Isaacson at the Barbican

Isaacson appears in corduroy trousers and thick-rimmed glasses. He is younger than before, and his body is not settled in its clothes, but rather, jumps around in them. He is keen to begin the perambulation straight away. The Barbican is a Rubik’s Cube and purposefully hard to penetrate, he says. 35 acres, and much of it deserted because no one knows how to get to it. A barbican is the outer defence of a castle or city, and this place is a city in miniature. It was designed to have homes, a church, school, shops, restaurants and later, an arts centre, within its bulwarks. Its architects, Chamberlin, Powell and Bon, took the client – The Corporation of London – on a European tour to educate them for the eventual proposal: the Barbican was to echo an Italianate village in its concentric circles of bustling-life converging on piazzas. It was to separate traffic from pedestrians, and feature water, like Venice; to have long windows framing interiors, as in Amsterdam; and concrete as sophisticated as Stockholm’s. Le Corbusier’s Unité d'Habitation in Marseille was another influence: piloti and balconies, self-contained shops and educational facilities all appearing in the Barbican too. 

The towers seem sleek from certain angles

From other angles, the towers' balconies make 
them appear to have jagged teeth

So the estate is supposed to be explored on high-level pedestrian paths, accessed from one of the two tube stations, continues Isaacson, but the discreet stairs leading to them are too disguised for many. Eventually – and only relatively recently – the Barbican resigned itself to making the Silk Street vehicle entrance available for the public as pedestrians, because so many disorientated and exasperated visitors were using it.

We peer into the conservatory and Isaacson points at the theatre’s fly tower that juts out from underground. The foliage hides the tower, he says, evidence that the Barbican is not Brutalist. Whereas the National Theatre’s fly towers stand proudly exposing their function, the Barbican’s is camouflaged.  

Internal views through a raised walkway
 that overlooks the Lakeside

The building manipulates the walker, he says. The piloti that raise the flats above pedestrian level do not open space up for wandering underneath but blockade certain routes in favour of others. It is undemocratic: the flats are penthouses in the guise of soviet flats, occupied by workers of the square mile rather than the factory. Despite being Corporation of London housing, the Barbican’s flats were available at market prices from the outset, unlike subsidised estates. Under Thatcher’s right-to-buy legislation, the Barbican flats could be sold at competitive prices that have risen and risen ever since. Indeed, the whole development has always been a political and economically interested one, with half of the area’s voting constituency Barbican residents, and a large base of money and influence in constant exchange between them and the Corporation.  

Ramp with arrow-slit windows onto Aldersgate Street

Isaacson propels us into Frobisher Crescent, the sculpture court. He smiles and says look for the sculptures. There has always been some tension between the residents and the arts centre; this court could be filled with sculpture and theatrical performances, but the residents of these apartments – he indicates the ivy-draped balconies above – would be disturbed. The air-vent stairwells are like buttresses on concrete war bunkers, foreboding and aggressive. Isaacson moves west across the court. Given the context of the Cold War, a bunker aesthetic seems thoroughly in keeping with the building. And even today, the motivation to exclude outsiders – or at least confine them to a lower spatial level – is clear. Rarely are doorway entrances to the flats on a level accessible to the passer-by. While high-level walkways were a modernist vision to separate walkers from cars, plans for a network of paths across the city were never fully realised, and even the Barbican’s internal paths are difficult to navigate and isolate the walker in a zone devoid of much interaction, as well as traffic. The courts, and Ben Johnson Place beyond us, are under-visited because one rarely just ‘comes across them’. While the Barbican has private gardens too, its public spaces also feel exclusive by being unfrequented. The architects were criticised for betraying the ethics of modernism, and for putting an aesthetic façade onto apartments and penthouses of varied size and configuration, some of which even housed servants’ quarters. The private gardens are concrete versions of London’s key-holder squares. It is an absolutely conservative, and in this respect age-old, development. Indeed one might suggest, continues Isaacson, that this place is a-temporal, borrowing aesthetic and social customs from many eras and adapting them for its own convenience. Futurism is here too – in the aesthetics and scale – but it coexists with Roman, Norman, Medieval, Victorian, Modern; Isaacson counts them off his fingers and turns away. 

The semi-circle motif

Arrow-slit windows for defence and insularity

We’re above the underground concert hall here incidentally, he says, stepping from the Sculpture Court.  It was built sometime after Shakespeare Tower, and a curved concrete diaphragm had to be built with it to protect from the looming hulk above. The Curve gallery space arches around this diaphragm, he gestures down – it currently houses a flashing lineage of computer game projections, which you may or may not like to see – and is an example of the Barbican’s repeated motif: there are semicircles everywhere. The Roman, and later Medieval, Wall of London that runs through the site is semicircular, as is the Victorian railway arch. Look at the window arches built from dark brick – a distinct Victorian reference, but one that has been modernised: the arch is elongated down the façade and inverted at the bottom. Again, the degree of decoration here is decidedly non-Brutal; everything has been designed through a process of historical scavenging. Isaacson nods towards the Norman church that stands in the middle of the estate. It was the only survivor of the aerial bombings on the 29th December 1940 that flattened the area’s dense Victorian housing, printing presses and cloth factories. Chamberlin, Powell and Bon wanted to pay homage to the church in the Barbican’s detailing. Across the lakeside from one another, the arts centre’s towers reflect the church’s. The church’s ramparts snake all over the estate, and its gravestones have been embedded into the moat walls. This, I might suggest, Isaacson adds, is somewhat unsubtle, as indeed are the Victorian lampposts situated around the church. 

Graves embedded into the modern moat wall, 
and a Victorian lamppost (far left) 

We walk towards a second of the three tower blocks, under a march of concrete piloti. They’re not left the way they were cast. He runs his index finger over the rough surface. Instead they were hand-textured in situ, layers grated away to reveal the purple granite aggregate underneath. Although this technique makes the surface rougher, it is an effect, and dishonest to the manufacturing process. So the concrete and the thirty-three and thirty-four storey towers may look brutal, but this is wholly separate from the architectural term.

Béton brut

Look – he points up to the tower – from here, how jagged the façade appears. No wonder the estate is threatening as it glints dark purple on the skyline. But from other angles, the triangular towers appear both sleek and blocky in turn; they change as you circle them, and this seems to be another feature of a fortress. Ever changing, different, disorientating. The Golden Lane Estate, a little to the north of the Barbican and visible over there (Isaacson points through two blocks and out towards a more colourful building with a cap on its roof), was an earlier and far ‘easier’ development by Chamberlin, Powell and Bon. It is less disorientating, but perhaps lacks the ambition and power that goes with this place.

Golden Lane Estate visible through the piloti

Six thousand people lived on the site before it was bombed, and post-war… how many – he pauses, feet pointed outwards – about thirty-four. Redevelopment in the blitzed wasteland could take any shape it wanted, so long as it had the money and would attract residents. No wonder the Barbican needed to be a city unto itself, with such poverty and tentative rebuilding going on around it. The zoning of cities into commercial, municipal and residential areas was an idea much discussed at this time, but the danger with this type of urban planning was that it would make certain zones vulnerably empty at night. While Moorgate and Farringdon might feel quite empty today – a Saturday afternoon when all the offices are closed – the Barbican residents have all they need here – they have art, films, food and theatre. It is an oasis for them. See these openings onto Aldersgate Street? They resemble the arrow-slits of a castle, while the sloping ramp steers us inwards on ourselves, turning us in on the internal circuit of Barbican views. 

Futuristic garden pods for residents

The semi-circle motif elongated and 
inverted to reveal interior tableaus

Victorian railway arch inspiration

Over beyond the ruined remains of the Wall of London, Isaacson points, you see that dark and entirely functionalist tower? That is one of the commercial towers Chamberlin, Powell and Bon built. And that is more Brutalist – no decoration, just béton brut. But this place, this is a hybrid. A couple of decades ago golden statues and other such design features were introduced to the estate during a revamp, but most have been removed by now – brushed under the ramps to be forgotten, as it were. More recently the centre has undergone another rebranding, with large orange signage and a ramp wider and brasher than all the others, connecting Silk Street to the Lakeside. But other than that – Isaacson turns, hands slipping into his pockets – other than that, nothing much changes. Money, flats and cultural currencies circulate, if you’ll excuse my pun, and we circulate, get lost, buy a coffee, get lost again, find ourselves swept to the Lakeside or down to the cloakrooms, and finally flowing like water on a viaduct, out into the city.

Chamberlin, Powell and Bon’s commercial tower, 
south of the Barbican

Despite their often sceptical reception, Isaacson's anachronistic fabrications continue appearing either by themselves or woven into existing films, books, archives and personal testimonies. Thus far, they have evaded attempts at geographical and temporal location. It is not known how many examples there are of Isaacson at work, and there is some speculation as to whether, following the advent of the Internet, his fabrications have multiplied further still.