In the City of London there is an estate, liked and loathed (voted in 2003 London’s ugliest building), and home to residential housing, a museum, schools, concert hall and a theatre. The area it occupies was devastated by WW2 bombings. Known as the Barbican complex, it is an example of Brutalism – or Brutal Architecture.
The style emerged mid-1900s, and was popular up until the 1970s, and the easiest way to describe it is blocks. Blocks of concrete, stone or glass, occasionally bricks, but mostly not. Bare and undecorated blocks. Common to the period, it is found around the world, especially in public buildings, like libraries, city halls, and public housings. Who hasn’t driven past a tower block and thought, wow, that’s a bit ugly.
Even so, brutal buildings have become icons. The Barbican is one. The site was Roman – the word Barbican originates from Barbecana, meaning fortified outpost or gateway, and the district was known as Cripplegate. The Normans kept the fort and renamed it Base Court, and it remained a military outpost until Edward III gave it to the Earl of Suffolk and he made it his home. Base Court was demolished and replaced with a house. After the Duke of Suffolk married his ward, Catherine Willoughby, the building called Willoughby House. The house is gone, but the name Willoughby is still used for one of the housing blocks.
The Cripplegate area was destroyed by bombs, and what was left was demolished. In 1951, 48 people lived there. Housing was needed, which was built in pedestrianised terrace blocks, plus green spaces, and no car parks – it’s a popular place to film movies and TV shows where cars are an impediment.
The estate includes the Barbican Centre – a performing arts centre, the largest of its kind in Europe. It’s design, a Ziggurat, a type of terraced structure common in ancient Mesopotamia. It took a long time to develop, long after the housing was finished, and opened by the Queen in 1982, by which time Brutalism was out of favour.
The theatre was built for the Royal Shakespeare Company, they helped design it. It seats 1500 people. However, the RSC didn’t renew their contract in 2002 because the theatre was no longer had enough performing space. A change in style too?
Whatever you might think of Brutalism, the Barbican is part of London’s architecture, and still an excellent centre for the arts. I’ve been to both the concert hall and theatre, enjoying Winter’s Tale, and Cyrano de Bergerac with Derek Jacobi. While most theatres in London are older, the Barbican represents a new era of development that helped theatres spring up all round the country. Many of them brutal on the outside, perhaps, but inside, the performances are the same.