Towering Strength

Brutal it may be, but the Barbican is actually architects’ kindest gift to Clerkenwell, argues Will Wiles

Jonathan Jones, art critic at The Guardian, complained in April that the Shard skyscraper spoils the view of St Paul’s Cathedral from Parliament Hill. Renzo Piano’s 72-storey tower, currently under construction in Southwark, doesn’t block the view – instead, it rises directly behind Wren’s church, a spike skewering the grey dome. Nor does it block the view from Clerkenwell, the two appearing side by side when seen from Farringdon Road.

Jones is a bit late with his comments, of course – there’s no stopping the Shard now. But in another way his assessment comes a bit early. London accustoms itself to changes in its skyline with surprising speed – even quite dramatic changes. Standing on the South Bank, it’s now hard to imagine the view of St Paul’s without the sawtooth towers of the Barbican complex rising behind it.

While its towers might still seem intrusive to some, they are, in fact, a remarkable act of conservation. The area now occupied by the Barbican estate used to be called Cripplegate, and the rebuilt church of 1545 that stands in the centre of the Barbican is St Giles-without-Cripplegate. During World War II, this forgotten district, which was mixed business, light industry and residential (not unlike Clerkenwell today), was destroyed by bombing.

This empty quarter adjacent to the City, the most desirable commercial real estate in the country, could easily have been colonised by offices, overrun by the northward creep of the Square Mile. Postwar planners were alert to this possibility and, rather than see the devastated Cripplegate become mere City overspill, set aside 35 acres for “a genuine residential neighbourhood” in 1956. Work started in 1958 under the direction of architects Chamberlin, Powell & Bon, and the brief expanded to include a cultural hub that would be a gift from the City to the people of London. At the time, the vast endeavour smashed a number of records: the largest project completed by a single firm of architects, the largest arts complex in Europe, and, with its three towers each reaching to 400ft, the tallest residential buildings in Europe.

So the Barbican started life as an act of urban hygiene, a concrete prophylactic against the promiscuous creep of the City. As such, it is a prime reason that Clerkenwell to the west and Old Street to the east are the mixed, distinctive areas that they are today, and were not simply swallowed up by commercial development when the local industries declined in the latter half of the 20th century.

The Barbican takes its name from a defensive structure on the City’s medieval walls. Even today it serves a defensive role; a citadel against the spread of the trading floors inching north along Bishopsgate, west to Holborn and east beyond Aldgate.In this context, its Brutalist architecture seems entirely appropriate. Many thinkers, from the French cultural theorist Paul Virilio to the British author JG Ballard, have noted Brutalism’s debt to the poured concrete bunkers and pillboxes of the war. The balconies of the Barbican’s towers are not unlike the slots in gun turrets.

Proud and somewhat aloof, a world of its own, the Barbican is keeping benign guard over Clerkenwell.