Monday, February 28, 2011

The Barbican

The Barbican Arts Centre: bright signage
And I thought it was ‘just’ a big arts centre. How ignorant. The Barbican Estate is home to 4,000 residents – nearly half of the population of the City of London! And a fascinating architectural story. Once described as ‘the ugliest building in London’, the Barbican – I think we can say – is now understood. It stands as a cohesive and enduring example of post-war modernism, rising from the ashes of The Blitz (I hope you have been reading this blog regularly!) to suit the brave new world of the upwardly mobile middle classes of the 1950s and 1960s. What a story it has.

The Barbican Estate (one small bit)
Shakespeare Tower

One of the earliest modernist social housing projects to be built in the City of London after the Blitz was the 'Golden Lane' Estate, and it was the subject of a big architectural competition. The competition was won by a young architect named Geoffrey Powell – he had made a pact with two of his friends, who worked as lecturers together – that if one of them won the Golden Lane project, they would all three band together and start a firm. That is how Chamberlin Powell and Bon was born. Golden Lane was a successful project strongly influenced by Le Corbusier. The idea of an estate as urban microcosm is clearly traceable to the thinking of Le Corbusier. After this success, the new firm was well-placed to win the project on the enormous bombed-out site of The Barbican. This massive project became the life’s work of these three architects.

Church of St Giles-without-Cripplegate. Then, not now.
The Barbican was conceived as city housing for the middle classes. The City wanted to encourage residents, so that it wouldn’t become a wasteland after business hours; and the estate was to include all the best modernist features. As it is, it shows signs of Le Corbusier in its curved balconies, and his ground breaking experiments with apartment buildings. It also nods to its Victorian surrounds with some subtle use of red brick; and manages to surround and incorporate some bits of the medieval London Wall, built on Roman ruins, and the the Church of St Giles-without-Cripplegate  (- presumably ‘without’ the City wall - which has its own fascinating history: there has been a church on the site since 1060, but the Victorian version was blown to bits in The Blitz.) The name of the Barbican comes from the low Latin word ‘Barbecana’ which referred to a fortified outpost or gateway, such as an outer defence of a city or castle or a tower situated over a gate or bridge, which was used for defence purposes.

Some of the Barbican flats.

The Barbican residential estate is made up of thirteen residential blocks of about seven stories, grouped around a lake and a great number of green spaces. It also includes three very tall residential towers, winningly named ‘Shakespeare’, ‘Cromwell’ and ‘Lauderdale’. These are about 43 stories high, and were the highest buildings in London until Canary Wharf was built. So the accommodation ranges from studio flats for singles, to family flats with gardens, to towering penthouses: reflecting the young City stockbrokers’ presumed path up the social scale.

The 'highwalks'
There are car parks under the Barbican, but no vehicular traffic within it. Everyone walks along the ‘highwalks’ – podium level walkways linking everything together. Many people find the complex disorienting; and it seems that this arises from the architects' deliberate attempt to make walking around the complex and interesting and diverse experience. They didn’t want the residents to be walking up and down boring, identical corridors – and in this they were certainly successful. In fact, walking around the highwalks is really quite lovely – the views are very different and interesting scenes pop up around each turn. Sometimes the walks are straight, sometimes curved, sometimes covered, sometimes not. The lake in the centre of the complex includes fountains and an urban waterfall; and the residents’ garden spaces – which are much more extensive than you would likely find in such a complex these days -  are locked and for their use only. Theatre-goers attending the arts centre do get a lakeside terrace for intermission refreshments.

Your own private lake. With waterfall.
And all this attractiveness in a building made predominantly of grey concrete in the ‘Brutalist’ style. Concrete was of course a favoured building material in the sixties. Chamberlin, Powell and Bon chose to use poured concrete rather than pre-fabricated concrete blocks. The concrete used is mixed with an aggregate and has been hand ‘pick-axed’ – even the surfaces all the way up the towers. Apparently there were some complaints from the workmen when they found out that this had to be done. On our guided tour we saw some examples of surfaces for the building which had been considered and rejected – white marble tiles, large rounded aggregate, plain poured concrete. The ‘pick-axed’ surface gives an interesting texture, even warmth, to what is rather an aesthetically unforgiving material. The concrete in the Barbican is also high-quality – it has en expected life-span of 300 years (60 years is the rather scandalous average for many concrete buildings these days).

Once the tallest towers in London,
still a major landmark
In addition to the names of the towers, writers are given pride of place in the naming of the residential blocks and highwalks: Ben Jonson gets a block named after him. Defoe and Bunyan too – they were parishioners at St Giles. Milton was also, and is in fact buried there. I could spend a whole blog post getting sidetracked into the fascinating history of this area – Cripplegate (the name comes from the Anglo-Saxon ‘cruplegate’ which means a covered way or tunnel which ran from the town gate of Cripplegate to the Barbican, then a fortified watchtower on the City wall.) Here’s just one small sample of what there is to learn:

In the early 1600s a French wigmaker and his family lived in Monkwell Street in the Barbican.  He never did anything particularly noteworthy.  But the City of London named one of the Barbican's terrace blocks after him.  What earned Christopher Mountjoy this immortality was that he let a spare room to a successful playwright on his frequent visits to London from Stratford, William Shakespeare.

Oh, what the heck, here’s another – illustrating why the literary characters have been commemorated in the names of the Barbican:

Until the early 19th century, Grub Street was a street close to London's impoverished Moorfields district that ran from Fore Street east of St Giles-without-Cripplegate north to Chiswell Street. Famous for its concentration of impoverished 'hack writers’, aspiring poets, and low-end publishers and booksellers, Grub Street existed on the margins of London's journalistic and literary scene. It was pierced along its length with narrow entrances to alleys and courts, many of which retained the names of early signboards. Its bohemian society was set amidst the impoverished neighbourhood's low-rent flophouses, brothels, and coffeehouses.

*deep breath to recover from digressions and re-focus*
Curved balconies; 'pick-axed' concrete

So – back to the architecture. The building had a very drawn-out history. Discussion about what to do with the Blitzed site began in 1952, and a decision to build the residential estate was taken in 1957. Discussion about the design then went on and on. In 1958 the architects sent the City Councillors who were deliberating over it on an architectural tour of Europe, so that they would understand the modernist concepts. They were sent to Sweden to see a shopping centre which used podium walkways; to Berlins to see Le Corbusier’s work; and the Venice (hardly modernist) to consider the advantages of a pedestrian community. They came back convinced, and Chamberlin, Powell and Bon were pretty much given free reign (and a generous budget) to go ahead and realise the post-war dream of ‘a world fit for heroes’. The estate was built between 1965 and 1976, and the first residents moved in in 1969.

As to the Barbican Arts Centre, it came later. There had always been vague plans to include some kind of amateur drama space, and a drama school (there are various schools and other community centres included in the site). But, bigger being better, the present large scale concert hall and theatre complex was envisaged. It is said that someone told the City councilmen that this was the best way to ‘make a profit’ from the arts. Spoke their language, eh? The arts centre was discussed and approved (eventually) in 1969-1972; it was built between 1972 – 1984. It is all located underground and has a rather complex layout with multiple entrances, leading to a confusing sort of experience. One reason for the confusion was that the architects always planned that people would approach the centre via the highwalks (they seem to have been rather starry-eyed about getting pedestrians up and off the nasty streets below). But few took them up on that, and people kept trying to approach the building via the familiar streets, which often meant emerging through car park entrances and delivery bays. Internally, the various spaces were rather hard to access, because the architects left an enormous atrium space through the centre of the building, to bring natural light right down to the lower levels. Sadly this made it difficult for the people to reach the lower levels. And you can imagine all that pick-axed grey concrete... Not good.

Great signage! How could you get lost now?
I am pleased to report that these problems have been fixed! There was a rather unsuccessful internal refurbishment in the early 1990s, which saw everything ‘brightened up’ with some twee swirly-patterned carpet and pointillist wallpaper, and some silly statues (think large gilt renditions of the muses – I saw a remnant in a back corridor, and it was awful). But in 2005-6 architects Allford Hall Monaghan Morris oversaw a major refurbishment which has been adjudged very successful. They won a British architecture award for the job in 2007. They built a ‘link bridge’ right through the centre of the building, making it much easier and more intuitive to walk from one side of the centre to the other, and to access the main halls. They opened out a public entrance on Silk Street (conceding defeat in the matter of the highwalks approaches – though you can still use them if you want). They also removed the twee colour scheme and introduced the highly recognizable ‘Barbican orange’ as a ‘corporate colour’ (also known as a trade mark, folks). Splashed of this vibrant orange appears with white panels alongside the grey concrete, enlivening it enormously. The colour is also used in really, really clear signage everywhere – keeping things simple. Think: ‘hall’, ‘theatre’, ‘tickets’, ‘bar’. I think we’re all going to be alright now.

The Barbican Arts Centre has been the home of the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) since it was opened. The acoustic in the concert hall had been upgraded a few times, but still gets some criticism. I have not yet had the pleasure of listening to a concert in there, so you’ll have to await my report on that. I have experienced the theatre, and it is brilliant. How often do you never have to worry about a talk person in front of you, or how to find your row (that signage again)? The Barbican was also the home of the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSO) until 2002.

The Barbican Estate. Central London.
In September 2001 the barbican complex was given a Grade II listing, which gives it (and its green spaces) very high protection. The trio of architects responsible for it, Chamberlin, Powell and Bon, had all passed away by this time, leaving behind them a rather amazing life’s work.

It has been designated a site of special architectural interest for its scale, its cohesion and the ambition of the project. The complex is architecturally important as it is one of London's principal examples of concrete Brutalist architecture and considered a landmark.

Nevertheless, the architecture continues to divide opinion. The Barbican complex was voted "London's ugliest building" in a Grey London poll in September 2003. But when the Queen finally opened it in 1982 she pronounced it "one of the wonders of the modern world". I guess those of you who have not experienced it (at least since the Allford Hall Monaghan Morris overhaul of the arts centre) will just have to take my word for it – the place is fascinating! Full of enthusiasm for the Barbican, I have joined up as a friend of the Arts Centre and booked tickets for ‘The Sapphires’ (a musical coming in from Belvoir in Australia) and some Vivaldi with Philippe Jaroussky singing; and I do hope to be able to get tickets to Simon Rattle conducting the LSO for some Messiaen, and The Met live opera broadcasts...and maybe some French black-and-white cinema from the sixties...such a cornucopia!

And would I live there? Not sure...but here's someone who loves it.

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