Tuesday, 13 January 2015


My 5 year old son enjoyed his visit to the "Barbarican", as he calls it. The bottom photo could also be a time-lapse film, as the person by the piano didn't move for hours. Something I notice about The Barbican is that people can hang out there without having to 'rent space' by buying a coffee or purchasing something. There is lovely low-key atmosphere. There's even free entertainment relayed from the live concerts going on in the auditorium into the foyer. There is no sense of people being moved on or hurried. Student-types, wearing black "Barbican" T-shirts, tend vending booths, reading books between intervals. A man who appears to be homeless was sitting on one of the sofas watching the concert on a small TV screen downstairs when we visited. 

As we wandered in, Pure Imagination, the song that Willy Wonka sings when he introduces his Chocolate Factory, was resounding ethereally around the building from a concert called 'The Sound of Musicals'. Not perhaps the soundtrack that immediately springs to mind when you think about Brutalist architecture.

"If you want to view paradise
Simply look around and view it
Anything you want to, do it
Wanta change the world?
There's nothing 
To it."

Come with me
And you'll be
In a world 
Of pure imagination
Take a look 
And you'll see
into your imagination"

Is the Barbican Centre a paradise? While this soundtrack was playing it certainly could have been, and in my imagination it very nearly was. 

With its bold structures, surface textures and different layers, it is a photographer’s dream. It is the largest performing arts centre of its kind in Europe, and has contemporary and classical concerts, theatre performances, film screening and art exhibitions as well as a library. In the conservatory, over 2,000 species of tropical plants and trees nestle amongst the concrete and glass structures and walkways, and is free of charge to visit. The photos I took in there were taken during the very last rays of light of the day. When I look at the photographs now, could all that concrete be looking just a little organic? Could the far edge of the building with its ridges look like a spine? The conservatory pictures, like the Barbican’s atmosphere are also low-key, but in a tonal way. So dark, the colour has edged out of the frame. The building appears almost fragile, the leaf shapes pick out sillhouettes in its body; the building soft and blurred, the plants hard-edged.

Concrete is not such a hardy material and does not weather well in our maritime climes, where nature has often had the better of it. This material gave the architectural style its name. Brutalism does not originate from the idea of "brutality" but from the French Beton Brut or "raw concrete" the material of choice for Le Corbusier. Brutalism's critics have blamed the style for urban decay, but when you experience the Barbican, which is now Grade II listed, you wonder whether Brutalism's 'failures' are more down to a lack of political will and financial support, rather than design. Perhaps the social ideals of some of its proponents are also out of step with today's political agendas. A project like the Barbican, which took over 30 years to complete, does hold some of the optimism and idealism of Willy Wonka's song, where he sings, "Wanta change the world? There's nothing to it." 

What also seems to have weathered rather badly in this country is the idea of architecture being for public benefit. The Barbican, with its textured concrete surfaces, rough at the edges charm and totalitarian feel, is ironically much more welcoming and transparent than any of the new city slickers on the block like the 'Walkie Talkie'. This latest addition to the London skyline was granted planning permission on the premise of a 'Sky Garden', a free public garden on the building's roof. Sadly this hasn't turned out to be the case. Guardian critic Oliver Wainwright says of the Sky Garden "it feels like you are trapped in an airport" and "it is not the public park that was promised, but yet another private party space, available by appointment."

English Heritage also criticised the 'walkie talkie' as a "brutally dominant expression of commercial floor space". In short, I know what kind of brutal I prefer. As Willy Wonka sings: "If you want to view paradise, simply look around and view it" - for free - at the Barbarican. 

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