The Barbican is probably one of the most Marmite (love it or hate it) pieces of architecture in London.
Rising phoenix-like, although very slowly, from the ashes caused by the bombing firestorm of 29/30 December 1940, its mass dominates the north of the City of London.
The style of the external surfaces, beton brut, has been connected with the Brutalist architectural style, but often in a pejorative way. “Brutalism” has commonly garnered a negative connotation of ugliness, whereas its literal interpretation is “rough concrete”. A Grade II Listing has not helped to ameliorate the views of the detractors.
A look at a 1914 map of the Barbican area (Old Ordnance Survey Maps – The Godfrey Edition) reveals the street layout of the Ward of Cripplegate Without. That Ward still exists today, combined with Cripplegate Within to become (as one of the 25 Wards) plain Cripplegate, an administrative district within the City of London.
It is the road pattern on the map that strikes you straightaway. Most marked is Jewin Crescent. This has been suggested as being on the line of today’s Frobisher Crescent within the complex, although that conclusion looks questionable if you take the map and orientate by the pervasive St Giles Cripplegate (see below), the map putting the Crescent further west..
The Crescent marks the site of what has been described as the only permitted Jewish cemetery in England up until 1177. The Ward name alone tells us that the cemetery stood outside the old City wall. Today I still regret not having the meaning explained to me as I sang in school assembly, with bemusement: “There is a green hill far away, without a City wall.”
Switching religion, at the end of the Crescent stood the 18th c. Wesleyan Chapel, sold in the 1870s and with the receipts being passed over to the Wesleyan Chapel in City Road.
If you stand today at the bottom of Whitecross Street, your view straight down is interrupted by the entrance to the Barbican Arts Centre on Silk Street.
It didn't always look like this
Pre WW2 Whitecross Street extended down to St Giles Cripplegate. The name of the street supposedly comes from a white cross painted outside a house on the street that belonged to Holy Trinity Priory.
Dominating the area that today broadly contains the Arts Centre was the Midland Railway Goods Station and Booking Office for parcels and passengers. Nearby Barbican station of today was then called Aldersgate Station
The Church of St Giles Cripplegate is well-enough documented not to need any treatment here. The “Cripple” most probably comes from the Anglo-Saxon “crepel”, meaning a covered passageway to a watchtower or barbican, although some would look to the image of cripples begging at the gate to the old City.
New and Old
The western end of the Barbican complex also yields history. All those entering the Museum of London will have passed the Conversion Memorial of John Wesley – the Aldersgate Flame (Martin Ludlow – 1981), marking the event of what was called his “second conversion” nearby in 1738. The memorial takes the form of a simulated sheet of paper, standing on one corner with the upper corners folded over.
A tarnished flame
The final item concerns Beech Street. Local residents and workers will have witnessed the “Beech Street tunnel panic”, where a novice visitor to the Arts Centre begs for directions, the Centre not having the best reputation for accessibility.
Beech Street is an original street, pre-WW2 running east from the Golden Lane junction to Whitecross Street. The western part of today’s Beech Street was then known as.....Barbican.
For the Beech connection, we need to go up a level on to the Barbican pedway. At a point near to the bridge over Aldersgate Street stands a knarled lump of wood in a base.
Passed by and often ignored
The adjoining plaque tells us that the wood comes from Burnham Beeches, the site purchased by the Corporation of London on behalf of the nation in 1880 and the wood reclaimed after a storm in 1990. The composer Felix Mendelssohn was apparently fond of the area as a source of musical inspiration. And thus the lyrical name for the lump of wood – the Mendelssohn Tree.
The author is City of London and City of Westminster Guide, who runs walking tours in the City and in Westminster. For further information see tabs.