London’s Barbican has been something of an enigma to me. I’ve walked through it in the past on the way to some other destination and formed some hasty conclusions. Over a weekend in May I got to spent some time there and it turns out that I was wrong about just about everything…
On face value the Barbican is a large scale experiment in inner city living, consisting of chunky slabs of tower blocks raised on stilts, surrounding a large arts and entertainment venue. It occupies a prime location in the City Of London and yet, dwarfed by a vertical forest of steel and glass neighbours you could pass close by without noticing it.
First impressions of this 60’s development are that it was designed using duplo lego bricks and then brutally assembled in the kind of depressing mottled concrete that has attracted derision and wrecking balls in towns across the land. Derby’s Assembly Rooms sits firmly in this unfashionable bracket and there is little sentiment for it. Much of my student life in Sheffield was played out to a backdrop of harsh concrete flats spawned in the same era that garnered an unenviable reputation. If you have watched The Full Monty you can picture the scene.
The Barbican may share many design elements of other berated projects but – it is a resounding success. Yes, a one bedroom flat here costs 700k and plenty of high profile names call it home but money alone cannot explain why this 60’s vision of the future works on so many levels
I’m feeling a little self conscious today, not because I am taking photos in a residential area but because I have seen 2 large groups of photographers with the same idea. A little intrusive, no?
Like these other photographers I can’t help being drawn to the lines and shadows cast by such a regulated structure. It’s bordering on the hypnotic and amidst all this starkness shafts of sunlight and well tended beds of greenery become amplified in effect. The centrepiece is a marvelous lake that serves as an oasis in this unlikely estate. Almost everything looks like it has been designed in Minecraft. It’s a surprise that the ducks are not rectangular.
If you have found the lake then you have been successful in navigating the labarynthine walkways that defy any logic. You have also found your way to the jewel in the crown – the Barbican Centre.
I first visited on a quiet Friday with few people around and was seduced by an interior that has the nerve to stick to the design principles of the exterior. Great open spaces are sparsely furnished with flat communal sofas. There are bold ramps and unnecessarily angular stairways that lead to over sized balconies and walkways. The floors are carpetted, fittings are brass and – well that’s about it for fineries and fittings.
The ceilings and lighting are some gloriously imagined 1960’s Stanley Kubrick vision of a future spaceport. I mean, just look at this!
I love the way in which there is simultaneously a huge amount of open communal space and yet numerous little intimate enclaves in which you can sit quietly doing something smug on your iPad. The interior – like the exterior – succeeds in making you feel welcome and included, despite the daunting scale of this endeavour. There can be no more relaxing space in London.
The Barbican Centre is not without its frustrations however. Getting lost is only fun for a while. There are emaciated people in some dead-end corner right now praying for their dying cell-phone to connect so they can be located and rescued after 15 days of solice.
I’m on the first floor balcony and I can almost touch the music library which is also on the first floor just yards away, except there is no walkway there. In any action film chase sequence this would be a jumpable gap. It takes me 20 minutes to find a route, involving going downstairs, walking across the large atrium, taking a lift and then walking down some steps. The helpful staff here are used to requests for directions.
It’s the weekend and I’m back to check out a free classical musical festival. My knowledge of classical music is fleeting but it’s never too late to learn. There’s a different vibe to the Barbican Centre today with many hundreds of people here to enjoy the concerts. My first encounter is at St Lukes Church – built 250 years before the Barbican and now subsumed by it. It’s very satisfying to find a 16th Century building within the grounds of a 1960’s estate, which in itself is shadowed by a 21st century skyline.
The 12 Ensemble – only numbering 8 today – deliver an hour of unadulterated joy. They are vibrant and yet sensitive in their delivery and with my eyes closed their live performance takes me to another place. I’m so impressed that I watch their next performance (eyes open) in the Barbican Centre later on.
This time they are fronted by guest star Miloš – an internationally acclaimed classical guitarist. He lives up to his lofty reputation with a supremely charismatic performance that has everyone on the edge of their seats. Even the fractious younger in row 1 shuts her gob for the duration, absorbed by the show.
On Sunday I’ve the pick of London but how can I not return to the Barbican? At noon the events kick off in the main hall. What a beautifully presented and illuminated stage. This is clearly a fabulous venue for the arts.
None other than Stephen Fry introduces the Britten Sinphonia Orchestra by reading a remarkably personal letter – the famed Heiligenstadt Testament (do click the link!) – penned by Beethoven to his brothers. The stage is packed with musicians whose international standing is only eclipsed by rock star conductor Thomas Adès who fronts their ensuing performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No 9. Seriously though, what do conductors actually do? They’re just air drumming aren’t they?
I can’t remember the last time I saw a full sized orchestra at close quarters. It’s an experience I want to repeat soon and regularly. How do you adequately describe music through writing? Every musician here is a richly talented individual, recognised and feted in their industry. Together they produce magic, beauty and raw emotion.
The middle sections are grand and rich in texture, the crescendos are, almost overwhelming, and then a soloist punctuates the vast hall with a raw and gentle honesty that humbles everything before it.
To think that I only decided to check out the programme on a whim. I can’t get enough of this and so, with the clock ticking down to my train home I leg it over to a nearby venue for one final gig. Pianist Jayson Gillham has attracted his fair share of fans. I’ve never heard of him. I’m an ignoramus.
Honestly, I don’t know what he played. It wouldn’t even matter. He delivered the most sublime, intimate interpretation of his set. I have never witnessed a musician of any genre commit themselves more fully to expressing a work of music. If that wasn’t enough his dialogue between pieces bristled with humanity. With an artist of Jayson’s pedigree delivery of even the most technically challenging piece is a given and all energy is focused on expression. I think I have a man crush.
And with the end of that performance the bubble is broken and I’m back in the concrete realm of the Barbican.
I’ve been struggling with a question over the last few days: Why does a complex versed in architectural language that has failed elsewhere succeed so impressively here?
I think there are a number of reasons. Location for sure. The generous scale such a vision demands. The accentuation of light and nature against this regulated urban backdrop. And there is a sense of identity and relevance that a vibrant arts venue can bring to any setting.
The Barbican may not have the loudest voice in London but it has a lot to shout about. I’ll be back. With a map.