IIt looks like something out of a wildly imaginative sci-fi comic book, an impossible vision of worlds colliding in a fantasy collage. Raised walkways cut across the sky as a trio of towers loom like serrated blades, their edges slicing through the clouds. Beneath them, cascading fountains and cafes spill out onto lush waterside terraces, while an art gallery and library jut above. A tropical conservatory surrounds the top of an underground theater, next to a cinema buried under a crescent of apartments. And the entire multi-layered edifice floats above a 2,000-seat concert hall carved into the ground.
This is not a sci-fi comic, but a cutaway diagram of the Barbican arts center from 1982, rendered in bright orange, red and green. Somehow, this miraculous Escher-like marvel really got built, and it hits 40 this month, with celebratory events and a beautiful new book modestly titled Building Utopia.
As well as tracing the past four decades of performances, exhibitions and events held in the bowels of this brutalist behemoth, the book shines a light on the battles that were waged to realize the entire Barbican project, not just its world-class arts center. We learn about its long struggle for acceptance – and the intractable quirks that have plagued the development since it opened. “It took more than a generation and a half to be built,” recalls Frank Woods, an architect who worked on the project, “another generation to be absorbed into the culture of the city and another to be seen as an international model of its type.” For some, it’s a battle yet to be won.
The idea for the Barbican was prompted by the need to save the Corporation of London from oblivion after the Second World War devastated the residential population of the Square Mile. In 1951, Cripplegate had a population of just 48 – a century earlier it was home to 14,000. Without residents and voters, the town risked losing its centuries-old powers and being absorbed into the wider London County Council.
Envisioned as a ‘city within a city’, the Barbican was envisioned to attract affluent middle-class professionals to the centre, providing a utopian community of 4,000, with unrivaled cultural amenities, as well as schools, a church , shops and pubs, all arranged around an artificial lake. The rough concrete look of the estate has led many to believe it was originally built as social housing, but that was not the case. The apartments were designed to be high density and high value, to help pay for the vast cultural podium on which they stood. The arts center – which tripled in size during the design process – would be buried, so as not to obstruct the view from the luxury apartments.
An essay in the book by Elain Harwood, a post-war specialist at Historic England, dissects the evolution of the project of the young architecture firm Chamberlin, Powell & Bon. “We don’t like the Garden City tradition at all,” the architects said, “with its sparseness, monotony, and waste of good country, roads, curbs, curbs, and paths in endless strips everywhere .” Instead, they wanted to make a “truly urban” place, inspired by their visit to Le Corbusier’s Unite d’Habitation in Marseille. Harwood notes how they also drew on historical references, from the austere medieval towers of San Gimignano in Italy to the repeated barrel-vaulted roofs of churches on the Greek island of Mykonos. The brick used on the lower levels was a nod to the warehouse basements that were there until they were hit by Luftwaffe bombs.
The result was an attractive cocktail – half bastion, half brutalist hanging gardens of Babylon – and it presented itself as the ultimate expression of the search for a monument of the modern movement. As the Architects’ Journal writes: “The Barbican, now complete, has all the aspects – gigantism, singleness of purpose – of that bygone era when architects had the confidence (or the naivety) to believe that monumentality had a place in architecture. – and that part of their job was to impose discipline and order on the users of the buildings.
By the time it was finally completed in the 1980s, such modernist dogma was anathema. Massively delayed and well over budget, the Barbican was seen by many as a concrete albatross around the neck of the city. In a heated high-level debate, a city official argued that the money would have been better spent on prisons. The Aberdeen Press and Journal’s review was typical of the reaction to the opening in 1982: ‘From the outside, the much-hyped Barbican Center is hardly worth £152m’ – a figure that would represent almost 600 million pounds in today’s silver.
Once inside, however, the reviewer was won over. “The imagination, skill and irresistible effort that has gone into this 25 year old project becomes immediately apparent. It is anchored in the pine clad walls, polished teak flooring, subtle lighting, overall design. In fact, the Barbican has been described as “a haven of cultural perfection in the middle of the City of London”.
Christoph Bon, the trio’s Swiss architect, had been adamant that fixtures and fittings in public spaces should be as luxurious as possible. As a result, visitors glide across the end grain block floors, run their fingers along the polished brass handrails and bask inside the theater’s cocoon of Peruvian walnut – materials all chosen to contrast with the artfully rugged surface of hammered concrete walls. . There were innovations at every turn, such as the fact that each row of theater seats had its own door – a boon for latecomers trying to squeeze their way to their seats.
And latecomers don’t always have to blame themselves. The complexity of incorporating so many sites on so many levels on a 40 acre site has always made the place a maddening maze for the uninitiated, with successive decades of signage and wayfinding strategies deployed in an attempt to facilitate passages in the form of a labyrinth. . Even before the arts center opened, it had earned a reputation for being incredibly difficult to navigate. An official advertising poster even quipped: “If Helen Mirren can find the new Barbican Center before it opens in March, she will appear there in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
While unafraid of the more dysfunctional sides of the Barbican, the book contains revealing recollections of those who had to endure its backgrounds, including actor Fiona Shaw, who arrived while in tenure of the Royal Shakespeare Company here was only two seasons old. “Its first reputation among RSC actors was that of a very luxurious but terrifying building,” she wrote, describing how the stage door was “hidden as an afterthought”, and how the actors spent their time “lost in stairs and inhospitable corridors”. , forced to rehearse in underground rooms “like canaries in a mine”.
Some of these lingering idiosyncrasies are part of why the Barbican recently launched a £150m architectural competition, to seek ‘a new vision for a global icon’. Fans of the venue have good reason to be wary. There have been many past attempts to tame the beast, most of which have failed. In the early 1990s, Pentagram’s Theo Crosby was commissioned to create a new look for the centre, which introduced pastel colors and gold fiberglass statues in a bizarre and whimsical pastiche – called “low DIY” by Geoffrey Powell, one of the first trio.
Gillian Darley’s review in the Observer was damning: “Crosby’s particular attempts to animate the Barbican suggest a dank squib of a student project rather than a scheme drawn up by an international design group.” Another rebranding project in 2000 prompted the Guardian to note: “The world’s most bewildering arts center solves the problem of its notorious signs once and for all – getting rid of most of them.
But this latest venture sounds even stronger. While admirably aiming to improve the accessibility and sustainability of the complex, the brief also speaks of “a huge opportunity to bring to life currently underutilized spaces… in support of our creative and commercial ambitions”. That sounds suspiciously like an understatement for turning it into a mall. The shortlist of architects tasked with delivering “bold” and “radical” solutions includes David Adjaye, Bjarke Ingels and Diller Scofidio + Renfro, a star-studded cast known neither for its subtlety nor its sensitive restorations of post-war buildings.
The Barbican may be a big bully, but he is a carefully composed, Grade II rated bully. It requires delicate intervention with a touch of levity – no more tight stores in every available nook.