Up here, where rare gale-force winds can make the wooden doors and windows creak eerily as the brutalist concrete tower shifts to and fro, all London is laid out like a glittering carpet, taking in the Shard in one direction and the Eye in the other: as magnificent and breathtaking a sight as you are ever likely to see.
The Barbican estate is rightly recognised today as one of Britain’s most exciting and ambitious housing projects, which is why the entire place was listed Grade II in 2001.
This area, just outside the city wall, is steeped in history. The word Barbecana, meaning guarded gatehouse, is Latin. The area was flattened during the Blitz, leaving Cripplegate with only 48 residents.
In 1957, the Corporation of London commissioned modernist architects Chamberlin, Powell and Bon to design a new part of town on the 40-acre plot, “with everything people need”, says Holland.
In a Utopian vision, the pedestrian site was set far above the traffic. As well as housing blocks, there would be three towers, eight acres of gardens, and the largest arts complex in Europe.
Built between 1965 and 1976, Barbican has 2,014 flats and about 4,000 residents. At first only to rent through the corporation, in the Eighties many flats were sold under right-to-buy, and are now privately owned.
Holland, 45, who designed interiors with artist Grayson Perry for A House for Essex, a holiday rental property built as part of philosopher Alain de Botton’s Living Architecture project, is currently working on several housing projects in and around London.
He and his writer wife, Jenny, moved to Barbican two years ago with their children, Baxter, five, and three-year-old Nancy. But they hadn’t planned to live in what was once the tallest residential tower in Europe.
“We were in a flat in Stoke Newington and looking for a three-bedroom house to buy,” says Holland, who has a 12-year-old daughter from a previous relationship. “But there were none we could afford.
“I had a friend living in this flat and when he said he was leaving, my wife wrestled him to the floor and removed the keys from his pocket.”
The three-bedroom flat, which has a balcony running round two sides, was one of the few still let by the Corporation, and the Hollands were able to lease it.
Like the majority of Barbican flats, most of the interior, including door handles and the two plain white bathrooms, is original. The galley kitchen, however, once all white melamine, was redone in stained timber, probably as a DIY job in the late Seventies, and there are “three too many doors”, Holland says. These are the only things he wants to change, including putting a bright yellow rubber floor in the kitchen — although, he explains, most things removed from Barbican flats have to go into storage, under English Heritage’s keen eye.
The Hollands’ interior design concentrates on an eclectic mix of bright, modern collectables, from a giant French yellow floor lamp to an amazing mirror, to the “PY” half of a lit-up sign that once graced Faversham’s Wimpy bar, and a retro-looking bookcase with yellow Perspex door slides, made by a joiner friend.
The Seventies classic wallpaper in the hall, printed in bright orange, is a perfect foil for framed posters of the same epoch. The flat is colourful, cheery, and full of ever-changing light.
“It’s nice being somewhere so well designed. We’ve all lived in poorly converted Victorian houses, where everything is as cheap as chips and then you spend your life running up and down stairs. Very few flats compare with this in terms of quality — it is refreshing.
“It’s incredibly well made, and we never hear anything from next door. It is a lot more difficult to annoy your neighbours here than anywhere else I have lived. You couldn’t be any more in London. It has made me love being in the city again. It’s easy to walk everywhere.
"In places like Stoke Newington, when it takes three hours to get anywhere, it becomes your bit of London. But from here we can stroll to St Paul’s or Smithfield, or wherever. The City is a lovely place to walk around at weekends, it is empty, and has really good architecture. John Soane, Rem Koolhaas, Edwin Lutyens, James Stirling — they’re all just a few metres away, and there is a nice park.
“The Barbican should be revisited. In the UK we have become unambitious and incredibly conservative about what a house actually is. The Barbican is an amazing place to bring up a family, there’s lots of freedom and space — this is a really nice way to live.”
- Charles Holland is partner, with Elly Ward, at www.ordinaryarchitecture.co.uk
GET THE LOOK
- The strong blue paint used in the flat, Rock-a-Billy Blue from the Crown Vintage range, is discontinued. Check www.crownpaints.co.uk for an alternative
- Yellow Signal floor lamp by Jieldé in breakfast room: from www.madeindesign.co.uk or www.hollowaysofludlow.com
- Tulip Eero Saarinen chairs, and table in breakfast room: from www.conranshop.co.uk — or try eBay (www.ebay.co.uk)
- Cast aluminium head, a maquette for A House for Essex: cast by www.millimetre.uk.net
- Gilded MDF fractured mirror: from the Decora range at www.deknudtmirrors.com
- Table, sprayed pink: bought on eBay (www.ebay.co.uk)
- Shelving unit: made by joiner/builder Paul Rigo (07980 235239)
- Anni Albers “De Stijl” reissue carpet: www.twentytwentyone.com
- Lavaliers (1975) wallpaper in hall: by www.littlegreene.com
- Any “WIM” sign enquiries to Charles Holland, as before