The Barbican is a 40-acre residential, arts, and cultural complex in the City of London.
It contains the Barbican Estate, the Barbican Centre, the City of London School for Girls, the Museum of London, and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. It includes three of London’s tallest buildings: Cromwell, Shakespeare and Lauderdale towers, which measure 123 metres (403 feet) each.
The Barbican was built by the Corporation of London after the Second World War. It was Europe’s largest reconstruction project and a symbol of the new London arising from the destruction of the old.
Before the Second World War, the area where the Barbican now stands was a maze of small streets and warehouses. It was occupied largely by the ‘rag trade’, firms related to the buying and selling of cloth. The first bombs fell there, in Cripplegate, in August 1940. Then, during a single night of incendiary bombing on 29 December, every street between Moorgate and Aldersgate was destroyed.
The Corporation of London chose this area to reconstruct as a new, modern City quarter. It was to include office blocks, an arts centre, a museum, and housing. It was to incorporate new ideas about cities: for example, by building ‘pedways’, or pedestrian walkways, to separate pedestrians from cars.
Housing was important. The City wanted to reverse the downward trend of its population. In 1851, 1,287,000 people lived in the City, including 14,000 in Cripplegate. A century later, the City had only 5,324 residents, only 48 of whom lived in Cripplegate.
The architects overseeing the development were Chamberlain, Powell and Bon. The master plan for the district was drawn up in the late 1950s. Construction began in 1963. The first buildings to appear were office blocks on London Wall, followed by the residential terrace blocks and towers. These were officially opened in 1969, but not completed until 1975. By the end of the 20th century, the estate was home to around 4,000 people living in 2,014 flats.
The Museum of London opened in 1976 at the southwest corner of the site. The Barbican Centre was built at the northeast corner. Construction began in 1971. It was opened by Her Majesty the Queen on 3 March 1982, and she described it as ‘one of the wonders of the modern world’.
Under one roof are a concert hall, two theatres, three cinemas, two art galleries, a conservatory and public library, as well as three restaurants, private function rooms, conference suites, two exhibition halls and the Guildhall School of Music & Drama. By the end of 2005, almost 27 million patrons had visited the Barbican Centre to attend over 52,000 events.
All the Barbican’s buildings are designed in a bold, modernist architectural style. The development expressed optimistic, post-war ideas about London’s future. In 2001, the estate was ‘listed’ in recognition of its historical and architectural importance.