Decorating at the Barbican London: The Barbican was declared ‘one of the modern wonders of the world’ by Her Majesty the Queen at it’s opening in 1982. It is now considered one of London’s foremost examples of concrete Brutalist architecture and perhaps indicates how much society has changed; in the 1940s and 1950s the thirty five acres were an enormous bomb site, a magnet for children during the day and courting couples at night. In the 1960s as the clearance started, stopped and started again, Londoners wondered what was planned for the shattered remains of Cripplegate, but in the 1970s it became clear that firstly it was going to be huge and secondly not in the traditional style of the ‘City.’ By the 1980s it had become plainly obvious to the average citizen that it was to be a massive block of grey concrete with windows. Today, nearly 30 years after its grand opening, it is a grade two listed building, considered a site of architectural interest for its proportions, as much as the ambition of the project. Moreover the Barbican has also won international acclaim as a venue that can and does offer a superior range of multi-arts events, as well as outstanding conference facilities. And all this within the Barbican estate, the main buildings of which rise to seven floors above a podium level that not only has maisonettes built into the structure, but provided something quite revolutionary in its time, a pedestrian route above the hustle and bustle of the ‘Square Mile’, whilst also providing a link to all of those other facilities the Barbican has to offer, restaurants, shops, concert halls and art galleries.
Meeting the client
We arranged a meeting at Martin’s flat to asses the problems and from the initial meeting, I hit it off with him. As well as being a really nice person, I could see the passion he had for the project. It was obvious Martin had spent months of blood sweat and tears on this refurbishment and his level of preparation was second to none – I’m sure a small team of professionals would have been hard pushed to achieve the same level of finish. Martin had hurt his shoulder during the process and asked if we would finish the project for him. I pointed him in the direction of Holman paints who supplied him with the materials required to complete the project – all we had to do was supply a few days of labour. It was our pleasure to be part of this project.
Decorating at the Barbican London
Photo’s of before
Martins labour of love
“I collected the keys to the flat on bonfire night 2012, after a 2 year search for a property in the Barbican.
The flat type M2b is a 1 bed duplex apartment with dual aspect on the main living level. I had been looking for this particular flat type after seeing an identical flat owned by friends in an adjacent block, and seeing they offered a much more interesting volume and space than the single level flats within the estate. Decorating at the Barbican London
Flats in the Barbican are generally sold within a few hours or days, and rarely come to market, and so I leapt at the opportunity. Fortunately for me, the flat was in one of the best locations in the Barbican estate, with views to the dome of St. Paul’s and The Shard to the south, and views northward across a small wildlife park.
That was the good news…. Decorating at the Barbican London
The bad news was that the flat was a total wreck. The original bathroom and kitchen had been replaced some time in the 1980’s judging by the condition and design of the bathroom and kitchen, and both were tired and dated. The Barbican Estate is Grade II listed, but many flats were renovated and original fittings lost before the listing began to protect the interiors from being totally ruined.
The teak staircase joinery was in a poor condition, and the original black painted steel balustrade had been painted white by hand with a brush that must have doubled as a toilet brush judging by the irregular lumpy finish.
The nice original flush metal socket outlet and switch plates had been swapped at some point with modern white plastic replacements. Decorating at the Barbican London
The teak framed windows and doors, and ironmongery were covered in 40 years worth of congealed varnish, and the stainless steel vents were black from the build up of dirt. Various double glazed units were blown or badly scratched, and needed replacement. Decorating at the Barbican London
The worst news was the condition of the walls, ceilings, and skirtings. The solid insitu concrete walls are plastered and the skirtings set flush with the face of the plaster, with a 45 degree chamfer to both the top of the skirting and bottom of the plaster. The Barbican was originally built to provide council homes, and I later discovered that the walls were painted with a tough oil based eggshell to enable the Corporation of London to reduce the cost of tidying flats up between tenants by scrubbing down an eggshell finish instead of repainting emulsion walls. The tenants in the early years must have taken a toll on the flat as there was barely a square inch of wall, joinery, or skirting that wasn’t dented, chipped, or damaged in some way.
Everything inside the flat needed to be restored or replaced, apart from the front door knob.
Permission to refurbish the flat required the consent of the Estate Office who manage the Barbican Estate on behalf of the Corporation of London. I also needed to check with the Corporation of London Planning Department whether the proposed changes to this Grade II listed property required planning permission. This process took 2 months, and so it wasn’t until early January 2013 that work could begin. Decorating at the Barbican London
The first job was to strip out as much of the kitchen and bathroom that I could before appointing a specialist company to remove various asbestos insulating boards (AIB) from the kitchen, and from the two fire rated access doors to the services riser, to provide a completely safe building site. Decorating at the Barbican London
A firm of builders then spent the next few months building the new kitchen and bathroom. The tubular steel stair balustrade was dismantled and taken to a firm in Wolverhampton to be stripped and re-painted to the original gloss black finish, before re-fixing.
The bent plywood kitchen upstand wall was remade and a bent plywood ceiling downstand panel made to replace the original one lost when the kitchen was replaced in the 1980’s. New bespoke kitchen cabinetry was fabricated to fit within the original imperial dimensions of the kitchen enclosure walls. New fittings were used everywhere but kept in the same location as the original kitchen layout to keep connections to services simple, and as the original layout was well designed in the first place.
The bathroom was designed to incorporate some iroko joinery as a reference to the teak staircase and window and door joinery.
I completely underestimated the time required to restore and repair the walls, ceilings and joinery, thinking it would be a 3-4 week job based on previous DIY experience. Electric sanders wouldn’t work on the rock hard eggshell paint on the walls, and just skated around the surface barely scratching it, and so all the walls and skirtings and doors were laboriously sanded by hand. It took several months of hard physical labour to sand the paint down and fill the thousands of dents and cracks, and generally uneven surfaces and damaged joinery. Applying a skim coat of plaster wasn’t an option due to the details of walls to skirtings and windows and almost every junction. In hindsight it would have been much quicker to hack the plaster off all walls and ceilings and re-plaster the entire flat. Lesson learnt.
Similarly, stripping all the varnish off the windows and sliding door with Nitromors and then sanding with a detail sander and sanding block took several weeks but was well worth it as the windows and door look brand new. The teak was finished with an Osmo wax oil, which was quick to apply and easy to maintain in future.
I managed to apply 1-2 base coats of water-based emulsion to the walls and ceilings, and primer coats to the restored skirtings and joinery. MDF primer was applied to the new bathroom and bedroom doors – the original 1960’s design was for floor to ceiling high doors but cost cutting meant that standard door heights with fixed overpanels were actually built. The full height doors have transformed the space in the hallway and bedroom.
I encountered a problem of painting the water-based emulsion over an old oil-based paint, resulting in paint ‘curdling’ and looking like I had applied scrambled egg to the wall. Had I applied a mist coat I would have been successful, but the damage was done in a few minutes of ignorance, applying undiluted emulsion. Stripping the new paint off was the only solution, which was the straw that broke the camels back…. Decorating at the Barbican London
At this point I was very lucky to find Kevin and after a meeting on site was relieved to let a true expert remedy the situation. The Traditional Painter website had already been a wonderful resource for information to a novice like myself and it enabled me to contact Kevin in the knowledge that he would be a highly skilled painter.
I am enormously grateful that Kevin and his son were able to help me. Their attention to detail and the quality of their work, together with their helpfulness and kindness made the process a real pleasure.
It’s a relief to have put away the leftovers of sandpaper, filler, and tools, and to just enjoy looking at immaculately painted walls and ceilings.”
Photos of after
We went to see Martin just as he was starting to move furniture into the flat and must say what a great job he has done. He’s not only breathed new life into the flat while retaining the original features, but has the pleasure of knowing he did it himself.
Should you have any queries regarding a project you wish to undertake, please do not hesitate to contact me via telephone or email.
[callout1]For further examples of hand painted kitchens, please click here [/callout1]