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The Barbican: Concrete Jungle

Is the Barbican an eyesore or a visionary example of modernism? Whatever your opinion, the view is somewhat different from the inside, says Caroline Kamp

Public opinion of London's Barbican seems constantly to be in a state of flux. One minute the landmark complex is being voted most hated in Britain; the next it is given Grade II-listed status. At the moment the popularity of this showcase for raw-edged "Brutalist" architecture seems to be in the ascendant and flats that come on to the market are quickly snapped up. "People don't tend to advertise," says a resident, Lesley Craze. "They put a note by the lifts and it's gone."

Craze, who runs a contemporary jewellery and textiles gallery on nearby Clerkenwell Green, jumped at the chance to buy a flat eight years ago. "There's a real sense of community," she says. "Everyone who lives here actively wants to live here." The 35-acre Barbican Estate includes other buildings such as St Giles Church, the City of London Girls School, the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and the Barbican Arts Centre. Built by the architects Chamberlain, Powell and Bon, and opened in 1969, the residential estate was designed to resemble a small town with walkways, lakes and private gardens. It is made up of 13 terrace blocks, named after historical British figures (Thomas More, Daniel Defoe) and three towers named Shakespeare, Cromwell and Lauderdale. This nod to the past is only fitting since the site, in the City of London, was first established by the Romans. The literary connection dates back to the 16th century when the Cripplegate area, as it was known, was home to artists and writers. Shakespeare lived there briefly, Daniel Defoe was baptised in St Giles. Successive centuries saw the Great Plague and Great Fire sweep through the area. By the 1950s, after the Blitz, it was destroyed and desolate.

You wouldn't know it now. Craze talks vividly about the beautiful old church, the wild flowers and weeping willows in the private gardens and of the vibrant community spirit. She moved to the one-bedroom penthouse flat, 10 floors above ground, from Islington where she had spent 14 years. "The kids moved out, the cat died, it was time for a change," she says.

She has done a complete U-turn on style since moving here, responding to the design and layout of the flat, built in 1973. Gone is much of her antique furniture, the Queen Anne desk and the old velvet chairs. Now furniture from The Conran Shop and Robin Day's classic leather sofa for Habitat sit comfortably alongside clear plastic dining chairs and a retro lamp. One of the unique features of a penthouse in the Barbican is the double-height curved ceiling which runs along the length of the flat. It transforms what would be quite a narrow living space into something much brighter. In the living room, which has the original fitted kitchen off to the side, is a giant floor-to-ceiling window, beautifully arched. It looks out on to a terrace with a view of St Paul's Cathedral.

The location of the flat is perfect for Craze as she can walk to her gallery. Never formally trained, she has run her own gallery for more than 20 years, and sells jewellery made from materials such as plastic, metal and paper that is designed to challenge. "We don't want bread-and-butter stuff," she says. "We want controversial work." Her gallery is not somewhere to go for a plain silver pendant.

Inevitably there are interesting and unusual objects dotted around the flat which give a real flavour of Craze's personality. "I like to have things around me that please or amuse me," she says. On the wall above her bed is a striking piece of jewellery made from mussel shells, by the Finnish artist Anu Peippo, strung up in lieu of a painting. "I don't think I'm a picture person," she notes. "I like tactile things." In the living room she has two examples of paper as art: tall vases by Magie Hollingworth, which look just like ceramics, and an intricate paper pendant by Michihiro Sato. One of Craze's favourite pieces is on her coffee table. Ceramic chips painted gold and a silver chip fork sit on a rigid bed of silver newsprint. It was bought at a craft fair, and she has added a string of grey freshwater pearls – as caviar. "I love it, but my daughter hates it!" she says.

Craze talks excitedly of a piece of jewellery she wore recently that was made from red rubber gloves, like a ruff around the neck, with huge mock white pearls which threw light on the face. "It had a zing," she says eyes lighting up. "Jewellery should enhance the wearer. It's got to look better on than off." The pieces she sells are jewellery but also mini art works in their own right and as such are hard to categorise. "It's very difficult," she says. "Someone like Tiffany or Graff, it's considered jewellery, but if you use plastic or paper you're called 'art jewellery'. And I don't really like the term." She is exhibiting at the forthcoming Crafts Council exhibition Collect at London's V&A Museum (see offer, right). An international art fair of the best in decorative and fine arts, this is craft as a serious business: the 2007 event closed with gallery sales in excess of £1m.

So, since she's no stranger to the use of different materials, one wonders whether she is a fan of the concrete used so extensively in the Barbican design. "It's not really to do with concrete," she muses. "I like the practicality of it, the way it works and things like the door handles, which are beautifully solid. And it's very private – you needn't see anyone if you don't want to."


The Crafts Council has 40 free tickets to Collect 2008 (25-29 January) available for Independent readers. Send an e-mail entitled 'Independent Ticket Offer' with your name, address, e-mail address and daytime number to rsvp@craftscouncil.org.uk or call 020-7806 2559 by Tuesday 22 January. Winners will be selected at random. For more information: www.craftscouncil.org.uk/collect