemoine of those who welcomed them into their homes. The residents explained Barbican etiquette, such as the very English adherence to their bit of the balcony walkway.
The pair were given full access by the Barbican’s management and, filming throughout July 2014, were blessed with constant sunshine. They certainly do justice to the Brutalist architecture: there are some impressive sequences filmed in the arts centre as well as a stunning exterior scene shot after midnight, and set to discordant music by a modern French composer. “These night shots become almost abstracts and have a very strong visual impact,” says Lemoine. “It is one of the few moments in the film of pure architecture observation thanks to its emptiness.”
Barbicania also takes us underground into the salvage store (based next to a blocked-up Tube tunnel) where original light fittings, door handles and bathroom locks from the Sixties and Seventies are always in demand. But it’s when they go up to the top of the towers that you get a real sense of life in the estate that soars above London. The directors meet a couple, Helen
‘We’ve turned the conservatory into the highest bedroom in London’
Likierman and Julian Hale, who are the highest residents of Cromwell Tower (floors 37 to 39); they can even see where it’s raining in different parts of London. Having lived in an old Victorian house, they moved there seven years ago for a different kind of lifestyle. “We’ve got fond of the Brutalist concrete now and we think it’s rather lovely,” says Hale. “We’ve turned the old conservatory into the highest bedroom in London,” adds Likierman.
On the balcony, the view is incredible although the force of the wind at that height apparently rattles the apartment’s light fittings. “On the top of the towers it gives you the surprising feeling of being much closer to natural elements even if the Barbican is an extreme experiment of urbanisation,” says Lemoine. There’s an even a protected peregrine falcon’s nest on another tower. The stark architecture on the balcony of the Cromwell is also suggestive of the barbican defences that formerly occupied this site. “Our lasting impression of the Barbican is its fortress aspect,” says Limoine of this enclave in the middle of the city.
Nevertheless, the directors were always made welcome and once filming and editing were completed they finally got to relax and enjoy the arts centre cinema – even if it was the premiere of their own documentary. They’re now busy on their next film about a new housing project in Copenhagen.
Readers of The Post will certainly appreciate Barbicania for the glimpse it provides of the buildings and interiors designed by Chamberlin, Powell and Bon. With an estate agent showing the filmmakers around a three-bedroom apartment on the Lauderdale Tower’s 32nd floor valued at £1.85 million, the DVD is the closest most of us will get to those sought-after Barbican balconies.
Barbicania: Meet the cast
Her Majesty: Regina Bullough
As regal as her name suggests, Regina dons a tiara for the filmmakers – and it turns out she once worked at Buckingham Palace organising garden parties. Even her colleagues called her ‘Your majesty’, though she still had to write 40,000 invitations by hand in her time. She’s also partial to some Hollywood glamour. “Marilyn [Monroe] is more than a queen,” she says.
Piano man: Frederick George Atkin
We meet Frederick as he heads to the library on his mobility scooter. He goes religiously at 11am every day to play the keyboard (“I only do it for fun”), while fellow pianist Graham Wallace sits opposite. They’ve developed a very restrained Barbican bond. “I’ve spoken to him once in four years,” says Wallace. That was during a fire drill.
The therapist: Camilla Nicholls
A resident of Defoe House, Camilla explores the Barbican psyche. The walkways around the flats are crucial to understanding the estate. “You could look at them as neurological pathways,” she muses. Residents must keep them clear and any reported items get a fluorescent sticker from the wardens – Camilla says an errant flip-flop once got stickered.
Bird watcher: Thomas Weaver
On a very windy 35th floor balcony of Lauderdale Tower, Thomas admires the local wildlife. “The peregrine falcon nests every year on this building,” he explains. The downside is window cleaners aren’t allowed to work near a protected species, and there’s bloody evidence of the falcon’s hunting left on the balcony. “But it’s a beautiful bird,” he adds.
Mr Pink: David Rosenberg
A fan of pink (“it’s a political colour”), Bunyan Court resident David believes the Barbican “screams at you for attention”. He’s a colourful character, who reveals that Barbican types place you in the pecking order by finding out if you’re up above in a tower or in a low block. David’s building may not be high but at least he’s at the top. “I’m the king of the castle,” he says with pride.
The widow: Lady Odette Dowding
The filmmakers found by far their most confessional interviewee in Lady Dowding, a lonely resident of a rather cluttered flat in Gilbert House. “My miserable abode, it’s getting worse,” she says. “All you see here is the dust of 44 years.” She recounts her unhappy 32-year marriage to a car-obsessed husband. “I missed him terribly after he died,” she adds.
The gardener: Neil Anderson
Neil tends to the plants and feeds the coy carp, some of which are as old as the estate. “It’s our own little oasis – if we’re not pestered by film crews,” he says. Apparently, it was only constructed to conceal part of a concrete tower. “It was an afterthought initially, the conservatory, but it’s a nice afterthought,” he says. “You’re almost within a jungle.”
Salvage expert: Cynthia White
Some residents revamp flats, but others want to keep – or even restore – the original fittings by using the salvage store, which is underneath the estate by a blocked-off Tube tunnel. “With the help of salvage we hope for a long time to go on meeting the needs of the traditionalists,” says Cynthia. She reveals that Beaufort House’s interior doors are actually made of paper.
“Barbicania” is available on DVD in the Barbican Shop, priced £18, and via the website www.barbican.org.uk/barbicania