Landmarks: The Barbican

Sunday, January 28, 2018

In general English usage a barbican (note the indefinite article and lack of capital B) is the defensive bit above the gatehouse of a castle or walled city. In general London usage, the Barbican (with definite article and capital B) is a massive and mostly impenetrable concrete complex comprising 38 acres of residential apartments, cinemas, restaurants, schools, galleries, theatres, gardens, lakes, fountains, and parking garages, along with two concert halls, assorted shops, a museum, a library, a church, two tube stations, a conservatory, a school of music and drama, two kindergartens, a pub (of course) and, at almost any hour, an uncountable number of people fruitlessly trying to find their way to or from one of the above.

A small part of the Barbican

The Barbican is located in the City of London. Again, capital letters play an important role here, differentiating the City of London (note the capital C) - the independent county comprising the square mile of central London most famously home to the UK’s financial and banking sector - from the city of London (no capital C) - which is the metropolis of Greater London and completely surrounds the City of London. (I think we’ve been through this before, so surely any Astute Go Stay Work Play Reader understands this distinction by now.) The area of the City is roughly analogous to the old Roman walled city. The Barbican itself sits just to the north and west of the old Roman city, but bits of the Roman wall are actually still visible on the estate.

Like this one.

For the first half of the 20th century the area where the Barbican now sits was mostly warehouses and other industrial sites. Then during a single night of bombing on December 29, 1940, the Luftwaffe levelled the whole neighbourhood - an area of 35 acres. For the subsequent two decades that patch of London was essentially abandoned and turned into an overgrown (and presumably rubble-strewn, slightly dangerous and very fun) playground for the local children. Health and Safety was, one presumes, not A Thing. Considering the price of real estate in London now it seems astonishing that much land was simply left empty for so long, but I suppose there was a lot of recovery to do in all sectors after the war. Still… twenty years?

When they eventually managed to formulate a plan for using the space the goal was not simply to cram it with as much housing and commercial space as possible. In fact, the aim was much loftier than that. The Barbican was meant to be a physical symbol of how London could rise again after the destruction of the war - a grand showpiece and a bold statement. The architects - Chamberlin, Powell and Bon - set out their intention to create a complete machine for living, with residents able to enjoy modern conveniences, green spaces, and services like libraries, shops, theatres and cinemas, all in a densely developed but also open, inviting highly designed ecosystem combining residential and civic functions with modern design.

Private waterfall, anyone?

Part of that modern design is the architectural style of the Barbican - it’s one of the most prominent examples of Brutalism in the UK, being constructed almost entirely from brick and concrete with exposed aggregate. Interestingly, one might assume the exposed concrete seen all over the Barbican is the actual structural material, but it’s actually a layer added after construction, dried for 21 days, and then pick-hammered by Italian stone masons to create the distinctive texture.

You can see a bit of the concrete here - above these flats that overlook the lake. Not bad!

There are even a few hidden mewses with houses that enjoy way way off-street parking and gardens.

Luckily, one of the Barbican’s 4,000 residents is also one of GSWPL’s more astute readers, and on hearing of my interest in the estate as a whole he extended an invitation for lunch and a private tour with a couple other friends one Sunday in rainy December. This was especially excellent because it meant not just a lovely lunch, but a visit inside a real Barbican flat, and a tour around the estate led by a highly knowledgeable guide in possession of the all-important resident’s key, allowing access to all kinds of places mere plebeian mortals could not presume to tread. The invitation also came accompanied by a painstakingly detailed set of directions for getting from the tube station to the exact location of the flat - no small feat in a complex that is renowned for being murderously difficult to navigate. I’m happy to report I was able to find my way with only one small back-track required.

The flat in question is on the top level of Andrewes House, one of the terrace blocks that make up the central heart of the complex. See those barrel-vaulted roofs on the left? One of those!

Did you notice that all of the window coverings in Andrewes House are white on the outward facing side? That’s not a coincidence, it’s actually a condition of residency. You’re also required to cultivate your window boxes if you’ve got them. And don’t even think about removing the carpet and installing wood floors. That’s not allowed, partly to reduce noise transmission between floors, but also partly because heating is provided by in-built electric underfloor heating can get hot enough to burn if not insulated by that layer of carpet. And don’t assume you can simply turn down the thermostat to compensate - the underfloor heating is centrally controlled to turn on overnight when electricity is cheap, meaning while it might be toasty in the morning, it can be downright chilly when you get home from work in the evening.

There are other modern conveniences in the flats that we'd take for granted right now but were, at the time, quite unusual. For instance the kitchens are open to the living and dining area and were designed by marine galley engineers to maximise what was considered to be very little space. Bathrooms featured showers - also not common for the time. Balconies are also included, with a lot of flats having one at each end, a real luxury even today. And many of the Barbican's flats are housed in giant tower blocks, once the tallest residential buildings in Europe. However, these unusual modern touches, coupled with the estate's location in the middle of a bombed out neighbourhood meant that getting people to move to the Barbican was hard work. Difficult to believe from our perspective in 2018, when a 440 square foot studio flat in one of the estate's terrace blocks goes for more than half a million quid.

The all concrete construction makes for a very solid structure but comes with some disadvantages. I knew an architect who was a big fan of Brutalism (architects are often the only champions of this style). One of the reasons he gave for his fondness is that, for an architect, it's a real challenge. When you're pouring concrete that's both the structure and the outer finish of the building, there's nowhere to hide if something goes wrong. There's no covering mistakes behind a layer of plasterboard. Everything has to be designed in from the beginning, including the wiring, so even something as (relatively) minor as a light fixture or a plug socket has the be included at the earliest stage. In the case of the Barbican this means that all the wiring and plumbing is literally set in stone. It can't be changed, and if it was installed incorrectly or breaks, there's really nothing to be done. And forget getting fibre broadband or smart electric or water meters or extra power to anywhere.

If this all seems a bit Big Brother, consider the many advantages of living in the Barbican. For instance, you’ve got London's second largest conservatory on your doorstep. (It was designed to enclose and disguise the fly tower of the theatre!) It used to be open every day, but sadly it’s now just on “selected Sundays and Bank Holidays”.

Naturally our Sunday visit was carefully timed to coincide with the conservatory’s opening hours, so we got to wander through and meet the resident turtles. It’s really lovely, and I can see why my resident guide laments no longer being able to slip in and out on a whim.

Another perquisite? Garbage collection happens every weekday. And you don’t have to schlepp your leaky rubbish bags to some sort of central depot. Each flat has a small closet near the front door with a communicating door on the outside, allowing rubbish collectors to come and collect every day without disturbing you. Post arrives in the same way, but in reverse. The estate also has a scattering of sites to take recycling and food waste, and places to handle used electronics.

And on the topic of waste collection, surely one of the most interesting quirks of the Barbican must be the infamous Garchey disposal system. Intended to eliminate those rubbish collections I mentioned, the Garchey is like a super-charged in-sink garbage disposal designed not just for wet garbage like potato peelings and coffee grounds but almost everything else except really large and bulky things. Even cans and bottles are fair game (keep in mind this was pre-recycling). With a Garchey system all that waste is put down the sink drain where it sits in a holding tank underneath. The water you run through the sink during the day collects there along with the waste. To flush the system you unstopper it and the rush of accumulated water is meant to propel everything down into a giant collection reservoir at the bottom of the building where things settle a bit before a big tanker truck comes and takes it away.

Here's a grainy cut-away of a Garchey sink.

In practice, the stink of rotten food that builds up in the holding tank meant that it had to be thoroughly cleaned ever couple of weeks, a task few relish. And these days the Garcheys often get bunged up. (Hands up anyone who’s shocked at that. Anyone? Anyone? Beuller?). In part this is because back when the system was conceived housewives were home home during the day and much more water was run through the pipes much more consistently. Also these days we flush way too many nappies and wet wipes that clog things up. (A problem for London's sewers in general.) Now a lot of the Garcheys in Barbican kitchens have been removed and capped. However, some are still in operation and the truck still comes to suck up the gunk from the remaining working units. Apparently some of the original engineers who installed them have retirement jobs cleaning out the systems that are still in use.

Another example of well-intentioned but ultimately failed design are the greenhouses. Built over a flat, leaky roof, they were, unsurprisingly, not a hit with the downstairs neighbours.

Those expanses of curved brown-ness are actually the glass walls and roof of a the greenhouse space. Also, those curves make it impossible to clean the glass. (Ok, ok, I know they're not actually IMPOSSIBLE to clean. You could, for instance, design bespoke window scrubbing drones that suction to the glass and work their way over the surface like some kind of semi-autonomous Roomba/catfish hybrids. Maybe someone should call James Dyson.)

I've alluded a few times to the notion that the Barbican can be tricky to navigate. In fact, that’s a bit like saying Hitler had a mild interest in territorial expansion. The Barbican is notoriously difficult to get through and around. This is in part due to a key architectural feature of the estate, the elevated walkways known as Highwalks. One of the big ideas about city planning at the time was to separate pedestrians from vehicle traffic, and in the Barbican this was accomplished by raising pedestrians up above street level in dedicated walkways. The plan was intended to be incorporated all over the city, though they're actually relatively rare outside the Barbican. The Highwalks also increase difficulties in navigation when it’s not immediately apparent how to get onto or off them. Then there’s the large and uncrossable ornamental lake, the randomly encountered locked gates, the uncountable number of stairwells and the miles of same-y looking rough concrete corridors, some of which curve on a wide radius making things even more disconcerting. It’s no wonder the Barbican is sometimes used as a case study in urban way-finding. (Listen to this podcast!)
"The Barbican takes the City’s ancient complexity and expands it over three dimensions – you can go up and down as well as backwards and forwards, so wandering around the Barbican becomes an adventure. Curves envelope you, towers loom, narrow pedways disappear under pedestals and re-emerge as wide walkways enlivened by beds of wild flowers.” (Source)
However despite its shortcomings, Barbican residents tend to be a loyal lot who appreciate the fantastically central location, the sense of community, the many cultural facilities, and the acres of private gardens. Sure, you've got to equip guests with flare guns so you can come rescue them when they get lost on their way back to the tube station, but who else in London can brag about being able to flush empty baked bean tins down the sink?

Off the tourist track: Water and Steam

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Happy New Year! And apologies for the disruption to our regular service. What can I say? It was Christmas, and then it was New Year’s, and boat has been obstreperous, and though I’ve been back in London for over a week following my annual pilgrimage home to Canada, I honestly couldn’t tell you what I’ve done in that time other than not blog and feel jet-laggy and go for occasional short runs and binge out on Netflix. (Which I can now stream unlimitedly to my iPad or computer because mobile data package costs in the UK are awesome. Unlike in Canada. And yes, I would like some cheese with that whine). London is mostly grey and rainy and it’s all a bit… January. I did go to the Geffrye Museum one Saturday, which has been on my list for a long time. But was mostly a disaster because it took forever to get there and then it was super crowded and a big part of it that I wanted to see was closed until the next day and now it’s closed for renovations for two years so bleah.

Instead, I spent last Sunday on a succession of buses to visit the London Museum of Water and Steam, which has also been on my list, especially since Karen and I passed it en route to Kew Gardens last summer. (Karen callously refused to stop for a quick visit but I forgive her.) So brace yourself for another blog about gears and pumps and giant machinery, in the grand GSWPL tradition, (like this and this and this from the deep archives).

Slightly boring photo, but I love the cleverness of the logo design

The Museum of Water and Steam is dedicated to restoring and maintaining no fewer than FIVE historic steam-driven beam engines, as well as housing an exhibition of the history of London’s water supply. The building itself is the former Kew Bridge Pumping Station, dating from 1838 and run at the time by the Grand Junction Waterworks Company. That warmed my heart little bit, because the water feeding the pumps when the station first opened was taken from the Paddington Arm of the Grand Junction Canal, where my little boat spends most of its time these days. Though not long after opening they switched to taking water from the Thames because it was cleaner than the canals. And if the canals then were anything like they are now I’d say that was a very wise move indeed.

The Sunday afternoon I went it was pleasingly unbusy so I got to play with all the interactive models without having to elbow some snotty eight-year-old out of the way. And I got to linger at all the other displays without feeling like I was getting in anyone’s way. This means I can now relate that, astonishingly, the first piped water came to London in 1237. And that’s not a typo. In the 13th century wooden pipes were used to bring water from Tyburn spring into London. (The first piped water to private homes was in 1528.)

Wooden pipes like this were used for centuries (60 AD to 1810 according to the plaque). GSWPL fun fact!: Wooden plumbing pipes are where we get the terms “trunk line" and “branch line" from.

Wood gave way to lead (bad idea) and then to the king of plumbing: cast iron. There were also brief dalliances with steel and cement (neither as good as cast iron) but nowadays it’s all plastic. However, just like the brick-lined Victorian sewers that still handle much of London’s waste, one of the cast iron water mains at Kew Bridge is still in use today, making it the oldest cast iron trunk main still in use in the world. Along with the pipe display, the entry hall of the museum had some fun working models of different types of water pump, going back to Roman-era technology. And there was a whole wall of cisterns and toilets accompanied by various voiceovers that mostly seemed to be about conserving water which made me feel a bit smug, considering my miserly 100 litres/week consumption on the boat.

The Wall O'Toilets

When dealing with the topic of water supply, it’s also natural to deal with the other end of the system, the removal of waste water. We here at GSWPL dealt with this topic in the critically acclaimed post Off the Tourist Track: Crossness Pumping Station, so I’ll just remind you quickly of the key points: London population boom + plumbed toilets = raw sewage in the Thames + yucky smell + cholera. Therefore: Joesph Bazalgette + huge brick sewer pipes + giant pumping stations = fresh water - cholera! Everyone got that? So the beautiful beam engines at Crossness Pumping station were for pumping sewage, whereas the ones at Kew Bridge were for pumping the fresh water supply from the Thames and then out to London.

While Thames water may have been slightly cleaner than canal water, it still wasn’t exactly pristine and healthy. This led to the introduction of the first treated public water supply in 1829, engineered by James Simpson for the Chelsea Waterworks company. He used a sand filtration system, wherein water was held in large sand-bottomed basins with the water filtering down through the sand, cleaning it of impurities. Sand filtration is still used today, though it’s ironic that Simpson thought it was the sand that does the cleaning whereas it’s actually the scummy layer of gelatinous gunk that forms on top of the sand that does all the work. That layer, amusingly called the Schmutzdecke (and I promise I am not making that up because I truly could not make up so absolutely perfect a word) is home to a bunch of bacteria and protozoa and other tiny beasties that filter out 90-99% of bacterial nastiness. Kew Bridge Pumping Station used to have acres of sand filtration pools, but now that area has been redeveloped into flats. (Full disclosure: I only wrote that paragraph so I could use the word schmutzdecke. And who could blame me?)

But enough about water treatment and on to the giant steam engines! As I mentioned, the Museum of Water and Steam is custodian of five steam powered beam engines, including two absolute monsters, the Grand Junction 90 inch and the Grand Junction 100 inch. Both are Cornish engines, meaning they’re a particular type of steam engine (developed in Cornwall, unsurprisingly) that uses the steam at a higher pressure, thus operating more efficiently and using less fuel. This was important in Cornish tin mines where the pumps were used to take water out of the mines but where coal had to be shipped in from other parts of the country, hence was used as sparingly as possible. The 90 inch and 100 inch measurements refer to the diameter of the main piston of the engine. The 100 inch is the largest surviving single cylinder beam engine in the world and the 90 inch is the largest working beam engine in the world.

It’s hard to get a good picture of the engines since they completely fill entire huge rooms. So here instead is a partial shot of the outside of the Bull Engine’s cylinder, a mere 70 inches.

And a gratuitous shot of some very nice dials.

Apparently during the restoration of the 90 inch engine in 1976 the cast of Blue Peter climbed into the cylinder housing and had a tea party under the piston. So it’s, you know, BIG. The 90 inch could pump 2142 litres of water in a single stroke and the 100 inch could move 3255 litres. Working together, with their pistons alternating and synchronised, the two great engines could pump more than 63 million litres of water in 24 hours. And the 100 inch engine operated most of its working life with a crack in the 54 ton main beam - it was repaired in place and the engine continued to operate until it was last run in steam in 1958, though that was just a demonstration - by the 1940s the steam engines were no longer used for pumping water.

After looking through the chilly engine rooms I wandered into a smaller workshop where I ran into the only museum staff I encountered. The older gentleman was dressed in a boiler suit (coveralls) (Hang on a minute… steam engines... boilers... that’s why they’re called boiler suits!) and he was engaged in some sort of building task behind temporary barricades. I struck up a conversation with him, which turned out to be the most interesting part of the visit. It turns out he wasn’t doing anything really cool like aligning grappler flanges or lubricating the Boggs-Flinder Compensator. He was just hanging something on the wall, but he was very chatty and happy to share some fun tidbits about the engines and the museum.

The workshop room. Apparently there's also a Victorian-era belt driven metal working shop were they still do work for the museum. Fantastic!!! Tragically, not open to the public. 

For instance, he told me that during World War Two (after the big pumps had been sidelined by diesel and electric units) the steam engines were still kept on standby in case of a loss of power or damage during the Blitz. Since all they required to work was fuel for the boilers, lack of power or diesel would not stop them from pumping water. Keeping the water flowing was critical during the bombing not for domestic use, but because of the constant need for water for fire fighting. To support that need, a series of diesel generators ran 24 hours a day to keep the pumps running (they didn’t end up needing the steam engines) so that even if bombing damaged water mains and water was running freely into the streets in places, there was still water available to the fire brigade.

I also got an apology because some of the engines were supposed to be running in steam - indeed that’s part of why I’d gone that day - to see the machinery in action. However, all was quiet on the West London front because the volunteers who’d been scheduled for duty had been unable to attend. This was astonishing to me - that someone might have the chance to tend and run glorious machines like that and then just not come.

Sadly, even if there had been volunteers available, the restored 90 inch engine still would have been silent because there are some small repairs needed on it that involve taking the lid off the main boiler. Apparently it’s not a difficult job, but the overhead beam they want to use to lift the lid can’t be rated for the lift. (Health and Safety, you know.) Also it’s a Grade 1 listed building so they can’t really risk damaging the building in order to repair the engine. The plan now is to create a ground-supported structure over the boiler to lift the lid, but that has to sit on the York stone flagged floor which is part of the listed building which blah blah blah… you see the problem.

And along those same lines, it’s apparently quite tricky to get insurance for a building like the Great Engine House. Ownership of the site recently passed from the developers of the nearby flats to the Kew Bridge Engines Trust, who are naturally keen to have it properly insured. However, most of the time insurance companies base insurance costs on a standard formula to do with the size and purpose of a building, and obviously in the case of historically significant one-of-a-kind buildings, that formula doesn’t really apply. So apparently they’re having to consult with the folks who run other historic sights to see what they do. (“Hello is this Stonehenge? Hi, it’s Kew Bridge Pumping Station calling. So look, if the stone circle were to burn down… what would that be insured for? Hello? Hello?”)  It was all things I’d never really considered when walk-in through a museum.

Most interesting though, was the notion that there’s room for newcomers on the team of volunteers who tend the giant steam engines. That seems like exactly the sort of thing your humble blogger might enjoy very much (other than the boiler suits possibly making my ass look fat). Someone please remind me about this when I get back to London in September.

Wait, did I say BACK to London? Yes I did. It’s time again for GSWPL to decamp to foreign climes for another big show. More on that another time. Until then, there’s really only one thing to say.