“Attitudes have been changing, and the more than 2,000 apartments at the Barbican estate (London) are now in hot demand. A three-bedroom, 1,200-square-foot apartment is on the market for $3 million, up from $1.8 million two years ago, according to real-estate agency Frank Harris and Co…
Mr. (Robert) Doe bought his three-bedroom, 32nd-floor apartment with wraparound balcony and city views for $1 million in 2003. It’s now for sale for three times that price.”, Jenny Gross, Wall Street Journal
“Did those evil U.S. mortgage lenders head over to London and inflate that housing market too? I think not.”, Mike Perry, former Chairman and CEO, IndyMac Bank
London’s ‘Ugly’ Barbican Complex Gains a New Following
Long regarded as an eyesore, the residential development is attracting fans and price premiums.
Aug. 20, 2014 11:52 a.m. ET
It has topped polls of the city’s greatest eyesores, yet the Barbican estate is now in hot demand. Dylan Thomas for The Wall Street Journal
The 40-acre former low-income housing project has, among other things, private gardens, a lake, a library, restaurants and an organic-foods shop. Gareth Gardner
The Barbican, a central London housing and arts complex, has topped polls of the city’s greatest eyesores. The 40-acre former low-income housing project is made up of gray slabs of concrete, high pedestrian walkways that wrap around soaring buildings and tall, fortresslike walls.
Yuen-Wei Chew, a 50-year-old financial consultant who lives in the complex, said that when he moved into the Barbican in 1994, it was viewed as a dreary, undesirable place to live. He says tourists have walked up and asked him: “How do you live here? It’s so ugly.”
Attitudes have been changing, and the more than 2,000 apartments at the Barbican estate are now in hot demand. A three-bedroom, 1,200-square-foot apartment is on the market for $3 million, up from $1.8 million two years ago, according to real-estate agency Frank Harris and Co. That’s a premium compared with the rest of London, where the average asking price for a three-bedroom is $2.2 million, according to U.K. online property advertising siteZoopla.
The Barbican’s residents include some of the city’s top architects, academics and bankers, who moved there partly for its prime location in the financial district. Mr. Chew’s commute is a four-minute walk.
The New York Philharmonic at the complex’s multiarts and conference venue, one of Europe’s largest. Chris Lee
Another part of the appeal, residents say, is that living at the Barbican feels more akin to life in a village than in the heart of a major metropolis. In addition to three towers, low-rises and houses, the Barbican also has private gardens, a lake, a library, restaurants, an organic-foods shop and one of Europe’s largest multiarts and conference venues. Residents have formed several social groups, including a painting club, a Tuesday tea club and a few gardening clubs. The buildings are essentially walled off from the bustling city center, and on summer days, the complex’s private lawn is dotted with people relaxing on picnic blankets.
Resident Tracey Wiles, seen here with Sienna, 8, Kade, 4, Ennis, 15, and husband Ken Mackay, says she loves the Barbican’s sense of community. Dylan Thomas for The Wall Street Journal
In 2005 Tracey Wiles and her husband Ken Mackay, both architects, converted an administration office into a five-bedroom, three-bathroom apartment. Ms. Wiles said she loves the sense of community at the Barbican. If she’s entertaining at her house or has an engagement, her children can go to the playground or other green spaces in the complex and be looked after by her friends whose children are also playing outside.
Robert Doe, a 52-year-old accountant, said he’s met people from all walks of life through clubs, his tennis group and even in the elevator. Mr. Doe bought his three-bedroom, 32nd-floor apartment with wraparound balcony and city views for $1 million in 2003. It’s now for sale for three times that price. Mr. Doe said he is selling the apartment because he and his wife, who is semiretired, want to live in the countryside.
Living at the Barbican comes with some quirks. It’s listed with English Heritage, a government agency charged with preserving buildings and objects of historic interest, so there are restrictions on renovations for some of the original apartments. Residents are cautioned not to play music so loud that neighbors can hear it—a sensitive issue, as the apartments are linked by outdoor walkways—and they’re supposed to have carpets on their floors to soften sound. Residents of lower floors are encouraged to keep flower boxes on their balconies—though apparent slippage on this rule spurred the cover story “Where have all the flowers gone?” in the most recent issue of Barbican Life magazine.
The Barbican was originally built as a housing project, one of many that cropped up in London in the 1950s and 1960s to replace the millions of homes destroyed in the war. Its three architects, Peter Chamberlin, Geoffry Powell and Christof Bon, aimed to create a complex that would reflect the history of the area, which harks back to London’s earliest days and was also devastated by bombing during World War II.
Designed in the Brutalist architectural style that had its heyday in the 1960s and 1970s, the complex’s high walls were inspired by a Roman fortress. Barbican architecture tours, given several times a week, give visitors a glimpse into the complex’s history. In 200 A.D., Romans began to construct a wall around London to protect it from Anglo-Saxon invaders. (Pieces of the wall can still be seen in the Barbican today.)
Beginning in 1980, tenants living in projects like the Barbican gained the right to buy their houses and apartments from the local council at a discount and sell them at a profit to private buyers. Today, 95% of the Barbican apartments are owned privately; the other 5% are rented.
The increase of prices at the Barbican comes at a time when property values are booming across London. Tina Evans, group director at Frank Harris and Co., said values at the Barbican may also be increasing because restaurants and residential buildings are popping up in an area that used to be empty on weekends. Apartments at the Barbican were once mainly used as pied-à-terres, but now more residents are choosing to live there full time, she said.
Over the years, critics have lambasted the Barbican’s confusing layout, saying its network of high walkways is hard for visitors to navigate. But Mr. Chew, the financial consultant, said the nooks and crannies are one of the features he most enjoys.
“I’ve had moments when I’ve had to read something or I’ve wanted to sit on a bench to think something through, when you know your home is too distracting,” he said. “It’s really lovely and peaceful.”
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