Unusual Front Gardens #6: The Hanging Gardens of The Barbican

Most people associate The Barbican with its many arts activities such as drama, dance and film. However, the area's also home to around 4,000 people in just over 2,000 flats and maisonettes. The buildings rose from the ashes of a severely WWII bombed area in central London: its architecture is a prime example of Brutalism, a post-war movement which gloried in the wonders - and the relative speed and cheapness - of concrete.

Like most rebuilding projects at the time, city planners envisaged a Utopian new world for the Barbican area. Their finalised concept is rather like a walled city within London, containing spacious raised pedestrian walkways, a lake, plus numerous 'secret' communal gardens to soften the gloomy concrete. Building work commenced in the 1960s, with much of the residential complex completed in the 1970s. The Queen officially opened the Arts Centre in 1982 and the entire complex was awarded Grade II listed status in 2001.

I don't usually go for this style of architecture, but there is something different about The Barbican. I think it must be the plentiful public open space which helps to take away the usual oppressive atmosphere which I associate with this kind of development. Until a couple of years ago my job often took me to London where I worked with people based in Gresham Street and Old Street. The Barbican is on the way from one to the other and I used to relish my walks through this area on the way to meetings. I was always struck by how most of the residents made sure they planted up their balconies with something colourful to spill and trail over them.

Even on a wet morning in December last week, that planting's still very much in evidence and brought the Hanging Gardens of Babylon to mind. This link has oodles of information if you'd like to know more about the area: including its history, architecture, gardens, and a peek inside some of the flats (aka apartments). A one bedroom flat will set you back between a quarter and half a million pounds at today's prices.

Update 28/6/2014: Today's Guardian has a fascinating feature on one of the residents and his gardening endeavours, who also refers to the "hanging gardens of Barbican".


  1. I actually quite like the Barbican - though I was convinced I wouldn't when it was being built.

    We judged it once for Britain in Bloom when, hilariously, the City of London was entered in the Village Category. Despite its area and function, the City actually has a very small resident population.

    The hanging gardens, I thought, were terrific.

    I blush to confess that I don't totally dislike the brutally concrete South Bank, either. The Royal Festival Hall is recognised as superb, but everyone is rude about the rest of it.

    Plans to cover it all over with perspex, or to knock the buildings about, are arrogant in my view. One day we may look back with nostalgia, at the era of moulded concrete. I just wish they'd green it all up a bit more than they have. And it would be quite good to pull the Shell Centre down - for all sorts of reasons!

  2. I used to live near Portsmouth, erstwhile home to the Tricorn Centre, a hulking brutalist love song to concrete. Voted most hated building in Britain by Radio 4 listeners it was demolished in 2004. It was magnificent! It had skyways and spirals and jutting edges and looked just like a crash landed space station.

    I'm glad the Barbican has been awarded listed as I'm sure those radio 4ers are plotting against it even now.

  3. Oh yes I remember the Tricorn. Crashlanded spaceship, definitely. Belonging to the Vogons, from the looks of it.

    My other all-time favourite bit of brutalist architecture has to be the shopping centre at Elephant & Castle. I was living just down the road from it when they decided to cheer it up a bit by painting it bright pink. Painful if you happened by early on a Monday morning, but otherwise kind of uplifting in a Teletubby sort of way.

  4. I too am rather fond of the Barbican hanging gardens. The architecture definitely grows on you; and the water is very soothing too. People love living there too - evidenced by their attention to their gardens - especially when they can walk to work in the city or south of the river.

  5. Nige - Village Category? That's made me chuckle. Though I suppose the planners would say it's a vindication of what they were trying to achieve...

    Bensgarden - I wonder how many of us as times go on will actually reassess this kind of architecture and say its more worthy than originally thought? Do we automatically despise all that's modern I wonder?

    CG - I used to work in Bristol's least liked building, the Bristol & West HQ - another concrete monstrosity which was the first phase of a utopian dream of a first floor shopping street which never actually materialised. It meant the ground floor and first floors had some design features such as escalators which never went anywhere because they were to link in with the other bits of the complex. The main tower block's now a Radisson hotel, my part of the office is a swanky apartment and our staff canteen is now a Thai restaurant!

    Colleen - I got that impression that people liked living there. I'll be returning there as there's not just the hanging gardens to feature...


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