The Barbican

15/03/19 20:35

Beware the Ides of March: Julius Caesar was assassinated on 15th March in 44 BC, Interserve went into administration on 15th March 2019, and things aren’t going well for Theresa May today, either.  Somewhere in the south of England, a big red bus is careering towards the precipice of a high white cliff.  Better news arrived in the post from the Barbican Centre in London, from which I ordered a copy of “Building the Brutal”, a book of Peter Bloomfield’s photos taken during its construction.

It's a favourite sport among architects to recall what first attracted them to architecture.  We had a family friend who ran his own practice, and he offered sage advice when I put my portfolio together for the entrance interview at Duncan of Jordanstone.  My art teacher similarly encouraged me, introducing me to a local practice with whom I worked after I graduated: I recently met up with him again for the first time since 1990, which prompted me to cast my mind back further.

When I was in second or third year at secondary school, my parents diverted into Aberdeen each time we drove up to visit my grandparents, so that I could spend half an hour or so admiring the architecture books in Waterstone’s on Union Street.  Art and architecture were on a mezzanine floor towards the back of the shop – an area with plush burgundy carpet, black ash shelves and fancy lighting.  I still have the books I bought, usually paid for with book tokens received as birthday and Christmas presents.

As I leafed through the Barbican book, I realised something about it had lodged deeply in a recess of my brain.  It’s the one place I return to every time I visit London, and it dawned on me there might be a reason for that, beyond the fact it’s an impressive megastructure and quite unique in Britain.  “Utopian” is a cliché, and Brutalism has become fashionable nowadays among critics and hipsters - but both applied to the Barbican pretty much from its conception in the late 1950’s through to 1982 when it was completed.

In those days, the Barbican consisted of unfashionable public housing for rent which politicians, trade union leaders and designers lived in.  By the 1990’s it had become fashionable housing for sale, with flats going for £200k or £300k.  You could just about imagine that if you worked hard and got a good job in London, then saved carefully you might be able to live in one. Now the flats are unattainable other than by the very rich or property speculators. I’m reminded of a short story by Will Self in which a drug-crazed City trader gazes out from his penthouse using binoculars, looking down both literally and figuratively on the proles seething along the pavements, several hundred feet below. Of course, nowadays that scene is just as likely to play out at Nine Elms or Canary Wharf than the Barbican.

Going right back into childhood, I still remember sitting in a primary classroom, drawing an outline of the Barbican onto the satin-textured newsprint paper which Dundee’s Education Department provided by the yard.  The pencils were bought from Winter’s in Shore Terrace, a wonderful art supplies shop in a Georgian building.  I remember Winter’s creaky door hinges (maybe they were floor springs…) and a mosaic floor across which the assistants heels click-clacked as they went to and from the back shop.  As with Waterstones in Aberdeen, I got to know the shelves at Winters quite well, and at some point I switched loyalty from blue Staedtler pencils to green Faber pencils, then to Caran D’Ache.

After a lot of casting my mind back, I’ve concluded that I must have been given a magazine or booklet about London, which had been published not long after the Barbican opened in 1982.  Perhaps that was one of the first things which turned me on to architecture, although the unattainable glamour of London may also have had something to do with it.  Unattainable to a child, that is.  Straining my memory further, I seem to recall the same magazine featured the RAF Museum at Hendon with a roof similar to the arcaded vaults on top of the crescents at the Barbican, and perhaps the terraced blocks beside St Katharine’s Dock. 

I have lots of other memories of places visited, but the Barbican has stuck with me.  The three dimensionality of the buildings and the interesting skyline marked London as something different: the vast scale of it only struck me when I visited in person. With the benefit of hindsight, the Barbican also seems like a properly-executed version of Park Hill, Cumbernauld Town Centre or the Siedlung Halen in Switzerland, which arguably helped to kick off the craze for mat buildings and megastructures.

So much for memory lane.  Meantime, many of the photos from Building the Brutal are reproduced on the Barbican’s website, here -

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