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Piers Gough on the Barbican

Archive photo of the Barbican during construction
14 Aug 2018
10 min read

When Piers Gough came to study at the AA in the sixties, the Barbican represented the three-dimensional future of the city. Here he looks at how its baroque confidence has influenced his buildings.

Inspiration: The Barbican
Architect: Chamberlin, Powell & Bon
Completed: 1982
Location: City of London

When I first went to the Architectural Association in the mid-1960s the big London buildings of the era were the Post Office Tower, which appeared on swinging sixties postcards with Mini cars and miniskirts; Centre Point going up another floor every night to become famous for being empty; the beautifully elegant Economist complex worshipped by architects and planners; the Queen Elizabeth Hall and the Hayward with their concrete guts on the outside; and the Barbican.

The Barbican was heroic and gutsy

Of these the Barbican was the most mysterious and magnificent. A mauve brick-walled citadel enclosing three spectacularly powerful residential towers with lower office slabs arranged on either side of a brief section of super highway prosaically named London Wall. The Barbican was heroic and gutsy, the quintessence of brutalism in finishes but with the curves and sectional cleverness of Paul Rudolph surrounding lush landscapes.
Elia Zenghelis, later to start OMA with Rem Koolhaas, was our first-year master and turned us on to Russian constructivism, and then Rudolph and all things heroic while the other tutors tended to talk about “Corbu” like he was in the next room, which was a bit of a turn-off.

Elia was particularly fascinated by the possibilities inherent in three-dimensional cities suggested by the drawings of his almost namesake Antonio Sant’Elia. Meanwhile, at the other end of AA, the fifth year was presided over by Peter Cook and Archigram. The three-dimensional city was rampantly celebrated with not just elevated roads and pedestrian levels but mini robot-like people movers at all altitudes and angles. Buildings were skeletal with plug-in accommodation all in fluorescent colours, fabulously pop. Later these agglomerations started walking around as well — sci-fi cityscape.

The Barbican, with its multi-levels of pedestrian realm, was the closest built reality to the seemingly inevitable three-dimensional complexity of the future city. In contrast, the existing Georgian/ Victorian arrangement of streets with pavements lined with separate buildings looked primitive. For me it was exciting that this new world was starting in London. City authorities even planned to retrofit an upper level “pedway” system around the existing streets. Unfortunately it would have required the rebuilding of every building in the City to really work, and a lot of them were listed, or was it just the awful name that killed the scheme? Vestiges of it can still be seen beyond London Wall.

The most exhilarating thing about the Barbican is the sheer scale of its ambition and that they actually got the whole damn thing finished. This is a much rarer event today, although Grosvenor did recently manage it at Liverpool One. It is a complete work conceived and executed by one practice — such a contrast to today with our fussy need for a restless variety of architects.

The most exhilarating thing about the Barbican is the sheer scale of its ambition and that they actually got the whole damn thing finished

This confidence reminds me what it was like in the sixties when we were starting out and architects were confident and respected. We were all going to build and change the world. I find it dispiriting that now when they are building these new cities in China and the Gulf, they aren’t attempting the three dimensional multi-level city but just pompous boulevards and avenues à la 19th century Paris with bigger separate buildings on them. OK, I admit, depressing pedestrian underpasses and the bleak walkways of, say, Thamesmead gave this stuff a bad name but there is no call to ditch the experiment, just make it work better.

The Golden Lane Estate built earlier to the north of the Barbican by the same architect is more charmingly fifties and Corbusian with some sectional complexity but basically buildings standing, sometimes on pilotis, on a ground plane. But the Barbican took the Corbusian ideal a whole step further. It is a three-dimensional jigsaw. Here, you don’t know where the ground level is. There are multiple ground levels. It’s not predicated on buildings sitting on a street or an open space. It’s all about buildings and landscape interlocking. You look up, you look down, you look sideways and they all have a convincing claim to be the effective terra firma.

The total effect is that the buildings don’t so much stand as meld into various levels of landscape. And what landscapes — the squares of grass and trees are some of the most handsome in London in the great tradition of shared spaces like those of Notting Hill and Maida Vale without streets and traffic and with the bonus of public pedestrian spaces and routes overlooking them. The lake, however, is unique, gushing down a waterfall at one end, tranquil in front of the City of London Girls School at the other and extending to fountain basins in front of the arts centre.

Chamberlin Powell & Bon were very skilful scenographers as well as bloody strong architects — there is a fantastic curved bit around the sculpture court. And along the top of the lower-rise blocks there are almost Moorish shell roofs. There’s something very wonderful and playful about it, like little white buildings on a cliff. And I love the way the balconies curve up. The architects certainly weren’t parsimonious with their style. They were in the great tradition of bloody-minded English baroque from Vanbrugh via Nash to this. This is the greatest work of 20th century baroque architecture.

The Barbican has this sheer physical joy — what architecture can do with long horizontal buildings combined with tall vertical ones. I still think these are the most handsome residential buildings in London. The horizontal ones are the quintessence of horizontality and repetition. The verticality of the towers equally emphasised. Neither has been bettered. There’s something about the three towers — so smouldering and craggy, and darkly dramatic. They are the most elemental habitations, the generosity of the balconies clear in the idiosyncratic silhouettes.
Nowadays, all we hear is that people want to live in houses rather than high-rise flats, but you can still design houses in higher-rise developments — look at how they did it at the Barbican. On Fore Street there’s a row of two-storey houses below a public walkway, then above that levels of flats. So it’s normal except people are walking along on your roof!

At the centre, around the lake, this spectacular space is seemingly strongly defined by the horizontal buildings but also segues into other overlapping spaces. The church of St Giles Cripplegate is so skilfully incorporated with its own surrounding paving. The City of London Girls School drops sheer into the water like a protective moat. The restaurants of the arts centre spill out on to southfacing terraces. The Guildhall School is also there in the mix. There are sunken gardens in the lake itself. Then, in the most outrageously brilliant piece of theatre, a building on a massive colonnade blithely crosses the centre of the space with a public bridge/walkway suspended below between the pilotis. Sublime.

All this concrete won’t be to everyone’s architectural taste but the concrete is bloody well done

Of course, all this concrete won’t be to everyone’s architectural taste but the concrete is bloody well done. The bush-hammered stuff is amazing — you can see where the point of the hammer went in. Yes, it’s a bit dirty. But it’s a piece of craftwork.

Now it’s nearly 50 years old and I think it has aged brilliantly.

The arts centre part of the complex came later and was famously compromised by being shoehorned in, but I have a great fondness for the complexity in its interior matching that of the outside. There are multi-levels and half levels flowing around each other above and below you with views up and down and people appearing everywhere. AHMM’s refurb has made it look and work better, not quite so Fawlty Towers. I come here a lot because it has a strong arts programme.

It’s true that the Art Gallery is difficult to hang and is rather subservient to the architecture. The Curve Gallery is OK as an opportunistic space that challenges curator and artists and often brings out good installations. The cinemas are famously distant, but 2 and 3 bring you into contact with interesting views of the surrounding buildings. The concert hall is a handsome bowl but the absolute coup is the theatre. The architects may not have had a track record in theatre design but they contrived a brilliant auditorium of all seats with no aisles. The device is doors at the end of each row of seats next to the access staircase which close automatically when the performance starts. The best possible space to act to, being all people and no gaps.

Some of the interior materials are also terrific. There are rolling floors of end-grain wood. The golden brass handrails give a suitably glamorous bling to the Piranesian spaces. The drama of the tapering theatre access stairs is particularly enhanced by the brass handrails. They are arranged crossways like the starting stalls of a racecourse. The Museum of London in the south-west corner is also a fascinating piece of architecture and landscape.

The two things that have given the Barbican a bad reputation are Beech Street and not being able to find the upper walkway level. Beech Street is a pretty hellish street tunnel with narrow pavements that weren’t envisaged for pedestrians. Unfortunately it’s the shortest route from the Barbican tube station to the arts complex and therefore a much used bad experience. The upper levels are not that difficult once you know they are there and determine to get up there quickly. It is a shame that the upper walkway level doesn’t actually run right through the arts centre.

We expect and enjoy getting lost in cities and finding unexpected routes and vistas. The Barbican has these in spades

The criticism is a bit off because we expect and enjoy getting lost in cities and finding unexpected routes and vistas. The Barbican has these in spades. If you’re in the mood to explore, it’s a wonderful place with its changes in level, vistas up and down, intimate areas, dramatic piazzas, the gardens opening up below then there are amazing glimpses out to the city’s slick office buildings and the dome of St Paul’s. Of course the residents themselves rather revel in their maze-like world. In a different life I could have lived in the Barbican. Even now I would be probably searching out the original much-prized fittings of the flats.

Patently, our firm hasn’t built anything like the Barbican. The multi-level city can only really be sustained over a very large area of land with huge political and other determination, which has long ago evaporated. Our original masterplan for the Gorbals, which was a similarly large area, was designed to avoid even the expense of lifts! We did however adopt the shared garden square approach that has become rather more ubiquitous now.

Its biggest influence has been to be confident of strong architecture. It gives me the inspiration to design buildings that are exciting-looking without trying to be icons and that solidity can be just as modern as lightweight buildings. Also the Barbican taught me not to worry about being of your time. It’s inevitable, but buildings can also be timeless in appeal and magnificence. It’s there as a challenge to do idiosyncratic, exciting even baroque buildings at every opportunity.

My partner Rex Wilkinson has probably captured more of the smouldering qualities and silhouettes of the Barbican than me. First at Cascades in Docklands, then Dundee Wharf with its freestanding pile of terraces over the riverside walk and Millennium Harbour with its framed vistas and red oxide steel tower. My contributions have been the surprising central space of The Circle in Bermondsey, the baroque of the Bling Bling building in Liverpool and the Green Bridge in Mile End. This latter is so much smaller than the Barbican but does learn from it by setting up a new public connection and space at a higher level than normal. The bridge creates two levels of public space, one with shops and restaurants, the other above it as a continuation of the park to north and south. It’s so seamless that children go over it and say “what bridge?”. Perhaps surprisingly, this is the highest public space in Tower Hamlets. People have told me that the view of Canary Wharf from there sold them the idea that it was indeed part of Tower Hamlets rather than from outer space.

Even when I am rushing late for a film, I think the Barbican is so phenomenal, so amazing. It’s such a pity there aren’t more like it.

This article originally appeared on the Building Design website on 7 May 2010. Read the original article – registration required. 

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