Brixton’s Barrier Block: ‘When it went up everyone hated it’ | London

More than 50 years after it was designed, Southwyck House still looms over Brixton in south London, drawing fascination and dislike in equal measure.

Originally council housing, the giant concrete structure with tiny windows has been likened to a prison and is known locally as the “Barrier Block”. There was speculation after it was completed in 1981 that the people offered housing there did not want to move in because of its harsh facade. Another persistent rumour is that the architect behind it hated the public criticism of her work so much that she killed herself.

But sitting in her house in Lambeth, having just received her Covid booster vaccination, the building’s architect, Magda Borowiecka, is very much alive and well. When the block is mentioned she lets out a laugh at “that dreadful barrier”.

One of the truths about the design of Southwyck House often lost in the telling of its history is that its unique design was functional at the time. Borowiecka was told she needed to create a building that could sit next to a raised flyover, a plan that was eventually abandoned.

“At the beginning everyone hated [Southwyck House] but it was maddening for me because I knew why I designed it that way,” said Borowiecka, 90.

The building was commissioned by Lambeth council to house 2,500 people. The plans were approved by a planning committee that included the future prime minister John Major.

“The motorway would have been 60ft up in the air, so I needed to create a blank wall going up higher than that. It was rather miserable and I had to think of some way to make an interesting building,” Borowiecka said, adding that this was why it has such small windows.

Magda Borowiecka: ‘My main problem is it became sort of well known and I still don’t like it.’ Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

“When we were going out to tender they decided not to do the motorway, and John Major, who was my boss in Lambeth, decided to go on with it because so much effort and money had gone into the design. When it went up everyone hated it.”

She said she was “very upset” about this. “People used it as a reason not to have council architects. Major himself wrote in papers about it being horrible even though he commissioned it.”

The Guardian ran an article at the time asking: “What kind of insensitive megalomaniac could have dreamed up such a scheme, even now we might have learned the lessons of such vast estates, desolate, impersonal and crime-prone?”

Borowiecka said she was more interested in low-rise buildings and is far prouder of work she has done elsewhere, such as housing in Dunbar Street, West Norwood. When asked if she wanted to see the Barrier Block removed, she said it was “not doing the job it was supposed to be doing at the moment”.

“My main problem is it became sort of well known and I still don’t like it,” she said. “What I would have liked to have done is have a great big poster on the Barrier Block saying this is built this way because of a motorway.”

Brutalist architecture has made a comeback in recent times and gained a following. Borowiecka’s building has appeared in publications about this form of design, and it has appeared in artworks and inspired designs on T-shirts.

Catherine Croft, director of the Twentieth Century Society, was quick to defend Southwyck House. “It’s a distinctive bit architecture and a local landmark,” she said. “Yes, its design was partly a response to a road scheme that never went ahead, but I think Magda Borowiecka is too modest about what she achieved.”

She added: “It speaks to the inventiveness of a generation of highly socially committed architects who worked incredibly hard to deliver good quality affordable housing – it’s also a rare example of a major building by a woman architect at this date, and its one which C20 Society has proudly included in architectural tours.”

Borowiecka looks back with fondness at her time working for Lambeth and is regretful that there is no longer as much council housing and building. “As an architect I enjoy solving problems, and with Southwyck House that motorway was a colossal problem,” she said. “I am sad that housing in London has now become so unaffordable,” she added.

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