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The Barbican, reborn

The stellar refurbishment of the Barbican’s Brutalist fourth tower proves that you can go back to the future, without creating something hackneyed or ersatz

Central London new developments generally don’t come with an iconic Grade II-listed building, mature gardens the size of a small park, ponds complete with ducklings, secure parking and cycle clubs, storage facilities, gyms, schools, crèches, a restaurant – oh, and Europe’s largest arts and cultural centre, on your doorstep. But then it would be hard to find anywhere quite like the Barbican.

This Brutalist Sixties development (which actually wasn’t finally completed until 1982) has come full-circle, as a new appreciation for the raw, bush-hammered concrete walls, industrial-chic Crittall doors and Mad Men-style architecture is back in vogue, and large-scale community-led developments have finally been recognised as the building model to strive for. As resident and architect Dave King says, “The Barbican’s architecture is ageless, generous and robust. But what you appreciate when you live here is how peaceful it is, even though you are in a crowded city.”

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He’s right; as I visited on a sunny day last week, one resident was running the organic food shop on site, another gave us a friendly hello as he held open the garden gate, and several people were quietly enjoying the gardens, while others were actively getting their hands dirty in the wildlife garden. A flyer advertises a garden tour and talk by one of the estate’s oldest residents coming up soon. “If you want it, there is a really thriving community here that you can be part of,” says Tina Evans, group director at Frank Harris estate agent, who has been based on the Barbican estate for 16 years. With a community of 4,000 people, the Barbican is practically an urban village within the City of London.

“Some residents have been here since the beginning, and others move around trading up and down as there is such a diverse mix of housing here,” explains Evans. “Once people move in, they rarely move out, which is why the new flats are so exciting.”

The bespoke designed kitchens by Conran + Partners
The bespoke designed kitchens by Conran + Partners

The flats she’s talking about are in Blake Tower, the only tower that is not yet a residential building. The former YMCA building on Fann Street has been empty since the last students moved out in 2012, but now developer Redrow is in the process of gutting the insides of the 17-storey block to carve out 74 contemporary, art-inspired studios, one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments.

The original 1960s architects were the internationally renowned Chamberlain, Powell and Bon, and today it is being sensitively restored and refurbished by Harper Downie, while the interiors will be reworked by another iconic architecture and interior design studio Conran and Partners. “We’ve been inspired by the historical, architectural and cultural characteristics of the Barbican to create a fresh, exciting and crafted design that has a modern heritage,” says Simon Kincaid, project director at Conran and Partners.

The terrazo bathroom at Blake Tower
The terrazo bathroom at Blake Tower

The design is all about celebrating and complementing the existing structure and the innovative, modernist original design from the Sixties. The dramatic spaces will be showcased with clean minimalist lines and delicate brass detailing, such as the screen that will divide the living room and the curved brass door handles. “We wanted to soften the Brutalism so that it feels warm, rich and soft,” says Brook Lloyd of Conran and Partners.

“Restoring an existing building presents its own challenges,” says Neil Ventin, the Health and Safety and Public Relations manager for McAleer Rushe, who are working on the tower. “For instance, we are completely demolishing the lift shaft piece-by-piece, then it will have to be redesigned and rebuilt to modern standards and to meet modern technology.” They are currently clearing the former student digs to make way for the open plan apartments that will replace them, and while the floors, internal walls and the windows will be replaced, much of the fabric of the building is protected and will remain.

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“We are saving and restoring the original balustrades, Crittall doors and glass screens in the communal hallways, and the original concrete will be restored and revealed where it was painted over or damaged over the years,” explains Ventin.

However, working with a building of such character also brings excitement, explains Redrow’s Managing Director, “Of course it is challenging but it’s not formulaic in the way that a new-build might be. It means we can be more creative and work more with the area around us.”

That inspiration is embodying in some of the apartments’ finer details, such as bathroom basins designed to match the curve of the Barbican buildings’ balustrades, and the same terrazzo and brass elements that are used within the Barbican Arts Centre.

It has also made for much larger apartments than usual, with some one-bed flats covering 87 square metres, compared to a typical 50 metres for a regular new build.

With such care and attention it’s clear that this legendary London landmark will live on for at least another half-century, while Conran will breathe new life into the apartments without turning them into bland “new-build” show homes. It’s a rare chance to buy a piece of Britain’s architectural and design legacy – and one that comes with a whole neighbourhood and cultural playground in place, too. It’s hard to imagine a less sterile antidote to your average new-build city pad. I’m sure Chamberlain, Powell and Bon would approve.

Prices from £650,000, www.blaketower.com

ALISON TYLER

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