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The name Barbican comes from the Latin word ‘Barbecana’, which means fortress. As I walked into the expansive “city within a city”, or perhaps the most literal representation of the adage “concrete jungle” I had ever seen, I immediately understood the connection. Here was a building, whose construction began in 1971 and was completed in 1982, that used reinforced concrete and castle-like motifs, such as slit windows in the walls, to create a Brutalist hybrid that Westminster had never seen before. As our guide, Stefania explained, the Barbican escapes being tied to an age. Often, one can tell when a building was constructed based on its architectural attributes. The Barbican remains an enigma, drawing on medieval, modern, brutalist and Georgian motifs in its conception.
The result is a huge, and albeit hard to navigate, building that uses architecture of the past and present to create a visual timeline of London’s history. Although the Barbican hosts many renowned art spaces, such as its famous music hall, theatre and cinema, I was most intrigued and surprised to discover that the building houses many people. Although we could not enter the private flats of the Barbican residents, we could see them from afar; the penthouses capturing my eye. They are not grand or exceptionally beautiful, but it is their location that is special. It is as if one lived in the Victoria and Albert Museum, or atop the Big Ben or a basement apartment in the Tower of London. To live at the Barbican is to live in a slice of history which still endures and evolves to this day. As a resident, you have special privileges including access to private gardens and hidden places enveloped within the coded architecture. You can also say that you live at the Barbican, which is perhaps one of the main attractions of living there.
The style of the Barbican is most associated with brutalism, which, highlighting the word “brut” means “raw” in French, and is reminiscent of the word “brute”, meaning savage in English. In a sense, one does not need to be an expert in architecture to understand these connotations. Perhaps this is down to taste, but in a word, for me, the Barbican is unattractive. Its raw use of concrete, which has an uneven surface is dull, rough, and even “raw”. However, Stefania pointed out that men used electric drills to hand-make all of the grooves in the wall. Suddenly, the wall seemed less unappealing. As I ran my fingers over the bumps, I got a sense of human history. At some point in time, many men spent many hours achieving this look, a feat for a building as huge as the Barbican. Also, amidst the dull concrete is an abundance of nature. The conservatory, which was unfortunately closed during our tour, has an abundance of plant life that conceals a concrete elevator used in the theatre below. Some apartments overlook cement floors with large palm trees and ferns peppered among the space. It is almost an apology for the mass concrete or a way to balance the man-made elements with the natural. But no plant or structure is there by accident, the architects Chamberlin, Powell and Bon meticulously planned every detail, and the result is rather like a Persian tapestry; undecipherable up close, but a masterpiece when looked at from afar as a whole.
Having known almost nothing about the building before the walking tour, it was a pleasure to be guided by someone who was obviously very passionate about the space. Another young woman on our tour, when asked by Stefania as to why she decided to participate, simply said, “I just really love the Barbican”. Initially, I scoffed at this in my mind. “It’s not THAT great ” I thought, looking around at the dull concrete and harsh lines. Yet here were two passionate young women that devoted their time in deciphering its wonder. And that is where the Barbican sources its beauty. It is not everyone’s taste, but its history, function and meticulous conception impressed me greatly. The personality of the architects, and of the artists that helped shape the building, seemed to echo through the structure. And if you’re like me, who thought it an eyesore on London’s skyline, I suggest you take a walking tour; because like the intricate grooves in the concrete, it leaves a lasting impression.
Writing: Isabelle Thibault
Photography: Adrian Lang