This article was originally published in 2013.
We introduce you to the many faces of the Barbican, from curating to marketing, press to programming, gardening to gift shop, as we meet the people that bring the Barbican Centre to life every day.
Taking a break from guiding us around the Barbican Estate, we speak to Thomas Kohut, a former Barbican Architecture Tour guide.
Thomas led architecture tours of the Barbican Estate most weekends. He came to architecture and design via an English degree and a brief stint as an agent in the theatre industry.
How long have you been working at the Barbican?
It’ll be four years this September. I went through a big career change, decided to go back to University, and needed somewhere fun to work whilst I was a student again. I began as a Host, and because of my personal (and now professional) interest in design, I started reading-up on the estate and led my first tour about nine months later. Even though I finished studying and started my day-job three years ago, I enjoy being a tour guide so much that I refused to leave.
Talk us through your average working day.
Most of my tours are on a Saturday at the end of a busy week, so the day starts with me clutching a coffee as I arrive at the box office to check how many people are coming on my first tour. There are normally two tours to do in the day, with a break in the middle to rest my voice and read the paper. The tour itself starts in the Centre and we walk out into the pedestrian realm next to the Art Gallery. After a brief stop by the Conservatory, we then begin a huge loop, across Ben Jonson place, past the ‘arrow slits’ at Lauderdale Tower, the private garden, the church, and then back in across the lake. We finish standing on the (recent) internal bridge, as I try and explain the sometimes controversial internal designs and redesigns that the Barbican has seen over its thirty year history. No one tour is the same, each group reacts differently to the information and new questions appear each all the time. There is also no ‘average’ tour group; you never know who will appear at the Box Office. For example, I recently led a group of 20 architects on a Stag Weekend; the groom-to-be was dressed as a Cowboy, complete with hobbyhorse!
What is the best part of your job?
The people. I’m so lucky that I am given a captive audience of often fascinating people to talk to for 90 minutes about something I find so incredibly interesting! There is nothing more rewarding than passing on your passion for something to others, especially with a project like the Barbican Estate that is so misunderstood, even by people who live and work right next to it. There are a couple of moments in the tour when I look forward to the shock and surprise on people’s faces – like when I tell them there are only three flats on each floor of the towers, or point out the row of Victorian-style Mews Houses that look out onto the private garden, or explain how the textured concrete was created. And the best visitors to the Estate ask interesting questions, or make comments that completely alter the way I see the architecture. It’s such a rich site for analysis that I’m still learning new interpretations – not a tour goes by that I don’t change my opinion on something.
What is the most challenging part of your job?
Because you’re performing, in a way, sometimes to 20 people for an hour and a half, keeping the energy flowing can be a challenge, particularly after a busy week at work. Usually, though, the people on the tours are really energising; they ask stimulating questions and it gets me through!
Do you have a favourite spot in the Barbican Centre or Estate?
Yes – it’s a view of the estate from a gap in the brickwork at the corner of Wallside and the Postern. St Giles is in the foreground, with the magnificent Shakespeare Tower and some of the low-rise blocks in the North of the estate in the background. From that view, looking at Chamberlin, Powell and Bonn’s masterpiece through a medieval building, you see how just how important the Church is, architecturally. It is the focal point for everything – it roots the estate in history, in the history of the City of London, of the Barbican and Cripplegate Ward. The Church is like a metronome, setting a rhythm for the entire site, or like a conductor setting the pace for an enormous architectural symphony. I get very excited when I show visitors that view. Can I have a second? It’s a piece of treasure for a design geek – the original map of the estate underneath Mountjoy House. A design classic.
What was the first performance or exhibition you saw at the Barbican?
Crikey! It would have been an orchestral concert, before I worked here. I think there was some Richard Strauss on the programme and a piano concerto… possibly Chopin…?
What is your best Barbican memory or experience?
So many. As a member of the London Symphony Chorus, I’m very lucky to be allowed to sing at the Barbican as well as work there. Many of my best memories are of performing with the best orchestra in the UK! Gianandrea Noseda conducting us and the LSO in Britten’s War Requiem will stay with me for a long time, as will the recent tribute concert to our beloved President, Sir Colin Davis. In the theatre, Complicite’s The Master and Margarita totally blew me away, as did The Manganiyar Seduction, an absolutely thrilling night of music from Northern India, presented on a kind of ‘celebrity squares’ grid set.
Outside the Barbican, what is your favourite thing to do/favourite place in London?
Long walks that take both buildings and trees are a big pleasure, preferably with a pint and a bag of crisps at the end. Time to wander really is one of the most precious things in life. My favourite place is probably the top of Greenwich Park, looking down towards the Royal Naval College and Canary Wharf. However, despite all of this, when I’m not touring (or singing) at the Barbican I’ll probably be found on my sofa with a cup of tea and a box-set of Danish telly.
Do you have any advice for people interested in pursuing a career in architecture and design?
If you want to be an architect, or a designer, hard work and real sticking-power are a must. We’ll never see the likes of the Barbican Estate again, so don’t go into architecture thinking there’ll be a 35 acre bombsite in the middle of London, with an almost limitless budget waiting for you to work your magic. I’d advise anybody wanting to design anything to always think about what’s already been designed and built, and first think about how to make that better, rather than trying to bring something new into a world of limited resources. Sustainability of all kinds should be at the heart of your commitment to be any kind of designer. And to be a tour guide, all you really need is passion and time – so much passion for something that you never tire of telling people about it, and time to absorb all sorts of information from lots of different sources (you never know what the next difficult question will be on).
Describe the Barbican in five words.
More than a concrete jungle