Symbols & Secrets

Walking the City of London

My Barbican Architecture Tour Part 2

In last week’s blog I talked about cruise liners and curves. This week it’s castles, crenellations and concrete (I am familiar with the rule ‘always avoid annoying alliteration’ but I just couldn’t help myself).

‘Barbican’ used to be the name of a street in a bustling commercial area in the ward of Cripplegate. By the end of the 19th century it was the centre of the rag trade and was home to fabric and leather merchants, furriers, glovers and a host of other tradesmen. You can see it on the so-called Agas map of 1633 …

On the 29th December, 1940, at the height of the Second World War, an air raid by the Luftwaffe razed virtually the entire surrounding area to the ground.

The word (from Old French: barbacane) means a fortified outpost or gateway, such as an outer defence to a city or castle, or any tower situated over a gate or bridge which was used for defensive purposes. And it’s easy to spot the architects’ references to that function as you walk around the 35 acre estate.

What about this entrance to the art gallery …

Those steps look formidable, and those crenellations (aka battlements) look like they are there to house a castle’s defenders.

Inside the walls are thick and the gates ready to be clanged shut against intruders …

More battlements look down on the Sculpture Court …

Where you can also spot some slits for archers to use …

Along the highwalk the archers’ reference is even more obvious …

It can also be seen on the extraordinary pyramid-topped entrance on Aldersgate, and even the bridge looks like a defensive structure (I’m thinking World War 2 pill boxes) …

Interesting shadows form at certain times of day …

The architecture responds very well to being photographed in monochrome, for example these crenellations at the top of the towers …

And this vertiginous view …

There are three flats per floor arranged within a triangular plan. Entrances, circulation spaces, lifts and escape stairs are in the centre of the tower.

These classical looking columns appear to support the structure …

The Barbican is the best surviving example of the post-war plan to separate pedestrians and traffic using raised pavements, rather clumsily called ‘pedways’. The plan failed due to a combination of the need to protect listed buildings, lack of coordination and the public’s reluctance to climb away from street level and embrace a new elevated world.

You can observe this part of the highwalk stopping in mid-air, its further progress into the City impeded by the wall of the Museum of London …

The often-derided yellow line was painted to help visitors navigate their way to the Centre …

Gilbert Bridge

It reminds me of a drawbridge over a moat since I saw it from the east end of the estate …

There was a plan at one time to run a road through the development roughly where Gilbert Bridge is now in order to preserve the north-south access lost in the bombing. Needless to say the architects objected and their argument prevailed.

The architecture here is often described as Brutalist, the term being derived from the French béton brut, meaning raw or unfinished concrete. Although the concrete at the Estate was left exposed, it was not unfinished, having been pick-hammered to give it a rough, rusticated appearance implying a sense of monumentality. You can see examples of raw and pick-hammered concrete side by side at the entrance to the Conservatory …

Getting the desired effect was incredibly labour intensive. After the concrete had dried for at least 21 days, workers used handheld pick-hammers or wider bush-hammers to tool the surface and expose the coarse granite aggregate …

We were told that the hammering needed for the entire Estate, including the towers, was carried out by a team of only six men.

Our tour guide not only imparted information about the architecture but also lots about the history of the Estate and the surrounding area. Highly recommended! It’s free and you can book on the website.

Cruise liners and curves – my Barbican architecture tour Part 1

Last week I finally went on a Barbican architecture tour and boy was it fascinating, and as an added bonus has given me enough material for two blogs. If you live or work near the estate, or attend performances here, do please have a look and hopefully you will find it interesting enough to make you want to come and explore. The architects were Chamberlin, Powell and Bon and the Barbican was their Utopian vision and masterpiece.

Standing on the terrace by the lake, our attention was drawn to the fact that Defoe House bore a distinct resemblance to a cruise liner bearing down on us …

A comparison that became even more apparent as we viewed the building from the north side …

Do you see what I mean?

In another maritime allusion, the elegantly curved tips of the cantilevered balconies resemble the hull of a ship …

And don’t these ventilation shafts look like classic ocean liner funnels …

The layout of the apartments was designed to maximize the amount of natural light in the rooms that would most benefit from it. Bedrooms, dining rooms and living rooms are therefore positioned along external walls, while kitchens and bathrooms are placed against inner walls.

In 1963 this ran into a technical problem. The London County Council had recently passed bye-laws requiring all kitchens to have windows or equivalent ventilation. Many of the Barbican kitchens did not have ventilation so a deal was struck. Approval was gained when what had previously been called ‘kitchens’ were instead renamed as ‘cooking areas’ and designated part of the living room. You can read the full fascinating story here in Barbican Living.

There is another maritime connection. To make the kitchens as efficient and space-saving as possible, the architects took their cue from the compact design of boats and brought in Brooke Marine, a firm of yacht designers. A full-size mock-up of a kitchen was erected by the Gas Council, Watson House Research Centre, and was tested by going through the motions of preparing several different kinds of meals.

Very good quality hardwood was used for the windows and their surrounds and the wood was painted with clear varnish. The overall effect from a distance is to give a warm honey colour to the buildings …

This fragment of the Roman and Medieval wall survived the Blitz …

Note the barrel vault roofs of the top floor flats, a feature widely employed in Roman architecture …

I noticed these curving stairs complementing one another …

Part of the site was occupied by railway yards before the wartime destruction. The architects have acknowledged this by inverting the curved brick arches that were once a feature of the area and using them to frame the windows …

The architects loved Venice and cited the canals, bridges and pavements of that city as the model for the pedestrian systems of the Barbican, describing it as ‘the best example of a city where foot and service traffic is completely segregated. This segregation,’ they continued, ‘has worked admirably for many centuries and there is no good reason why the principle should not be applied equally effectively in the City of London’.

There is lots of water, interesting reflections and great views, like this one from Gilbert Bridge as you approach the Centre entrance. Note the pretty circular ‘igloos’ covered in their Summer plumage …

And the wooden shutters on Frobisher Crescent look like they belong in more sunny climes …

Chamberlin, Powell and Bon’s original plans featured five tower blocks of twenty stories. These designs were rejected by the planning authority, primarily on the grounds that the scheme had insufficient outdoor space. In response, the architects reduced the number of tower blocks to three in order to minimize the buildings’ footprints. At the same time, they more than doubled their height to maintain housing density, making them for many years the tallest residential towers in Europe.

All three tower blocks and the majority of the terrace blocks stand above the podium on piloti, enabling pedestrians to navigate the estate unimpeded by buildings …

Occasionally you can also catch some interesting reflections …

The architects admired, and I believe corresponded with, the Brutalist architect Ernő Goldfinger and liked his idea of separating lifts and services from the main body of buildings. Our guide pointed out this example on the Estate …

Sometimes I think taking images in monochrome works best.

By way of comparison, here is one of Goldfinger’s most celebrated buildings …

Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower in Kensal Town west London – picture copyright ArchDaily

In 1964 the City of London Corporation presented the architects with a revised brief which demanded an expanded theatre and concert hall. The outcome of this was the Barbican Centre, a building which had to be shoehorned into the master plan after construction had already begun.

The theatre, to be used by the Royal Shakespeare Company, required a fly tower to accommodate scenery. The clever solution to disguising this feature above ground was the creation of the second largest conservatory in London after Kew …

Housing over 2,000 species of tropical plants and trees it a great place to visit. Opening times are limited, however, and it is sometimes closed for private events, so it’s best to check the website first to make sure you can get in.

And finally, they might not be exotic, bit I did like the look of these tomatoes that are being cultivated by a resident …

If you want to read more about the architectural history of the Barbican here is a link to an article that I found extremely useful and quoted often in this blog. It’s called AD Classics: The Barbican Estate / Chamberlin, Powell and Bon Architects.

I will be writing more about what I learnt on my tour in next week’s blog, but in the meantime you can find lots more pictures here when I wrote about the Estate and toured the Conservatory in July last year.

If you want to go on a tour (it’s free) here is the link to the website.

A visit to Aldgate East underground station

I know I shouldn’t encourage graffiti but, as I walked to the Station from Aldgate, I became intrigued by these carrots. The one in the middle looks really frightened – have one of the two on either side of it eaten his green topping? They certainly have scary teeth …

I think the space they look down on was the original site of Aldgate East tube station before it moved to its current location nestling under the Passmore Edwards Library

Next door is the Whitechapel Gallery with its pretty Tree of Life frieze by Rachel Whiteread which I wrote about in an earlier blog

Whiteread’s golden leaves.

I am visiting the station to see some fascinating tiles that date from the 1930s. You will see from the pictures that most carry the letter ‘S’. This stands for the artist and craftsman Harold Stabler, who was commissioned by the London Passenger Transport Board in 1936 to design 18 ceramic tiles to decorate new and refurbished underground stations. The first of the tiles were installed at Aldgate East when it was rebuilt in 1938 – this one represents the rearing horse from the coat of arms of the county of Kent …

They are not always easy to spot.

This is a great representation of London Underground’s headquarters at 55 Broadway …

Here is the building itself …

These birds are flying over water, representing the River Thames …

In this representation of the Palace of Westminster, there is a crown, a coronet and a bowler hat representing the Monarch, the Lords and the Commons …

This is from the coat of arms of the County of London …

The winged Griffin was the original symbol of London Transport. I can’t see an ‘S’ so possibly a later reproduction …

St Paul’s Cathedral (I can’t find the ‘S’ on this one either) …

Probably made specifically for St Paul’s Station.

This tile illustrates the coat of arms for the County of Middlesex …

The Crystal Palace …

And here the classic Underground roundel …

There is a more complete selection on the Bethnal Green Underground Station platforms which you can read about here.

Finally, I had to smile sadly when I noticed this optimistic piece of signage when I disembarked the train at Moorgate …

Two of the best free views of the City

I was thrilled when I finally got around to visiting The Garden at 120 on the roof of 120 Fenchurch Street (EC3M 5BA). The entrance is in Fen Court and before you even get to the lift you can look up and see the digital art installation by Vong Phaophanit and Claire Oboussier on the ceiling. There is also a haunting soundscape as well. It’s a fabulous piece of work (entitled The Call of Things) and you can read more about it here.

The ceiling at the entrance to Fen Court

You don’t have to book a time to visit, just turn up. Visiting times are set out on their website. After airport style bag checks a lift whisks you to the 15th floor where you have a 360 degree view. Here are a few of the images I took on a nice sunny day last week.

You can see the Gherkin in all its glory. A treat now that it is becoming more and more hemmed in by, frankly not very attractive, new buildings …

The Scalpel can be observed just alongside it …

The Walkie Talkie dominates part of the view …

In the distance, Canary Wharf …

and Tower Bridge …

The Shard is framed by the Witch’s Hat (the London Underwriting Centre) and the Walkie Talkie …

Down below a massive development takes place behind some preserved facades …

The roof is, of course, a garden as well as an observation point and the plants will eventually grow to form a pergola …

Many congratulations to insurer Generali and their architects Eric Parry for this stunning development and for making it so accessible.

Let’s not forget, however, the other great free view that can be enjoyed on the roof at One New Change (EC4M 9AF). Interesting views of St Paul’s start in the lift …

And continue on the roof …

The panorama includes the new apartments at Blackfriars, the Oxo Tower, the London Eye, the Unilever Building and the spire of St Augustine with St Faith (now part of St Paul’s Cathedral School) …

Both roofs are usually nowhere near as busy as you might expect.

Pebbles the cat … and other Underground surprises

High up on a tiled pillar in Barbican Underground Station is this poignant memorial …

For many years Pebbles was a favourite of staff and passengers, often sleeping soundly on top of the exit barriers despite the rush hour pandemonium going on around him. Here is a picture from the wonderfully named Purr’n’Fur website, a great source for moggie-related stories …

Clearly he was greatly missed when he died, as the plaque faithfully records, on 26th May 1997. This was doubly sad because he was due to be given a Lifetime Achievement Award. This was sponsored by Spillers Pet Foods and named after Arthur, a cat they used in their advertising who, I seem to remember, ate with his paws. The Certificate that came with the award is also displayed (the co-winner, the aptly named Barbie, was Pebbles’ companion) …

Pebbles’ posthumous award.

As I walked down the stairs to see the plaque I noticed that everything looks sadly tatty. However, just imagine these tiles when they were newly fitted before the War, with their geometric patterns leading you down to the Ticket Office …

And how wonderful, the Office window is still there, although instead of a helpful Ticket Clerk there is a poster. I reckon those lovely brass fittings and the counter date from the early 1930s. The pattern on the tiles continues down here as well – such thoughtful design …

The station, originally called Aldersgate Street, was opened on 23 December 1865 and had a large glazed roof which allowed light down to the platform. Here it is in 1936 …

The roof was removed in 1955 but you can still see the supporting brackets …

John Betjeman wrote about the roof’s dismantling, calling the work Monody on the death of Aldersgate Street Station

Snow falls in the buffet of Aldersgate station,
Soot hangs in the tunnel in clouds of steam.
City of London! before the next desecration
Let your steepled forest of churches be my theme.

Barbican station holds the unenviable distinction as the scene of the tube network’s first ever passenger disaster. On 16 December 1866 three passengers were killed and a guard was seriously injured when a girder collapsed onto a passenger train in the station. The newspapers reported that service on the line was running again only 30 minutes after the accident.

Look out for the old parish boundary marker dated 1868 on the eastbound platform …

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I have written in more detail about boundary markers in an earlier blog which you can find here. If you want to read more about the railways in the area, there is a great blog on the subject called Reconnections with useful maps and interesting pictures.

Onward now to the refurbished Farringdon Station. On climbing the stairs from the platform you can admire the original 19th century roof supports …

Just before exiting through the barriers I spotted some nice old stained glass windows. I had never noticed them before, it just shows what you can come across if you have time to dawdle …

I had as my guide a book by the brilliant Underground historian Antony Badsey-Ellis – Underground Heritage. He tells us that many Metropolitan Railway stations were modernised between 1914 and 1931 and the house style employed at what is now Farringdon Station was by Charles W Clarke …

The only decoration on the friezes was the diamond motif used by the railway …

It’s been reproduced as a heritage sign at Moorgate ..

And here it is again at Aldgate …

In the lobby is a beautifully maintained memorial to the seven people killed at Aldgate in the terrorist attacks on 7 July 2005 …

There is also a plaque commemorating the Queen’s visit in 2010 …

The tiles at Aldgate are very pretty and often include the Metropolitan Railway diamond …

And it’s nice to see some original platform signage from the 1930s (with original roof supports in the background) …

And finally, a ghost station …

You can still see the old entrance to Mark Lane tube station next to the All Bar One, just as Byward Street becomes Tower Hill. It closed on 4 February 1967 and was replaced by the nearby Tower Hill station. The entrance (through the arch on the left of the steps) now leads to a pedestrian subway …

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