21 April 2050
It’s Monday 5.00 a.m. and Sean’s alarm rings. He gets ready for his three-kilometer run, a routine that consists of nine laps around the Thomas More Edible Garden on the Barbican Estate. Shower water is only available every two days, so he likes to go for a run before every shower. It is August, the weather is beautiful and some crops are ready to be harvested on Sunday, as part of the delightful yet mandatory community integrational activities for “Barbicaners.” The outdoor gardens are flourishing, thanks to genetic modifications, the recycling water system, and the nanobots that help to pollinate them, but it’s mostly down to the Barbicaners’ efforts, he thinks. He passes by the fully-automated conservatory. There, he sees a glimpse of the hydroponic genetic modified farms, ultraviolet light glowing inside of the new structure. It seems as if someone has been inside, but it’s only his imagination, the system is autonomous, he remembers.
On the way back to his dorm, he receives a reminder through his neural implant. Today there is a performance of a Shakespeare play in the theater at 8.00 p.m. It makes no sense to him why, some years ago, there was debate over closing the theater to facilitate more space for food production. There is plenty of food, it should be enough for the community. Most of his work happens online nowadays and revolves around topics like AI efficiency, inter-species equity, zero matter economy, and future plans for his community. In his lunch break, he eats some fresh vegetables, chips, and a delicious synthetic burger. A delivery arrives, it’s his new 3D printed table, made of 95 percent bio-recycled and five percent biomaterials. After removing the biomaterial transportation layer, that can be disposed of for the compost, he takes some minutes to contemplate his new acquisition. Yes, it was expensive—over 250 working hours of compensation—but it is green and fair-trade. He feels proud. He is contributing to the world.
In the evening, after watching the not-so-good Shakespeare play, he enjoys some beers with companions inside the Garden’s meeting capsule. It is his first allocated hour of talking person-to-person of the week. Due to biosecurity precautions, they are only permitted to meet up to three other people. He doesn’t understand why: they are all vaccinated annually and the new variants are still reported to be far away. Aren’t they? On the way back to his dorm, Sean walks by the elevated pedestrian bridges and nods to some neighbors from a distance. As the sun goes down, he stops to appreciate the colorful sunset. It could be beautiful, but there are too many structures crowding the horizon, the visible smog of pollution from “the others.” Why can’t they manage similar living systems like the Barbican Estate? he thinks. He feels privileged being a Barbicaner.
It’s Monday 5.00 a.m. and Sara’s alarm rings. She gets ready for her three-kilometer walk to the nearest bus station. She must hurry. She knows that once she arrives, she must stand in line for an hour, present her documents, pass the hygiene test, fill in a series of forms, pay for her ticket, and wait for a bus to the complex that is not too overcrowded. There is no time to take a shower and anyway, the water sewer to this neighborhood has been broken since last week, and the City Corporation announced there is no budget remaining to undertake repairs. She grabs a cup of synthetic tea, a piece of bread, some nutritional pills, and rushes out the door. After passing by a cacophony of people—of languages, smells, congestion, animals, pollution, gates, policemen, broken pavement, homeless, traffic lights, heat, noises, music, screaming—including some familiar faces, she reaches her citadel-like destination. She doesn’t even recognize the overwhelming nature of the experience. For her, it is just a regular day.
Sara knows the procedure. First, she must wait a couple of minutes. If she is lucky, her number will show up on the screen, confirming that she is required to work today. She and her fellow coworkers must follow the line to enter through a huge, reinforced door that blocks off what used to be a tunnel underneath the Barbican complex, below street level first, she takes off her clothes. In the next, she changes into some white ones. She must pass through a sequence of three cleaning filters, remaining alert to the screens that show her number, and the number of the task required to be performed. Today she can be happy she is instructed to go into the vertical hydroponic farm. Sara enters through the gigantic underground structure. The elevated metal passageways that were added long ago extend outwards to diverse destinations: inside are hatcheries of insects, chickens, and a small herd of cattle. Artificial farming, ultraviolet lights, waste compacter, recycling machines, water tanks, cricket farms, and the process of making burgers out of those insects are all well known to her. She wonders how a chicken would taste. She executes her tasks as fast and as silently as possible. Pick this, move that, select this, dispose of that. On one of the upper floors, she takes the walkway to check the humidity of the tomatoes. She notices that one of the facade panels is missing, allowing her to look briefly outside for a second. She pokes her head through the gap and sees a garden and a man running. He almost seemed to return her gaze.
Her day finished, the commute back takes another three hours. She arrives home and sits on one of the boxes stacked in what once used to be a community terrace. She looks towards the city from where she just came. She can’t even see clearly, there’s too much air pollution. Then she looks out to the street, where some children are playing. She enjoys this moment. How nice it is to live above the city. How could those other people in the Barbican live there? Don’t they get lost without contact with the real world, she thinks. She comforts herself knowing that, in a way, down here she is freer.
The Barbican Estate is one of very few structured urban complexes that have successfully preserved the quality of life one could have referred to as “normal” thirty years ago. It has adapted and evolved to a point that today we can call it a self-sufficient nucleus. But is it as sustainable and resilient as its inhabitants claim? In truth, living inside this extraordinary architectural complex collides with a starkly contrasting reality of the city around. Even if the Barbicaners are not aware of it, or have decided not to be.
Initially conceived as “a city within a city,” almost a hundred years ago, today some 25,000 Barbicaners continue to engage in most of the activities that used to happen in what was called a twenty-first century city. Originally conceived as a utopian model to be exhibited for the eyes of the world, was envisioned by many as the new image of what a “modern city” was meant to be. The intention was to allow London’s inhabitants to experience many of the functions of what modern life was supposed to be, all in one place. Raised in an area left devastated by London’s bombing in World War Two, the complex became an astonishing example of how revolutionary visions of the future are materialized. Back then, the project caused many controversies regarding its detached relationship to a wider urban setting, its peculiar legal status within the city, as well as the segregation of car traffic and the pedestrianization of upper levels, resulting in it being named London’s ugliest building in 2003. As Graeme Shankland remarked at the time: “If someone had prophesied a few years ago that the City Corporation (of all people) would be promoting in 1959 Britain’s most imaginative scheme for big-scale central area redevelopment, they would have been sent away to have their head examined.” The question is, were these controversial conditions the determinants that allowed the Barbican to become an isolated “survivor” in the middle of London?
Its combination of legal freedoms, multifunctional spaces, and architectural composition, together with the elevated podium, allowed the Barbican to become a successful gated community in the middle of London. From the original layout, only two gates still allow entrance to the complex. In 2039, all former elevated-pedestrian pathways, which had been of high conceptual importance to the original design, were totally blocked and the podium became an impenetrable wall. Security is now crucial. The complex is monitored 24/7, not only because of people trying to break in but because of the extreme hygiene measures taken to avoid infections and diseases. Its community rarely has contact with outsiders. To their eyes, only they can enter the estate.
Since the “Barbican-exit” in 2036, the living complex has been almost impossible to access for new residents, who now need a special visa. Nevertheless, it seems difficult to find better places to live with higher standards anywhere else. Fresh food, regular water, electricity, internet, libraries, cafes and even old entertainments such as theater and cinema are still part of daily life. Community practices like urban farming are considered fundamental, while yearly vaccination is guaranteed for all inhabitants. Birthdays and traditions like Christmas and Boxing Day are still long-awaited moments of celebration for inhabitants.
According to officially-released statements, the Barbican is fully autonomous and self-regulated. In an effort to avoid contact with the rest of London and its volatility, all connections to the city’s infrastructures were cut several years ago. Solar and wind power supply energy to the complex, water is recycled through internal treatment plants, while a combination of enhanced urban farming and 3D printers are utilized for producing biomaterials, other goods, gifts, and for making repairs. Automatized controls regulate these systems, while machine learning algorithms ensure the optimization of processes. Vegetation has become a crucial feature. Every resident of the Barbican receives an education in urban farming. The courtyard is now full of greenery, although chemical and genetic manipulation is essential to allow crops to grow. The theater tower conservatory is still intact but is mainly host to edible plants.
Of course, some things had to be sacrificed. In comparison with its original layout, the Barbican is much denser. Several apartments were divided-up, and open spaces, pathways, the cinema, and conference rooms in the semicircular block had been modified to support the growing population. However, the scenario is far from what it appears. In many ways, it seems to be simply an extension or rejuvenation of a neocolonialist approach. Currently, the effort to maintain the “sustainability” of this system is no longer a priority. Instead, the focus has shifted towards surveillance of the Barbican and ensuring the preservation of its community’s comfortable lifestyle, which often arrives at a very high cost. Like Sara, many thousands of people live outside of this microcosm. They experience unfair labor conditions, often working in very limited and exploited conditions with no guarantees in order to support a system that, while claiming to be a perfect example of self-sufficiency, depends largely on the external supply of materials and labor. Paradoxically, as though extending the twentieth century development scenario of a self-contained city, the Barbicaners have little or no understanding where their food comes from, or the supply chains that facilitate the arrival of goods they order online. As the transformation of the old subterranean parking lot shows, they are even incapable of realizing what happens within the boundaries of the complex. Furthermore, it seems impossible for residents to grasp the severity of the situation that lies outside its boundaries. As London continues to decay, the city struggles every day for basic needs and services, compounded by national health and economic crises, as well as the depletion of living spaces with conditions adequate for human wellbeing.
Writing in his 1855 collection Leaves of Grass, American poet Walt Whitman remarked that “The future is no more uncertain than the present.” In the case of the Barbican, it seems almost impossible to determine if this claim will hold, whether, in fact, this isolated “utopian bubble” will continue to resist in the midst of a decaying city. Although not universally perceived this way, the “utopian“ ideals of the estate seem nevertheless to have ended in a dystopian scenario. Judging from the overall panorama, one can perhaps anticipate the obliteration of the still-idyllic lifestyle that is safeguarded and prolonged by this walled complex. In a way, it could be said that the same utopian propaganda is still being sold to Barbicaners, just as it was back in the 1950s. But, for how much longer can its delusion be sustained?