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Barbican flat reworked as ‘small universe’ by Takero Shimazaki Architects

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The apartment mixes influences from both traditional Japanese architecture and European Classicism

The design concept for this reworked two-bedroom apartment in the Shakespeare tower of the Barbican complex in London developed from the client’s experience of having lived in Japan, and their knowledge and interest in Japanese culture, custom and language. 

Existing internal walls have been replaced in part by sliding timber screens and the addition of a non-structural terrazzo column, which punctuate the spaces while maintaining an entrance sequence and complexity to the spatial experience of the flat. Materials include timber-slatted ceilings, built-in timber cupboards and joinery, and floor surfaces ranging from a stone pebble threshold at the entrance, to terrazzo, tatami mats and light wool carpets.

Ag barbican hr 37 copy

Ag barbican hr 37 copy

Architect’s view

For our inspiration, we looked towards many of the early Modernist Japanese architects, who were dealing with similar issues of identity when European Modernism was entering Japan at rapid speed. Among these architects we found the work of Seiichi Shirai particularly complex and interesting. Shirai lived in Germany, initially studying philosophy. Later, when he returned to Japan, his work seemed to be about using both traditional Japanese architectural and European classical languages, but aiming to transcend both. For, Shirai, his architecture was neither Japanese nor European – but his own.

We enjoyed working with the conflict of the lighter, ephemeral language of timber screens, the Arai-dashi stone pebble entrance floor, tatami mats against the raw and weighty mass of the Barbican concrete walls, the existing arched fire escape door, and the magnificent panoramic view of the City of London outside.

Ag barbican hr 20 copy

Ag barbican hr 20 copy

Particular efforts were made with the placement of the non-structural terrazzo column that sits in the centre of the plan hugging the tatami-laid Japanese room. Inspired by Shirai’s project at Sekisui-kan in Shizuoka, we made a gesture that this non-structural column could act as a bridge between the two conflicting languages of this interior architecture. Columns in Japanese houses are also very symbolic. Shirai was obsessed with columns throughout his architectural career. Here, at the Barbican, we composed the terrazzo band that was laid around the perimeter of the floor spaces and connects with this central column. Terrazo demarks each space and the material raises itself to encase the timber frame and tatami mats.

The light that comes through the restored original timber-framed windows reflects on to the perimeter terrazzo flooring and creates a shimmering water-like edge to the whole space. The terrazzo is also very similar in colour to the external terrace concrete floor, hence creating a seamless edging detail. Softer carpet is laid recessed into the floor for the living spaces.

The corridor that links the main living spaces to the more minimal bedroom is accentuated in its length and width through the gently diffusing timber screens and the slightly glossy narrow black tiles in the bathrooms.

The resulting architecture does not belong to Japan, Classicism or any specific time. It is a site- and client-specific architectural dialogue in language, tradition, renovation and, ultimately, a spatial drama that is born out of a gentle yet conflicting encounter of language of the details in a small universe, inside a tower in London.

Takero Shimazaki, director, t-sa

Ag barbican hr 31 copy

Ag barbican hr 31 copy

Client’s view

Embarking on this project, we knew that the strong character of the Barbican itself would be an inevitable presence. Still, we wanted a design which reflected our own life experiences, chief among these the many years spent living in Japan, followed by a similarly long period in Scandinavia. Equally, we wanted a place where the various possessions we had acquired along the way – Danish furniture, Japanese lamps, Swedish paintings, Korean pots – could easily co-exist. 

We did not care much for what has become the standard ‘Modernist’ open-plan look of recent Barbican flat renovations, in which everything is revealed the moment one steps in, like a New York loft or a WeWork office. We were more interested in things which are occluded, blocked, hidden, only to be discovered gradually. A completely stripped out and empty flat looks strangely small. Screens, panels, columns, sliding doors, blinds: all these paradoxically add space by imposing structure.

There is a temporal element as well: a Japanese or Korean house is experienced not all at once, but in stages. The entryway, for example, is a world of its own: rich in function, neither an inside nor an outside space; visitors can often spend half the morning standing there, happily chatting to the resident, never entering or even seeing the interior. From the entryway, turn one direction and an inner corridor leads to a closed sliding door, turn in the other direction and a column obstructs your way into the inner part of the home. All the elements just described are present in t-sa’s seemingly simple design for the Barbican flat.

Ag barbican hr 14 copy

Ag barbican hr 14 copy

Passing from layout to materials, it is an accepted truism that a plain white ceiling is best for creating a feeling of space and light, mimetically alluding to the sky above us, just as wood or concrete flooring alludes to the earth below. In fact the opposite can be true, as Alvar Aalto showed us in his Villa Mairea, and as t-sa has realised here. Dense, dark, slatted, low: precisely aligned unidirectional ceiling timber leads the eye away along the axis of the living space, creating an unexpected feeling of height and breadth. Continuing this radical inversion of the usual narrative, woven wool, the colour of pale clouds, covers the floor.

Chamberlin, Powell and Bon optimistically included large outdoor balconies on the ends of their Barbican tower block flats (following the lead of Le Corbusier in his Cité Radieuse, but cheerfully ignoring the fact that Cité Radieuse is sited in Marseille, not London). Early marketing literature showed happy couples sharing a picnic on their balcony in the warm evening light. In reality, virtually no one except the occasional exiled smoker uses these chilly and excessively windswept spaces for more than about five minutes.

We deliberately selected a flat which had the end balcony enclosed and incorporated into the internal living space (such alterations were possible before the building was listed in 2001), leaving only the long narrow balcony along the side. In Japan and Korea flats often have balconies, but they serve as intermediate zones between outside and inside, not as a place to spend time or to look out from. In Asia, we were bemused the first time we came across an apartment block with a magnificent view of the Pacific Ocean: all the ocean-facing balconies were closed off and filled with drying laundry. It was then we understood the truth of what Junichiro Tanizaki wrote in In’ei Raisan: living spaces are essentially inward-looking and shadow-filled, places where precious objects (people included) can glow brightly. If you want to look at the ocean, you can go outside.

T sa barbican clean drawings page 3

T sa barbican clean drawings page 3

Project data

Start on site May 2018
Completion September 2019
Gross internal floor area 115m²
Form of contract JCT minor works
Construction cost Undisclosed
Architect t-sa
Client Private
Approved building inspector City of London Corp
Main contractor Thomson Brothers
CAD software used Vectorworks

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Readers' comments (1)

  • How extraordinary. Interesting that permission was granted even though it is all surfaces. It works; whether it's *right*, well...

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