The Barbican Estate: Walking Through Lessons Learnt

Luke Mitchell

On my walk to work in London, it’s hard to avoid the Barbican Estate. I wander through it almost every day and can see it from the studio windows. It has become one of my favourite places in the city. The estate was built during the 1960-70s in an area of London destroyed during World War II. The estate was a vision of the future, creating an entire community which combined homes with everything people needed: shops, social spaces, gardens even an art center. The estate includes raised walk ways which put pedestrians above the street, separating them. Constructed almost entirely of textured concrete, you may mistake the estate for being cold, stark, even ugly but it’s full of personality - A fortress that protects you from the busy city.

I sometimes find it helps to get away from my usual sources of inspiration and look elsewhere. I’m a firm believer that inspiration can come from anywhere, I’ve often found that architecture offers plenty of ideas for all kinds of design. I’m always finding new features in this Brutalist masterpiece, so I walk through a rich source of inspiration every day, it has given me a new perspective on design. Here are some lessons that I’ve learned from it.

Form and function

As a brutalist design the estate is honest, nothing hidden, there is no metaphor or elongated philosophy behind it, the shape and structure appears in plain sight. With nothing important removed, but embraced as part of the design, decoration is minimal at best. Sometimes hiding features behind decoration is an easy option, for example the junk drawer is a common tactic in digital design for the sake of minimalism or simplicity.

Function isn’t everything. We still must leave room for emotion, including joy, in all aspects of design. In contrast from the bold concrete the estate guards peaceful parks, ponds, pools and gardens. These features are not always considered useful or necessary but are important for any living space, especially urban settings. The estate has taught me that a balance between form and function is hard to achieve but is not impossible.

The Barbican language

From outside the estate can look drab, uniform and a little oppressive. Once inside you start seeing a lot of variation. 42 floor towers stand beside terraced blocks with rooftop gardens and semi circular windows, homes start as small flats up to self-contained maisonettes.

You soon start to see common shapes in everything – the same shapes stacked, rotated, joined and skewed create a diverse collection of buildings. Every space is a sentence spoken in the same language – constructed of different words combined in thousands of different ways. Everything is part of the whole. Variation and individuality are often missing from similar projects, and design systems of all kinds, but it’s something the estate has plenty of. The estate has taught me that consistency is a craft, not creating the identical, but creating a tone that speaks for itself.

Embracing constraints

The Barbican was a product of constraints, whether voluntary or otherwise. Like any construction project budget must have meant that the estate had to make compromises of some sort. The space allowed for construction helped to describe the shape and layout of the estate. Brutalism itself is a constraint, the palette of materials to utilise is small, there is no swatch-book of trendy colours or adornments to flip through.

I often see similar constraints on projects. Constraints, restrictions and limitations are sometimes red flags, but the Barbican has taught me that they can be positive. After years of wandering through the estate, I’ve come to realise something. The product of constraints can be a fantastic result, and that constraints can be a positive challenge, a goal to work towards.

While these learnings are a little abstract, I would suggest to anyone that they look more at the architecture, artifacts, and environments they glance at every day. Try to find that mix of form and function, the common shapes that make up a construction, and consider the constraints that have made it possible to create it in the first place.