Ah, the Barbican Estate, it took me a while to appreciate you, largely because I have such a bad sense of direction simply getting to you filled me with fear. But with time comes familiarity, google maps’ blue dot and a burgeoning love of Brutalist/modernist architecture.
So off I went on a ridiculously cold day for a nearly two hour tour of the estate and despite not being able to feel my toes by the end I’m very glad I went. So what did I learn that was worth all this?
Well, just knowing more about a space I have spent a lot of time in and feeling like I know it that little bit better felt good. Having been bombed in WWII and bought by the City of London Corporation the area was ready for development, but what this would be like took many years to determine, with pressure on London’s residential population ultimately pushing the Corporation to develop an extensive residential development – for the middle classes.
So up grew flats of various sizes, private green spaces, masses of car parking space underground, a ‘walled’ environment and direct walkways from the underground – ultimately these walkways never quite worked as people instinctively came out at ground level and ignored them.
And several years later, once these residential spaces had been built came the arts centre. I’d never really appreciated that the arts spaces are all underground (my spacial awareness really is that bad) – this is because they didn’t want to create something that would annoy the residents and so down they dug and created a whole new space.
Several things stood out on the tour – the level of thought and detail that went into the design, even though many of these details didn’t work as planned (such as the walkways); the scale of the residential area in this distinctly un-residential area of London; the immense scale of the fly tower above the stage that holds the various backdrops that is enormous and led the architects to create the tropical conservatory simply to hide this tower; and the concrete.
I already knew the Barbican was concrete, being a Brutalist modernist building this always just made sense (and I also learnt today that Brutalism actually means concrete!). However, originally the design was for it to be clad in marble. Apparently the engineer involved came up with the idea of a concrete finish instead, which should have been a lot cheaper. But the sheer scale of the development and the fact that to get the desired finish on the concrete meant specially training a workforce to hammer the outside layer of the concrete to reveal the aggregate underneath meant months of work at a huge expense. I can’t look at the columns now without imagining hundreds of men hammering away, engulfed in clouds of dust.
I’ll never be able to look at the place in the same way.
Barbican Tours are available throughout the year – book in advance on the website
Cost: £12.50 per person
Silk Street London