Brixton: Barrier Block
(Updated July 2010)
Often mistaken for Brixton Prison to the chagrin of residents, Southwyck House, SW9 is known locally as the Barrier Block and presents a daunting edifice on Coldharbour Lane.
The block's layered construction towers over the street outside, with the horseshoe-shaped structure giving the appearance of a medieval fortress.
With its harsh, neobrutalist-inspired architecture and tiny turret windows peering out over Brixton, the block looks an uninviting place and has gained a fearful reputation.
It was designed by a young Polish architect who - rumour has it - killed herself not long after the block's completion because the block was supposedly 'built the wrong way around'.
Of course, this is complete tosh: the reason for the stark frontage was that the block was designed as part of a ghastly Brixton redevelopment that - thankfully - never got off the ground.
(See 1970s Brixton redevelopment plan)
The evil plan hatched by insane planners was part of the 1968 'box of motorways' project by the GLC, which would have seen a raised six lane motorway scythe through the heart of Brixton.
The site is cleared in preparation for the construction of the block [c.1979].
Construction underway 1980.
[Pics: Lambeth Landmark]
The Barrier Block was designed to protect the Somerleyton Estate from the inevitable pollution and traffic noise, which explains its tiny windows and unusual 'zig-zag' design - this was intended to 'bounce' the sound back to the ground.
Land was compulsorily purchased for the motorway but when the road project was finally abandoned the block was already under construction, and thus Brixton ended up with the 'Barrier Block'.
Squatted before it had even been officially opened, there was a stark reluctance by Brixtonians to live in a block so brutal. It rapidly gained a reputation as a drug den and by the mid 80s had become a classic, crime ridden, run down, inner city council estate.
Musician Alex Paterson from The Orb recounts his time living in the block:
I lived in Brixton in 83 to 86 in a squat in the Barrier Block
(Southwyck House, Coldharbour Lane). We had lock-in parties in the
Block and there were many situations, some good, some funny, and some
down right bad, but there was a code and we had some damn fine times
A mix of Killing Joke and Front 242 meets Brian Eno meets King
Tubby, with Chic thrown in for good measure. I used to have a room
that was full of 19? speakers hanging off the ceiling, not in boxes,
with some home made 15? bass bins. Cassettes were big in those
heavenly / hell like daze. Junkies were the arse holes of the
neighbourhood. Coming from the Brixton 100's I was never far from a
smile and a laugh and ting.
Such was its reputation, a full page spread of the block featured on the front page of the Guardian as an example of the 'grey, sullen wastelands, robbing people of self-respect' as described by John Major in 1995. The paper had a field day when they discovered that Major had been on the planning committee that had approved it!
(See the Guardian article here.)
After the two big riots in Brixton, the Brixton Challenge was born to rejuvenate the area and a huge £5 million plan was approved to split the block into three (to stop burglars/druggies running the length of the block) and to replace the piss-stained, decrepit and unreliable lifts.
Opting for a style reminiscent of Eastern European checkpoints, two new sections were added to either end of the building, housing new lifts and concierge space. Each flat was equipped with video entryphones with cameras that could monitor people entering and leaving the block.
This had an immediate effect on crime and the block became a far safer place, with junkies migrating the short distance outside and using the row of trees by the underground car park to continue their nefarious activities.
After hosts of complaints, the council cut down most of the trees, resulting in the tragically comic sight of heroin addicts all huddling behind the one remaining small tree to shoot up.
Like most of Brixton, there is still a considerable smack/crack problem in the area, and some of that has crept back into the block in recent years.
Although the new security measures (CCTV, concierge) has helped make the block safer, problems with drug addicts and ne'er do wells continue to blight the lives of residents.
Inside the Barrier Block it's a very different story, with most residents enjoying spacious balconies and large windows at the rear of the building. The view from the top floor is very impressive.
Not everyone likes the place though, with Darcus Howe being particularly scathing about the place in a New Statesman article, August 18, 2003:
"Southwyck House, Brixton, London SW9 - Demolition - block of flats approved by John Major's housing committee
John Major was on the housing committee that approved this block of flats. Not only would I like to see it destroyed, I would like to see it blown up so that the whole of London could see the mushroom of smoke and the flames, so they'd know that its like would never be seen again. From the outside it looks like a prison--I am sure this was in the architect's head when he designed it. I have friends who live there, and I refuse to go round to see them."
Police Raids, June 2008
The block was back in the news on 18th June, 2008 after a major police operation saw nine teenagers arrested for suspected crack cocaine and heroin offences in an early morning raid.
The BBC reported that a "A criminal network had been operating on the estate for six months, taking over the homes of vulnerable residents and turning them into crack houses," adding that "some 150 people came from across south London to buy drugs there."
According to the report, a network had been operating from the concierge area, selling drugs from midnight through to the early hours of the morning, with the gang associated with street robberies and violence, including knife crime.
Barrier Block fact file!
The block has 176 properties in total, consisting of 3 low rise flats and 173 high rise flats, which break down into:
7 flats with 1 bedroom, 116 with 2 bedrooms, 49 with 3 bedrooms, 4 with 4 bedrooms
173 of the properties are served by a concierge, and there are 43 garages on the estate
The artist Damien Hirst lived in the Barrier Block.
The Barrier Block was featured on the BBC Robert Elms Radio Show, Jan 2001 - and your trusty editor was interviewed!
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