The Barbican: London’s ugliest building?

by Dave Allan-Petale

The City of London is a surreal mixture of very old and very new. The grave of the diarist Samuel Pepys sits in the shadow of office blocks with windows that reflect a silhouette of The Shard –  the tallest building in Europe brand spanking new to the London skyline. 

But possibly the weirdest place in London is the Barbican  –  a concrete ziggurut surrounded by flats exploding out of the clutter. It’s well worth a visit because it is so different to the rest of London – the first time I went I was thunderstruck. Is it beautiful or ugly? Futuristic or ancient? What the hell is it for?

The flats are very expensive and highly sought after - there is a waiting list stretching on for years

The main courtyard of the Barbican Estate

The Barbican Centre opened in 1982 as a peforming arts centre; its main hall is the home of the London Symphony Orchestra and the BBC Symphony Orchestra and there are exhibition spaces for art and dance performances.

Lots of people live there as well. The Barbican Estate has towers of flats forming a wall around the centre that is built in the same brutalist style – soaring panels of concrete, glass and wood – making the whole place feel like the set of a bad 1960s sci-fi movie. But it’s a popular place to live and it’s said the waiting list is so long for a flat you’ll be waiting for someone to die before you’ll even get a chance of getting on it.

The Barbican is surrounded by office blocks and is a very popular spot for lunch

The Barbican is surrounded by office blocks and is a very popular spot for lunch

But the Barbican has its haters. It was voted London’s ugliest building in a poll in 2003 and remains a controversial addition to London’s streets.

But I really like it. The design reminds me of the ‘cities of tomorrow’ that I used to read about in primary school and whenever I go there I feel very relaxed. The use of plants and water gives the place a bit of an organic feel, even though its all hard lines, sharp edges and concrete. The interior of the Barbican Centre is even cooler – like something a James Bond villain would build in an active volcano.

'Ah Mr Bond, you have discovered our hideout...'

‘Ah Mr Bond, you have discovered our hideout…’

There is always something to see and do at the Barbican and I particularly love its library. I’ve spent many happy hours trawling through its massive collection of books and films and there is even a music section where you can listen to records and take out sheet music. There are also restaurants and a huge conservatory filled with exotic plants.

So is the Barbican ugly? I say no. I don’t think its beautiful either, but I do think it’s interesting and I’d recommend a visit so you can make up your own mind.

What you need to know

Getting there: The centre has its own tube stop, Barbican, on the Circle, Hammersmith & City and Metropolitan lines. You can also get there from Farringdon tube, and there are buses that stop nearby as well.

Cost: Entry to the estate, the centre and its libraries is free but you will need to pay for tickets to see a show.

When to go: Any time, though a clear day is best if you want to explore the grounds.

barbican tower