Rising from one of the largest bombsites in London, the Barbican Estate is a post-war rebuilding project that intended to repopulate the Square Mile. Most modernists attempted to render the past obsolete; however, the architectural firm made a feature out of the ruins upon which they built. This suggests the Barbican, and perhaps the concept of modernism itself, is contingent on that which precedes it. As such, this essay will explore the Barbican’s ambivalent relationship with time, ruination and empire in order to decide whether it deserves its reputation as one of the most radical rebuilds of the twentieth-century.
Peter Ackroyd explains how Londoners thought they were witnessing the imminent destruction of their city when, in the first days of the Blitz, they saw ‘ranks of German bombers advancing without being hindered by anti-aircraft fire’. Witnessing the air raids on London, T. S. Eliot wrote in ‘The Dry Salvages’ that ‘Time the destroyer is [also] time the preserver’. His meditation on the persistence of the eternal during the apocalyptic unintentionally coincided with the excavation of part of the ancient London Wall by the bombing of Cripplegate. Whilst Eliot may not have been present at this exact moment, one might imagine that the unearthing of the built legacy of Britain under foreign occupation would have left many Londoners afraid for their city’s future. Ruins are not just ancient artefacts but frames through which one must contemplate their own condition. The re-emergence of the London Wall occasioned a sort of imperial anagnorisis: within the ruins the British recognised the impermanence of their own empire.
It is something of an oversight to suggest building the Barbican out of a bombsite is like an artist working from a blank canvas. Accommodating the traces of Britain under colonial occupation triggered anxiety about the future of its sovereignty; the bombsite is, therefore, more analogous to a palimpsest than a tabula rasa. Palimpsests reveal the layers of history preserved within them in the same way that the modernist poem does. Eliot’s The Waste Land, for example, cannot assert its experimental modernist form without intertextual reference. Just as the preservation of Roman ruins within the Barbican Estate leaves us with an uncanny prescience of empirical decline, the anachronistic nursery rhyme at the end of The Waste Land fills us with dread at the thought of a city on the brink of collapse: ‘London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down’.
The Barbican’s militaristic references make one think that its architects felt the coherence of their build might be threatened by the re-emergence of the past. While the Estate’s unintuitive thresholds and hidden entrances render it impenetrable from the outside, its raised walkways are built straight like Roman roads as if in anticipation of the enemy from within (see Appendix, Fig. 1). Details from medieval castles are made reference to: the saw-tooth rhythm of the blocks’ profiles and the arrow-slit openings recall balistraria (see Appendix, Figs. 2 and 3), while atop Gilbert Bridge one imagines they might be crossing a moat. Brutalism, according to Jonathan Glancey, ‘owed something to Nazi gun emplacements built along the Atlantic coast of France [and] the flak towers in Hamburg and Vienna’. Towering over the remains of the London Wall, the Barbican’s imposing walls and concrete building material bolster it against an uncertain future.
The site of deep ambivalence, ruins are exhibited as spectacles of persistence but feared like a spectral presence. Although they seem incongruous against London’s glass skyscrapers, within their context the Barbican’s three tower blocks appear as replicas of the ancient watchtower of the church of St Giles Cripplegate. Thought to have its origins in the eleventh-century, it is one of the only churches to have withstood the Great Fire of London and, although the main body of the church was damaged during the Blitz, its stone watchtower remains just as it was when built in 1394. While the concrete skyscrapers are something of a contradiction in terms, one understands the architects’ concern for their durability; they are engineered to be structurally resilient to the gravitational pull of an uncertain future, ensuring the forty-storey flats preside over the city for as long as the church’s watchtower has. Even the texture of the concrete persuades us of its resillience: bomb damage is hand-drilled into the walls as if they have already survived in an air raid (see Appendix, Fig. 4).
History repeats itself, and the three-dimensional city of the future must be built with this knowledge. It is a fact of structural engineering that the taller the tower, the deeper its foundations must be. The Barbican’s reputation as a radical post-war rebuild largely originates from being the pioneer of the methods and materials it uses. However, building upwards requires a backwards glance at the layers of history into which it is necessary to excavate. The project’s reputation as having broken from the past is largely misleading: the past is the very substance it is made out of.
 Peter Ackroyd, London: The Biography (London: Random House, 2005), p. 783.
 Eliot composed this part of The Four Quartets in December 1940 during the Blitz. Peter Ackroyd, T. S. Eliot (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1984), p. 262.
 T.S. Eliot, ‘The Dry Salvages’ (1941), in T.S. Eliot: Collected Poems 1909-1962 (London: Faber and Faber, 1974), pp. 191-200, p. 196.
 Ackroyd notes that having been ‘hidden for many hundreds of years, [the London Wall] was uncovered by the bombing of Cripplegate’. Ackroyd, London: The Biography, p. 745.
 This remark takes its cue from Julia Hell’s ‘Imperial Ruin Gazers, or Why Did Scipio Weep?’, in Ruins of Modernity, ed. by Julia Hell and Andreas Schönle (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), pp. 169-192.
 T. S. Eliot, ‘The Waste Land’, in The Annotated Waste Land with Eliot’s Contemporary Prose, ed. by Lawrence Rainey, 2nd edition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), pp. 57-74, p. 70.
 Jonathan Glancey, ‘Why Brutal is Beautiful’, <http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20140828-why-brutal-is-beautiful> [accessed 9 November].
Photo: Drilling into the concrete. Anon., A construction worker hand-drills the textured effect on the Foyer walls. [Photograph]. (The Barbican, London: 1979).