Monday, October 15, 2012
Really enjoyed the ‘Architecture Tour’ of the Barbican complex, which is currently running (I’ll also be checking out the ‘Hidden Barbican’ tour this week). It’s incredible to think, walking through its endless walkways and lakeside walks - or rather running, as I'm there three times a week jogging to an app - that the whole area was one big flattened bomb site just after WWII. The Barbican Estate as a whole is vast: it feels like an elevated mini-city in its own right, hermetically cut off from the rest of London, with tunnels and passageways leading off in all directions. More interesting still, listening to the tour guide, is the revelation that the phrase ‘brutalist architecture’ – which also applies to the Southbank Centre, of course – doesn’t actually literally refer to something that’s ‘brutal’ but instead comes from the French béton brut: raw concrete. The term was first coined by Le Corbusier in a neutral manner to describe many of the post-war buildings he was involved with, and whose ideas were hugely influential on the design of Barbican (although he was never directly involved in the project); there was even an exhibition on his work right in the Barbican gallery at one point, which I mentioned here in a previous post that also brought up the writings of JG Ballard. The gallery should really have an exhibition just on the Barbican complex itself, showing all the architectural plans and photos of what the gutted area looked like directly after the war and just before building work began.
Just as with the likes of Habitat 67 in Montreal, the Barbican was designed to bring the middle-classes back into the centre of London at a time when they were moving in droves to the suburbs (a process that is now generally reversing). With its endless “walkways in the sky”, it feels like a futuristic version of paradise, albeit one made of weather-stained concrete. It's possible to glimpse in the Barbican Estate the original prototype of the council estate, an ideal that people actually aspired to at one time before many of the shallow imitators of the Barbican became notorious areas for crime and bleakness. The prototype setting of JG Ballard's High-Rise, in which the residents of a posh luxury forty-story tower block slowly go insane, indulging in carnage and death, is most likely the Barbican (though the Barbican's residents haven't engaged in an orgy of destruction such as in the book - though I could be wrong...).
Anyway, the real jewels are the various lakes (below) and the Conservatory, the latter of which is only open on Sundays.
Walking around its vaguely tropical-looking plants, nested inside an enormous conservatory surrounded by huge skyscrapers, you feel in the Conservatory (pictures below) like you’re in something of a sci-fi novel (or even the film Silent Running, which I’ve just happened to watch - though admittely the Conservatory isn't floating in space).
Brutalist architecture has become something of a much-used term, of course. Despite the Barbican being voted “London’s ugliest building” in 2003 in a poll, it’s actually been Grade II listed. And despite its controversy, writers such as Own Hatherley have championed the site in Militant Modernism, a book that yours truly is currently reading.