Full Disclosure: I love the Barbican
I love the Barbican. As an adopted Londoner I spent my first few years here unaware of the cultural baggage associated with the brutalist palace in the City of London. I always thought it was an intriguing, but somewhat intimidating space. How do you get in? How do you get out? What actually happens in there? Turns out its quite easy to get in, hard to get out and there is a lot more going on than you might expect. I was lucky enough to snag some tickets for an architecture tour a few weeks ago and it has made me love the place even more. Critic or fan, everyone should take the architecture tour and get a bit more familiar with this urban icon.
The Barbican began with a proposal to the City of London in 1955 and construction was completed in 1982. The Barbican is often referred to as a single place, though in fact the Barbican Estate and the Barbican Arts Centre are different entities. The estate houses four thousand residents in flats that were designed to appeal to the mid 20th century’s growing middle class. The Barbican Arts Centre is the largest arts and conference venue in Europe with a number of theatres, concert halls and exhibition spaces.
Constant activity makes the Barbican a great place to be, especially on a sunny day. You would never expect such a green interior when approaching from the exterior. Even more surprising is that the lake serves a hidden function- sound deadening for the tube trains underneath. It’s no accident that the lake and hanging gardens feel like a quiet oasis in the centre of the city.
The Barbican was built by Chamberlin, Powell and Bon is a good example of “Brutalist” architecture, though in truth it is a modified Brutalist, with more ornamentation than you would typically find in similar work. This stair case structure is a great example of where a piece of infrastructure has been used to provide space for some of the estate’s abundant greenery.
The sculpture court is directly above the concert hall. This large flat floor is forms the roof of the concert hall. When built, roof was the largest free standing ceiling in Europe, made possible with a three metre thick curved concrete wall engineered by Arup. This wall also created the Curve Gallery below.
The Barbican gardens are one my favourite places in the City and are the second largest conservatory in London behind Kew Gardens. Open on Sundays to the public they’re an oasis designed around the theatre’s fly bridge. This concentre monolith is a large space above the theatre so that the set pieces can be pulled above the stage.
The tour gave us the time to look more closely at the structures than I normally would. There are some incredible forms and vistas that are easily missed when moving through the space. The three Barbican towers were the tallest in Europe when built. Peek your head under Shakespeare tower and you’ll be able to see all the way to the top!
The Barbican gets its name from the latin word ‘Barbican’ which means fortified outpost or gateway. An appropriate title given the architecture and its location. The project was built around the remains of a Roman Fort constructed between 90 and 120 AD.
Achieving the Barbican’s distinctive rough concrete finish involved a huge amount of hand labour. Workers used pneumatic rams to remove the smooth surface layer of the cast concrete, exposing the aggregate and creating a rough texture. Look closely and you can see some spots that they missed, like the piece below.
The Barbican is known for its colour and its extensive use of concrete, but it almost looked very different. At the end of our tour we were able to go behind the Curve Gallery to see prototypes of surface finishes that were initially considered. Imagine the Barbican covered in white marble, pebbles or dyed black. It is relatively rare that these type of architectural models survive (especially on site) so it is a special treat to get an insight into process behind this amazing place.
It was a great experience and I’d definitely recommend this tour, if you want to know more about this iconic building.
Article & Photo Credits: Matt Johnson