The Barbican Estate is one of London’s most famous pieces of architecture. It is one of the largest brutalist builds in the world, but the structure is contrasted with an ample central outdoor space with plenty of greenery and water features. It houses more than 4,000 people spread across more than 2,000 flats with a school, a church, a library, and shops located within the estate, providing a sense of a private utopia away from the everyday hustle and bustle of London City. The Barbican is an icon of brutalist architecture across the globe. Yet, it slightly differs from the typically aggressive nature of brutalism, with its landscape design incorporating bright vegetation all over the project to ensure a more peaceful experience for the residents.

What The Barbican Was Made For

Designed by three young architects, Peter Chamberlin, Geoffry Powell and Christoph Bon, after the Second World War devastated the City of London. The design for the estate began in the 1950s when the city was undergoing a significant housing crisis. After 11 years of construction, The Barbican was finally opened by the late Queen Elizabeth in 1982. Bombs once decimated the site where the Barbican stands during the blitz of World War II amongst millions of homes that were destroyed by the bombing, and ‘One of every six Londoners was made homeless’ (Britannica, 2024). The City of London urgently needed a mass of new houses to relocate all those who were made homeless by the bombing. On top of this, when soldiers finally came home and reunited with loved ones, it instigated the baby boom, which introduced thousands of new young families looking for a home – London needed to act fast.

The Barbican Estate by Chamberlin, Powell and Bon Architects-Sheet1
photograph of the middle tower of the Barbican_©Samuel Littlewood

Initially created to solve the housing problem, the Barbican aimed to offer a car-free domain for visitors to explore on foot peacefully. In this period, the local planning committee released a new ratio rule that dictated how much the building could cover the plot given. With such constraints and high pressure to meet standards, Chamberlin, Powell and Bon could have let this take over the design, but instead, this allowed them to flourish and produce a harmonious escape from busy city life. The estate comprises three tall 43-storey volumes along the north façade and a series of 7-storey volumes encasing the rich outdoor space almost like a protective shield (Image  1). 

What the Barbican Represents

The Barbican represents what this country can achieve when faced with adversity. The architects took a site that was painfully destroyed and lost many lives, turning it into a concrete oasis. The ruins of the Great Wall of London still lay within the site, reminding London of where it came from in a triumphant way instead of a way that invites longing for what was lost. The Barbican symbolises a new movement, like a statue, which sets a current trend in stone that can last for hundreds of years. It was one of the significant structures that made brutalist architecture renowned whilst setting new brutalism standards. The distinction between the monolithic structure and the charming garden paved the way for a new era of brutalism with vibrant colours and greenery hung like ribbon (Image  2). 

The Barbican Estate by Chamberlin, Powell and Bon Architects-Sheet2
photograph of vegetation within the Barbican exterior_©Samuel Littlewood

The Barbican stands true on its own against the norm of London. In the 21st century, central London is densely packed with fully glazed skyscrapers with steel frames and little greenery incorporated. London has large chunks of green parks, but the vegetation Is not integrated throughout the city streets. The volumes of the Barbican erected over the outdoor spaces like the curtain wall of a castle, creating a unique environment for guests where the noisy roads abruptly go silent, the busy streets suddenly feel empty, and the air feels fresh, just as if they were transported to a village in the countryside. 

Brutalist Construction

‘Chamberlin, Powell and Bon never explicitly called themselves brutalists’ (Astbury, 2024); they admired various artistic styles and never initially planned for the Barbican to result in such a brutalist structure. As the estate was built for council matters, many essential opinions may have kept changing the architect’s ideas. For instance, the architects originally wanted the Barbican terraces to be finished with white marble, but the council turned it down. The famous finish was eventually decided to be bush-hammered concrete (Image  3) handmade by labourers suspended from the soaring buildings. 

The Barbican Estate by Chamberlin, Powell and Bon Architects-Sheet3
photograph of the finished materials of the Barbican_©Samuel Littlewood
The Barbican Estate by Chamberlin, Powell and Bon Architects-Sheet4
photograph of the Barbican Conservatory_©Samuel Littlewood

Compared to brutalism’s founding father, Le Corbusier, the Barbican introduces curved and circular shapes into the landscaping of the outdoor space creating a more organic environment as opposed to the forced direct structures of typical brutalism. The site also includes the famous Barbican Conservatory (Image  4), comprising a range of tropical trees and plants, reminding guests of a warm, bright tropical location that breaks the usual language of grey and rainy brutalism. The project, as a whole, was designed to benefit a broad audience; the architects had said they imagined it more for a neighbourhood rather than an apartment block (Astbury, 2024). This idea is why the architects created such intricate pathways around the village, ranging in height, angles and openness, creating what is now considered a maze. Although this journey is fully encased in raw concrete, it brings visitors through many scenes with tropical trees and brightly dyed ponds that stray far from conventional brutalism. Chamberlin, Powell and Bon were not afraid to start something new, even with all the constraints of technology from the 50s, strict supervision, and tight ideas on what brutalism should be; they prevailed by creating a new dimension within the city. They made a safe space for people to forget societal norms and reminded them that breaking that strict boundary they had set in their minds would be the best thing they had ever done.  


Astbury, J (2024). Everything You Wanted to Know About Barbican Architecture. [online]. Available at: 

Britannica (2024). The Blitz. [online]. Available at:

Calder, B. (2016). Raw Concrete, The Beauty of Brutalism.  London: Penguin Publications.

City of London (2023). Barbican Estate History. [online]. Available at:,II%2Dlisted%20in%20September%202001

Frearson, A (2014). Brutalist Buildings: Barbican Estate by Chamberlin, Powell and Bon. [online]. Available at:


Image  1 – Littlewood, S. (2022). Middle Tower of the Barbican. [Photograph]. 

Image  2 – Littlewood, S. (2024). Vegetation Within the Barbican Exterior. [Photograph]

Image  3 – Littlewood, S. (2024). Finished Materials of the Barbican. [Photograph]

Image  4 – Littlewood, S. (2022). The Barbican Conservatory. [Photograph]