City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

There’s a fabulous exhibition at the Barbican, about the Barbican. I found it inspiring, reminding me why I’m perpetually fascinated by the Barbican – it’s a modern project that worked.

Those not in London may not know the Barbican – to cut a very long story short, a single night of WWII bombing transformed classic London labyrinthe to surreal bombscape (photographs depict a scene almost Max Ernst). Amidst wholescale rebuilding of the flattened city, the architects, Chamberlin, Powell and Bon, started thinking about the space in 1951, commenced official planning from 1959, construction from 1971, finally completing the Barbican in 1982. It’s a unique complex: multi-functional, mixed-planning, modernist and postmodernist touches, borrowing ideas from Corb, FLW, Stockholm city centre, those influenced by European vernacular architecture, and so on.

The architect’s cosmopolitan openmindedness and desire to engage with, if not create, a modern European lifestyle by design are particularly inspiring (yet so is the fact that their work further destroys the notion of ‘single genius designer’ – they had no qualms in borrowing massively from the best ideas of the time, as well as classic patterns and solutions – and it was clearly a team effort).

The Barbican’s beautiful use of external space – the juxtaposition of concrete walkways with lush greenery and water, the latter borrowed from the classical formal squares of Paris’ Places des Vosges and London’s Georgian squares – is mirrored in its high-quality internal spaces, featuring now iconic Scandinavian fittings, lovingly recreated in the exhibition. It’s a wonderfully democratic allocation of space, far more so than today’s sprawling loft apartments, never mind detached houses- the flats are idealistically small, in the spirit of the pre-war Isokon.

Videos, featuring Piers Gough and Iain Sinclair amongst others, tell the story, often noting the complex’s notoriously impenetrable navigation (my first ‘experience’ of the Barbican was getting lost in an early virtual rendition of it: it has a walk-on part in the <geek signifier>mid-80’s Fourth Protocol ZX Spectrum game</geek signifier> as a particularly tortuous maze). It’s actually designed to be supremely navigable for residents. Other video footage includes a touching Cholmondley-Warner-like filmreel from the LCC architects office, just post-Blitz, describing plans for the redevelopment of London (much of which still hasn’t happened).

Piers Gough makes some excellent points about how sad it is that perhaps the single failing of the complex – the navigation – stopped all of the ideas implicit in the Barbican from taking hold elsewhere in Britain. That the baby was hurridly thrown out with the bathwater, and that any notion of engaging with a new form of city living was rejected, in favour of the classic English ideal of detached houses facing each other across roads. Gough’s description of the Barbican as “an intensification of the city” is bang on, and it doesn’t seem overly melodramatic to claim that the failure of British local authorities to create this new kind of modern city was nothing short of disastrous – the litany of problems created by the shoddy social housing and lazy road-oriented planning built in its stead confirms that.

<aside>Just how embarrassing is the Barbican website is in this context? The designers should be made to live in the exhibition for the last month, forced to engage with the humane ideas at its core, rather than replicate the hermetically-seal sense of exclusivity the complex sometimes has – it’s as if they deliberately engaged with the Barbican’s worst aspect.</aside>

This enclave-sensibility, and the fact that it took London’s richest local authority to underwrite it (though to their immense credit, they never pulled the plug over its 30-year gestation) do cloud the rose-tinted picture slightly, and several sly digs surface in video footage. As Iain Sinclair ponders as to just “where the people are”, another resident (an architect) describes how he secretly enjoys the way walkways and tunnels secrete pedestrians and traffic away, noting how architects always like to see their buildings without people in them!

From a political perspective on modernism, it’s easy to knock the Barbican – it’s a hugely desirable place to live, inhabited by the well-off and well-connected (with the sole exception of Golden Lane’s social housing, which has a 10-year waiting list). Yet just as classics of modernist furniture are now hideously expensive icons, when they were originally intended to be mass-produced and affordable, it is still possible to appreciate the original spirit of creation and point the finger elsewhere, at the conservative culture surrounding these few successful examples of the movement. If other post-war housing schemes had the same internationalist openmindedness, attention to detail, quality production and maintenance, and rich appreciation of the context of architecture, we wouldn’t be singling out the Barbican as an exceptional curio, but we’d all be living in such “intensifications of the city”. And London in particular would be a better place.

Admission free, at the Barbican’s Curve Gallery until April 14 2002.


2 responses to “Barbican: This Was Tomorrow”

  1. Nico Macdonald Avatar

    As a Barbican resident of three years standing I can whole-heartedly endorse the sentiments in this review. Although it is easy to see the post-War imagination and ambition as very limited compared to its pre-War counterpart some of the ideas that took shape in the Barbican make you shiver with their radicalism when considered against today’s narrow and mean excuses for urban accommodation.
    The most noticeable radical development was the Podium level of the complex which extends well beyond it to Moorgate and towards Cheapside. It was created with a vision of the urban population moving around above the level of the car and represents an ambitious response to the then recent explosion of this kind of road traffic. While I happen to think cars add to the vibrancy of pedestrian life this idea was anything but conservative.
    The apartments are also well designed, in the real sense of the word. They have no wasteful corridors, the rooms are well proportioned, kitchens are planned for efficiency and to integrate with the rest of the living space, cooker hobs are in a line with their controls mapped directly above them (now there’s an idea whose time has come), milk and post are delivered to boxes accessible from the inside and the outside of the apartment, rubbish is collected daily, and a ‘Garchey’ system allows for disposal of much rubbish — including nappies — down a chute in one of the sinks. The whole environment of the complex is equally well considered. From the window cleaning to the underground car parking (where the attendants will also accept deliveries and post a pink note through your letterbox to notify you) the design of the Barbican was thought out from the point of view of the people who live and work here.
    Of course the Barbican isn’t perfect, but if we could even retrieve half the vision of its planners, who had only a quarter of the vision of their forbears, we would be headed for a much more inspiring urban future.


  2. Dan Avatar

    Update: happily, the Barbican website got a lot better, as I noted here a few years later.


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