Secret Spaces

Studio Powe Architecture Design Prints Essays - Barbican Life - Edward Powe

(from the spring edition of Barbican Life magazine)

I am stood on the rainwater gulley in the middle of Frobisher Crescent clapping my hands together, as if I am both cast and audience in a play which has just been performed in this colosseum-like venue. Why? Well, it’s a Saturday and the conservatory which I had ventured the short walk across podium level to visit is closed for a private event. So instead, I spend my time exploring the quirks of the Barbican. Seven years of architectural education has taught me never to waste an opportunity to stare at some bush-hammered concrete.

I’m still clapping my hands. I have discovered, during various failed expeditions to the conservatory, that if you stand in exactly the right spot, the sound resonates back at you. The louder you clap, the more impressive the echo which fills the space around you. This is, I imagine, to the incredible annoyance of all of my audience members, the residents of Frobisher sat in their living rooms trying to read the Evening Standard from the night before. But it’s hard to stop once you start.

This is not the only reason I like this spot. As I stand here clapping, I feel strangely connected to the Barbican, as if I am the sculpture standing centre stage in the sculpture park that never was. Indeed Chamberlin, Powell and Bon’s initial designs for Frobisher Crescent included a sculpture park in this very spot. The only sculptures I am surrounded by now form the fragmented circle of concrete planters, a sort of Brutalist Stonehenge.

Three women in their mid-thirties have just set down their tote bags and begun clapping with me. They are off to one side and are having some difficulty working out what’s going on. They eventually leave, their expressions portraying that mixed feeling of intense confusion and forced etiquette induced by watching a live art performance that everyone else seems to understand except you. Clearly they don’t know the secret; you have to stand exactly over the drain.

The drain I am stood on is not particularly unique, the Barbican’s sea of red tiles on the podium level is littered with them. Yet, as if by some strange coincidence, its positioning provides the perfect plinth for this live sculpture.

I have been coming to this spot so much now that the U-shape which curves around me is beginning to show itself everywhere I look. Take the barrel-vaulted roofs for example, one of the only elements of the architects’ initial plans which survived the marathon of design iterations. The Barbican, it seems, could have been a very different place; I could have been standing in an auditorium cladded in white marble, were it not for that bittersweet process of value engineering. Bittersweet only because I would have got a much better echo with the smooth marble.

The horseshoe that I stand in is only this shape because Chamberlin, Powell and Bon could not think of a better way of transitioning between the two rigid modernist grids of south and north Barbican. The crescent is itself a quirk. The northern area of the Barbican, which borrows its axial grid from the Golden Lane Estate, was a later addition to the development red line in the mid-1950s. But this U-shape has a much deeper history in the site than may be apparent at first glance.

The word ‘Barbican’ refers to the rounded double towered gate of a castle’s outer defences. The Barbican site sits in the area just outside the northern gate of what was once the Roman walled fort of ‘Londinium.’ These segments of the original fortifications, which survived the otherwise total demolition of Cripplegate during the Blitz, can be seen along the southern edge of the estate as a series of U-shaped turrets. A ‘U,’ which either intentionally or as a literary coincidence, embeds the idea of this history within the very fabric of the estate. As far as embedding goes, Chamberlin, Powell and Bon were very, very thorough.

I see this ‘U’ motif everywhere; from the red brick inverted arches at the base of the blocks facing the Thomas Moore and Speed residents’ gardens; to the portholes on the extremities of the towers; and the enormous ventilation ducts which punch through the floor of the podium level at the base of Cromwell Tower, as if steam vents on some giant concrete ship. I even had to climb through one of the damn things to get to the service riser to fix the lever action on my toilet cistern.

It’s usually about this time, around the third clap, that I begin to listen to everything else. Besides the occasional passer-by, I am entirely alone, at the very centre of one of the busiest cities in the world. This, I have discovered, is for two reasons.

The first is that whilst embodying the motifs of the estate’s development, the Barbican’s somewhat heavy-handed literal translation of this history into its design is the same feature that makes my dinner guests late. The Barbican to an outsider is a fortress, as complicated to walk through as it is to walk around, and intentionally so. Not many dare to trust their Google maps to guide them through, and those that do I watch from my balcony walking in circles as I guide them back to Silk street on the phone.

The second we can thank Hans Benno Bernoulli for, the Swiss Modernist architect and urban planner who wrote his treatise, translated as ‘Towns and the Land’ in 1946. Whilst perhaps resulting in more of a fortress than a town, Bernoulli’s principles of separating the vehicle from the pedestrian are what Chamberlin, Powell and Bon looked towards from the outset. Bernoulli, perhaps, is one of the reasons that Frobisher Crescent is not Frobisher Roundabout.

I think it’s about time that I stop clapping now, the three ladies are coming back and it’s hard to uphold my cautious scepticism of the Modernist movement when I am stood here applauding it in public.


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First published in the spring 2020 edition of Barbican Life magazine.


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