The survival of the fittest: Barbican vs Heygate

The Barbican Centre was designed between the 1960’s and 70’s by Chamberlin, Powell and Bonn in the northern slice of the city of london, in a 160.000 square metres area, devastated after the bombings of World War 2.

The Barbican centre is a very famous and unique residential complex, almost entirely built of concrete and precast-concrete blocks. Its architecture belongs to a style, very popular during the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s called “Brutalism”, a modernist-driven architectural movement, which seeked to design practical and functional buildings at low costs, using often linear and fortresslike means and shapes and versatile materials (such as concrete)

Like many other brutalist housing-estates built in England during that time, the Barbican was aiming to accomodate families in its low-cost flats, however there are several differences which made and still make the barbican an unique outstanding housing estate. The Barbican’s flat are stacked in rows of 1-floor flats, while the top ones might have a mezzanine.. all flats have glass and concrete balconies overlooking the inside of the Barbican (its courtyards, pools and gardens) and windows and front doors on the other end, looking above the surrounding streets, suspended at about 5-10 metres from the asphalt.

The inside area of the Barbican Centre is mainly composed by squared and semi-round shaped red brick floorings as well as water canals and pools, gardens and even some leftovers of the London Wall. All Flat Blocks are connected creating a rectangular-ring shaped block, embracing the above described internal courtyards, three residential towers overlook the complex..

Looking at few hundred metres south of the Barbican, still in the London map, we can find the Heygate Estate, in the borough of Southwark, also a very famous architecture, that now days has been the “set” of several movies. The Heygate estate was designed by Tim Tinker and was built in around the same period as the Barbican estate.. Using concrete as a main material for construction once again, its architecture is modular and simple, aiming to create a modern living environment; each block of flats is composed by 8-10 floors of flats disposed in a row, each, with front doors and balcony on the outer side of the block, and windows looking at the centre of the estate.. where trees and plants surround children’s shaded gardens and playgrounds..

All residential blocks are connected by bridges, stairs and ramps, (as shown in the picture above) inspired by Le Corbusier’s vision of “streets in the sky”, mostly suspended 5-10 metres from the ground, and are placed on the area in  straight manner.. again although these blocks do not compose a ring-like semi-closed structure, the perimeter of the estate, underlined by the blocks themselves can’t be miss interpreted, however it differs form the Barbican’s perimeter as small roads cross inside the estate’s gardens.

Not such a big difference in structure between these two housing estates, considering that the main difference between these two estates is that the Barbican centre’s courtyards have water canals and not as much “free” vegetation. But perhaps the reason that differentiate these two similar complexes is in their design itself, as well as in their function.. and not to forget, their geographical position in the London Map.

Although the almost strict physical-visual and social division of the estate from the rest of the city initially allowed residents to bind with each other creating a strong community within their residential territory, dividing themselves from the rest of the area, by the 90’s, lack of council support as well as, lack of public activities due to the almost complete social isolation of the estate (added to technical architectural aspects such as the use of  shoddy materials and poor workmanship used for the construction) , lead the Heygate estate to become a notorious compound, by to by the 2000’s the Heygate Estate fell in disrepair (consequence of crimes and threats of violence) which lead the Southwark council to study a renewal plan for the Elephant & Castle area which saw, in 2004 the demolition of such estate.

On the other side of the river, the Barbican Estate is kept untouched and its flats prices keep on rising, being now some of the most expensive flats in europe.

There are different reasons for the destinies of these two “sister” projects, which perhaps could seem to have more to do with the political aspects of the area they were built, surely. The Barbican was built in the City of London, and the Heygate estate was built on an area mainly destined to immigration, which already determined a lot in their future, like a child from a wealthy family is more unlikely to die of hunger than a child from a poor one. But perhaps there are more hidden elements which helped the decay of one of these two projects.

Starting from the Barbican Estate, its function is not only of a residential complex, it is also home of exhibitions, plays, concerts and a place for leisure time. Barbican’s strategic position in the London map (joining the centre-west of the city with the east in the city of london) obviously is of help to this centre of activities, which keeps the Barbican always populated, if not by a play audience or its residents, surely by some people who simply popped by for a tea or a coffee looking at the calm water and sitting on the benches of the inside courtyards..

Although the Barbican’s perimeter shape is closed, almost similarly to the Heygate estate, in its inside, public activities take place almost 24/7, which allows this estate to be self-controlled and secure from criminal activities, and this is also due to the fact that the Barbican’s courtyards are placed 5-15 metres above the outer streets (such suspension defines the inside and outside of the estate clearly), and very well collocated inside the complex estate (where to reach them not only requires 3-5 minutes and walking a couple of floors up and through the entire estate) and also, that each flat, with its glass balconies, has visual access to the courtyard, allowing also mothers to look after their child, who s may be playing few metres below..

Differently, The Heygate Estate does not dispose of balconies in its inner sides (but on the outside ones which connect all flats together on one floor) , but of windows, that also look at the inside of the complex, at its gardens, which have, instead, not only trees (that not only crate shadow, but also do not allow the view of the garden from some flats windows) but also the gardens are situated at street level and easier to access from the streets surrounding the estate, giving an easier 50 seconds access to the public; however, without presence of activities for it to take part of..
in addition to such, the ramps connecting each flat blocks to the streets, suspended 5 to 10 metres above the ground, do not give easy access to the inner gardens from flats, which instead are easy to access from the streets, (instead they may be used as getaway routes by drug-dealers and burglers)
this turns the inner courtyards of the estate into an “external” space to the estate; therefore, each flats blocks are individual from each other as their courtyards act as an extension of the outer streets, where social boundaries opened up once the estate started to decay and physical boundaries were, at that point, ignored, transforming the estate into a multi-functional public space opened for lots of different activities (such as different sorts of performing arts and trainings by young people who found an inspiring public space to occupy), as well as a public open space for crimes too.

However, the non-existence of “activities” and public functionalities in the Heygate Estate’s project and dsesigning (such as, comparing with the Barbican, exhibition halls and also bars, restaurants and cafes) I believe, are the main reasons for such project to run in disrepair, in addition to the fact that in the area in which it was built, by the 90’s there was already a lack of security from drugs smuggling and criminal threats, and that it received less support from the council , so it was much less controlled than the City of London, where instead the Barbican was built, perhaps, with also a slightly better care for details, maybe, necessary for its endurance.

Review by Paride Saraceni

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