diamond geezer

 Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Random 'borough' (10): City of London (part 3)

Somewhere random: the Barbican estate
Every time I visit the Barbican I try ever so hard not to get lost, and every time I fail. I'm sure the 1950s architects didn't mean for their concrete community to be quite so impenetrable, quite the opposite in fact, but somehow the walkways and stairwells create an illogical labyrinth that even Theseus might have found tricky to navigate around. Getting into the estate in the first place isn't easy - there are only a few 'gates' around the perimeter of the site, most of these cunningly disguised as uninviting stairwells. To move from place to place you have to follow long concrete walkways six metres above the ground, which pass around and beneath various identikit apartment blocks. The famous Barbican 'yellow line' is painted on the floor for you to follow [photo], but it leads you on without ever explicitly stating where you might be heading. There are signs everywhere, but your final destination tends to remain tantalisingly out of reach. I love the place.

The Barbican estate was constructed in the 1960s and 70s to reclaim one of the most heavily bombed parts of the City. Arguments had raged for years as to exactly what to do with the site, with all proposals having to combine maximum open space with maximum accommodation. The final solution was a collection of tower and terrace blocks, raised up on concrete stilts surrounding a central lake and gardens. There are precisely 2014 flats here, in a variety of shapes and sizes from studio to penthouse - most minimalist but all modernist. I looked into renting a flat here when I first moved to London, but only for a couple of minutes once I'd discovered the price. If you want to know what it's like to live here or to find out more about the history of the place, then I can heartily recommend the Barbican Living website for a fascinatingly in-depth read. Check out the multitude of side menus for maximum information. What do the kitchens look like? What's it like living at the top of Shakespeare Tower? Which blocks get the most sunshine? It's all there.

There's plenty for the casual visitor to enjoy around the Barbican, even if you never quite know where or what you might stumble upon next. The church in the middle comes as a bit of a shock on your first visit [photo]. Look, there are jagged relics of the old City Wall beside the southern lake, and even the last semi-circular remnants of a defensive tower [photo]. Rows of parallel balconies drip with colourful hanging plants [photo]. On closer inspection a large leaking pipe turns out to be a gutter-shaped waterfall [photo]. And something I'd never seen before and was amazed to discover - there's a vast glass conservatory here filled with tropical plants (alas only open for visitors on Sunday afternoons) [photo].

And then, of course, there's the famous Barbican Arts Centre [photo]. If you thought finding your way around outside was difficult, somehow this feels harder. You probably won't enter on the level you require and so may end up in the art gallery, cinema or library by mistake. Where are the stairs to get you from up here to just down there? It's not always obvious. An innocent looking corridor may turn out to be a long curving exhibition space. Trying to negotiate your way to the toilets during a concert interval requires time, and maybe a compass. And yet there's a bold simplicity to the entire design, complete with sweeping surfaces and chunky graphics [photo], and the split-level foyers sort of make sense eventually. There's always an intriguing selection of events being staged here too, which the estate's residents are fortunate enough to have on their doorstep. But you probably couldn't afford to live here, not least because of the exorbitant service charges, so you'll have to make do with the occasional visit. Good luck finding your way out.
by tube: Barbican, Moorgate  by bus: 153

Somewhere historic: London Wall
I was spoilt for choice when searching for historic sites in the City of London. The whole place is built on history, two millennia of the stuff, so it's hard to miss. I decided to head for the structure which defined the perimeter of the City from its earliest days - the London Wall. This defensive fortification has long outlived Roman London, but over the centuries most of its stone has either crumbled or been nicked for use in buildings elsewhere. Just three main fragments remain - on Tower Hill, in the grounds of the Barbican and close to the Museum of London. I made tracks to the latter.

These photographs show what's left of London's Roman Wall along Noble Street - a few chunks of stonework rising up from a shallow grassy moat. It's not much to see really, more fascinating for what it is than for how it looks. But what's that non-Roman structure in the background? It's one of EC2's newest office blocks - onelondonwall - that's what. The lettings brochure describes this as "a new City landmark that simultaneously complements and eclipses its neighbours" but it's really just another pretentious pile of steel and glass squeezed into a recently-demolished corner plot. Apparently this Foster-designed building "sits naturally on the 2,000-year-old London Wall, effortlessly blending into its historic environment". Bollocks it does. A metal staircase emerges from the basement a few inches behind the old Roman wall, instantly detracting from the unique nature of this ancient site. Blocks of white Portland Stone protrude from the main building like a set of modern Lego bricks. A nasty low ornamental wall (complete with birdbaths), of the type that Essex garden centres churn out in their hundreds, has been erected inbetween two Roman segments. And, most hideous of all, someone's dumped a metal footbridge across the moat so that corporate delegates attending functions in the ground floor suites can walk out onto the grass for a fag and a natter. This latter monstrosity belongs not to the new offices but to one of the Livery Companies whose hall has been updated and upgraded on the site. Of all the 107 Guilds, this DIY nightmare can only be the fault of the Plasterers. Bosh bosh wallop. What price history, eh?
by tube: Barbican  by bus: 100

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