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‘The massive Barbican complex in London was designed to bring life to the city’

The imminent completion of the Barbican Arts Centre called for a feature of its evaluation

Originally published in AR October 1981, this piece was republished online in May 2016

The Barbican Arts Centre, illustrated in these pages, will be the home next month of lnscape ’81, the international exhibition of design for interiors, from 15-19 November. Sponsored by The Architectural Review, lnscape will mark the first public use of the Barbican Arts Centre and will give visitors a chance to get an early glimpse of London’s massive new cultural complex.

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The Barbican Arts Centre, the final phase of the massive Barbican complex in the City of London, is nearing completion. With the concert hall, cinema, library and foyer spaces finished, now is perhaps a good time to assess the achievement of the entire development. The Barbican is remarkable for the consistency of its product: conceived in the mid-’50s, Chamberlin Powell & Ban’s scheme has preserved the ideals of that period almost intact, weathering 25 years of immense change outside its walls.

If a future generation forms a Fifties Society, they would conceivably argue for the listing of this building, even though it was completed in the ’80s. The arts centre has always been considered an integral part of the Barbican redevelopment.

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Bombs had flattened the Barbican area during the war, and in the ‘50s the City Corporation took up the recommendation of the then Minister of Housing, Duncan Sandys, that the Barbican should become ’a genuine residential neighbourhood incorporating shops, open spaces and other amenities, even if this means foregoing a more remunerative return on the land’. In the initial1955 proposal to the Corporation, CPB were asked to include new premises for the Guildhall School of Music & Drama. Later these facilities were expanded to allow for some public use, and finally it was decided to develop a complete arts centre-on a restricted site the volume of the centre trebled during the course of the project.

‘Pedestrian and vehicular traffic has been rigidly segregated throughout the development, and the result is an unclear circulation’

The arts centre as completed contains a 2000-seat concert hall (the home of the London Symphony Orchestra); a 1200-seat theatre (not yet completed), the London base of the Royal Shakespeare Company; a 300-seat cinema, fully equipped for conferences and lectures; a library; an art gallery; various restaurants; a large conservatory; and separate conference facilities. It sits in the midst of residential accommodation for approximately 6500 people in over 2000 flats and maisonettes (see AR August 1973}. The design of the centre was approved in 1969 and construction started two years later. In the 10 years since the cost of the centre has risen rapidly: originally budgeted for £16·7 million the final cost will be in excess of £150 million.

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By virtue of its location in the midst of the residential portions of the Barbican, the arts centre is difficult to find. Pedestrian and vehicular traffic has been rigidly segregated throughout the development, and the result is an unclear circulation pattern. The architects expect the majority of users to approach the centre on the podium walkways, the raised paths that run across the Barbican. Originally the podium was designed to extend into the heart of the City, so thousands of workers would find an inviting and simple path into the complex, above the noisy and noisome rush hour traffic.

At present, finding the podium itself is difficult, although the City has promised escalators both at the London Wall end of the site and from the Barbican underground station. Cars and taxis have two possible drop-off points, leading into the main foyers, but unless the podium is made more inviting these entrances will be used by pedestrians who will find the subterranean qualities oppressive. 

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From the outside, only the art gallery, library, and entrance to the foyers, and conservatory are visible, as the bulk of the centre is underground. The conservatory is a huge glasshouse, while the art gallery/library area is clad in white tile-both in distinct contrast to the overwhelming concrete expanses of the rest of the Barbican. Upon entering the foyers, the aesthetic shifts back to concrete, bush-hammered and on a grand scale. The foyers have been likened by one critic to Piranesi’s Carceri, and they do have the interweaving staircases and double height spaces, but lack the softening touch that Piranesi provides with his lush overgrowth. The arts centre is very straight-there are few signs of wit, no light touches; all is big, bold and very serious. As a result, the foyers occasionally look impressive, but at a personal level-on the scale of its eventual users-they suffer from the faults of insensitive modern buildings. The single height spaces are claustrophobic: one feels constrained by all the concrete, and instead of a sense of release upon looking out to the double height spaces, one feels oppressed by the scale of the project. There is neither intimacy nor grandeur. Bland neutrality is the keynote for the furnishings; they are more appropriate to an international air terminal or conference centre (the Barbican’s other role which seems to have gained an upper hand in places) than to an arts centre. The foyers also lack a focal point because of the complicated circulation areas which spring off in many directions.

‘Even before a single drink at the bar, one feels off-balance and disorientated, entering the concert hall is a relief’

Attention is therefore directed towards the bright orange wall of the concert hall which dominates the foyers. CPB wanted a key colour to signal the concert hall and other major spaces (the theatre will have a red exterior), but in an unfortunate economy (which the architects opposed) the Italian ceramic tiles which might have lent an air of elegance to the foyers were replaced by a garish coat of paint. The most puzzling and disturbing aspect of the foyers is the way the floor at level 5 slopes down to the concert hall. This was necessitated by the need to fit the complex into pre-existing levels in the Barbican and comply with regulations concerning ceiling height and barrier free access. The result is that even before a single drink at the bar, one feels off-balance and disorientated. Entering the concert hall is a relief.

A large, predominantly horizontal space, the concert hall displays the many variations of pine veneer panelling. The side walls have large acoustic boxes made out of aspen pine, while the rear wall of the concert platform uses the pine sculpturally (what looks like a screen for organ pipes is for acoustic tuning and decoration), and the stage canopy uses the pine grain to create distinctive stripes. At first glance the wood variations are confusing, but in the subdued lighting of a concert the effect is to create distinct areas within a large hall. The seats, designed by Robin Day, are in a sequence of five cool colours and their restful appearance is an accurate reflection of their comfort. The detailing around the seats is one of the best small touches in the centre: the wood floor is continued with a gentle slope upwards to form the back of each row. The ceiling is the one disappointing aspect of the concert hall: the perspex globes installed for acoustic purposes look shabby and haphazard; surely some sort of wood baffling would have been more consistent with the rest of the hall.

The hall is still being tuned, but at a recent trial concert the sound was slightly dry, lacking resonance in the bass. However the sound was close enough to the desired result that further tinkering should solve any problems. The library directly adjoins the concert hall through the foyers; the architects intended the music library in particular to be used by concertgoers, but the administration of the centre will probably bar access to the library except from the main staircase and lift area. A distinct change from the foyers, the library has more natural light than any other part of the centre (the conservatory excepted). Although the natural-coloured tough sisal carpeting here may grow dirty with use, when clean it lightens the entire library and creates a welcome, almost casual atmosphere-wholly appropriate for a library.

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From the library the lifts can lead straight down to the cinema (the lowest level of the centre), or the main staircase can be used which allows a glimpse of the one hint of humour in the centre. The stairwell leading to the cinema is filled with a large, mirrored mural by Michel Santry which introduces a gratifying touch of joyous colours and is thankfully not co-ordinated with anything else. In such a large complex, the omnipresence of a single guiding design is monotonous and glimpses of nonconformity are needed. The cinema foyer has the excitement of a film set before the director cries ‘Action!’: dark and cool, punctuated with a few bright lights hanging from a steel grid.

The cinema itself has garishly coloured seats; otherwise the jagged white fibrous plaster ceiling and side walls are an attractive shift from the largely planar surfaces in much of the centre. The cinema will double as a conference hall and is fully equipped for simultaneous translation. From the cinema, back up the stairs, one reaches the conservatory. Final planting is yet to be determined, but the conservatory could prove to be the most popular part of the Barbican. While the concert hall and theatre attract crowds within a very limited part of the day, if the conservatory becomes a true wintergarden, with restaurant and bars, it might just encourage casual visits to the complex by Londoners looking for a pleasant spot for a drink. Dominated by the double height flytower of the theatre it is a dramatic and potentially attractive (in both senses) space.

The other gathering place in the centre, the water terraces, is enjoyable on a warm summer evening with the fountains trickling, but unfortunately London weather requires a space that is more inside than outside for much of the year.

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The incomplete portions of the arts centre can be mentioned in passing. The art gallery is on two levels and is composed of a series of bays around a grand, almost ceremonial stair. On its first level the art gallery opens on to the sculpture court which is overlooked by the Frobisher Crescent. The crescent was originally intended as residential accommodation, but when the City Corporation decided to transform the arts centre into a conference facility, part of the crescent was converted to conference use.

Linked by means of lifts and stairs with the concert hall, the crescent contains seminar rooms and two cinema/lecture rooms. The middle two floors will be let as offices and the upper two floors will be used by the City University School of Business Studies.

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‘The Barbican is there for all to see, a reminder of a lost age, newborn while the rest of the world has matured’

The theatre promises to be the most interesting element in the centre. In order to retain intimacy in a fairly large theatre, the volume of the auditorium has been reduced to a minimum by the exclusion of all circulation space in the form of gangways: the auditorium is approached by means of stepped foyers from which each seat row is selected, access being obtained by means of a door at the end of each row. In addition, the three balconies of two rows project forward towards the stage, reducing the headroom, while the roof of the auditorium is supported by upstanding beams external to the volume of the auditorium. In addition, no seat is further than 20 m from the point of command, a position in the centre of the stage.

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What then can one make of this enormous complex? The Barbican was planned to bring life to the City, and the final verdict on how it achieves that will have to wait until the arts centre is fully in operation some time next spring. Yet the notion of an arts centre, particularly one of this scale in the middle of London, no􀂗 seems ill-judged. Arts centres tend to become arts ghettos, particularly when they are in areas that have little else to offer in the evening. Covent Garden thrives because of the diversity and choice offered: scores of restaurants, pubs, shops.

The Barbican is more of a company town, the only restaurants are Barbican restaurants, the only pubs Barbican pubs, the only shops … well, there aren’t any. ln the ’80s, confronted by this ’50s dream, one is made painfully conscious of the enormous changes that have occurred in planning thought and, more important, public awareness. The Barbican would never be built today because people are aware that what makes a city enjoyable and lively is diversity, change, and small interventions and not a single vision, conformity, and gigantism. There is nothing new in saying this; Jane Jacobs wrote about it nearly 20 years ago. The Barbican is there for all to see, a reminder of a lost age, newborn while the rest of the world has matured.

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