Named after the Latin word "Barbecana" from the Roman Londinium settlement once present on the site, the current Barbican first was proposed in 1955 as a replacement for a portion of the City of London bombed to rubble during the Blitz. Planned by architects Chamberlin, Powell, and Bon in 1959; built starting in 1971; and finally opened in 1982; the Barbican is well-known in London as a performing arts venue and the home of the London Symphony Orchestra.
Although it is not unusual to have a love-hate relationship with the minimalist, harsh concrete designs and often confusing, maze-like structures that embody Brutalism, it is undeniably a distinctive style and the Barbican is one of the world's best examples of the era. Although the entire complex thankfully has received some recent appreciation in architecture circles, it really should receive far more attention and appreciation from tourists than it does.
When travelgasm.com first wrote this piece, the Barbican wasn't listed in the top 100 attractions on the big tourist advisory sites, and on the world's search engine, it had about the same number of reviews as a typical restaurant in central London. Furthermore, nearly all of the reviews are about the Barbican as a performing arts venue rather than an acknowledgement, or even awareness, of the entire mixed-use development. Although the Barbican certainly is worthwhile as a performing arts venue, the full complex is even more worth a visit.
It's not just tourists who are unaware of the extent of the Barbican, though. Based on living in London — and feedback from a contact who used to own a flat in the complex — it's not at all uncommon to meet people who live in London but who don't work in real estate, even those who have attended events at the Barbican, to be unaware that you actually can live there. As the Barbican Life website for residents is happy to point out, almost 4,000 people live in the Barbican — in 2,014 flats — the single largest concentration of residences in the entire City of London. The Barbican effectively is its own city in The City and could be considered a prototype of what architects refer to as "transit-connected development" that was later improved and expanded upon in cities like Hong Kong and Singapore.
If there is one well-deserved criticism of the Barbican, it is that it has a poor "relationship" with the surrounding neighbourhood. It is directly connected to the London Underground, but it effectively is otherwise monolithic and cut off entirely from the surrounding area. However, there has been some recent improvement, most notably the creation of a "front door" for people on Silk Street by architecture firm Allford Hall Monaghan Morris.
If you're really interested in Brutalism, you might like to book an architecture tour with the Barbican Centre, or you might just choose to have a look around — be sure to at least make it to the "hidden" central lake terrace — and have a meal at one of the Barbican's restaurants. Barbican Kitchen and Bonfire offer relatively inexpensive pizza, burgers, and other classic comfort foods; whereas Osteria, from Michelin-starred Chef Anthony Demetre, provides more upscale Italian-inspired dishes. Osteria's £11 set lunch and £18 pre-theatre set dinner are particularly good values, but be sure to book reservations in advance.
We've mapped out the best way into the Barbican from Barbican Station. Take the stairwell to the left before exiting to street level for the most pleasant route on foot. There are proposed streetscape enhancements from Townshend Landscape Architects in progress, so it may be better in the future, but wandering around on foot adjacent to the concrete podium of the Barbican complex generally is miserable. Use the stairs!
How to Get Here: Take the Circle (Yellow), Hammersmith & City (Pink), or Metropolitan (Purple) lines to Barbican Station. Before completely leaving via the Aldersgate Street Exit, take the stairwell to the left to reach a series of elevated walkways that lead directly to the interior of Barbican Centre.
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