The Barbican Centre

Completed in 1982, the Barbican Centre is an example of 1970s brutalist architecture, taking the form of a giant arts centre in central London. The largest of its kind in Europe, the centre offers two theatres, three cinemas, a concert hall, two art galleries, a library, five conference rooms, two trade exhibition halls, foyers, shops, several cafes, bars and restaurants and a tropical conservatory.

The Tropical Conservatory. Image copyright © The Barbican Centre /

The Centre was designed by Architects Peter Chamberlin, Geoffry Powell and Christoph Bon of British modernist architectural practice Chamberlin, Powell and Bon. Having previously carried out a successful development of the nearby Golden Lane Estate in the city, they were were asked to submit designs for the redevelopment of an area of London that was flattened by bombing in WW2. 

Their work began in the mid fifties and between 1955 to 1959 the architects produced three schemes for the redevelopment of the area now known as the Barbican. Their finalised plans were eventually approved in 1971 and the centre had taken over a decade to build when it finally opened in 1982. In September 2001 the centre and complex joined The National Heritage List for England (NHLE) as a Grade II listed building. 

Constructed mostly of brick and concrete, the centre has an earthy feel, owing to the exposed natural materials and their natural textures. The brick is bare and in places the concrete has a rough shingle-like texture formed by the labour intensive process of tooling the surface using handheld pick-hammers to expose the coarse granite aggregate within. In other parts the concrete is smooth-textured, and in places elements of the building appear to have been moulded in separate components, then slotted together afterwards giving the impression that parts of the building were put togther in modular fashion.

Particularly on the ceiling, where there are large square cavities in the concrete, the formed elements look a bit like egg cartons or similar formed textured cardboard which has been assembled in repeating patterns. Each ceiling cavity houses a ceiling light, often of differing bright colours, which along with the gold lettering, decorative sculpture and bright painted feature walls seen around the centre, give colourful, decorative contrast to the earthy brutalist feel of the architecture. This gives the space an edgy and unpredicable feel—if there are bright lights shining out of bare concrete egg boxes on the ceiling then surely anything is possible in the space.

The centre is partly built underground to achieve so much space on a relatively small site. Parts of the centre above ground have large areas of glazing, but despite this it still has an earthy, underground feel due to the materials and their natural colouring.

There is a beautiful wood block flooring on one if the lower levels, which consists of rectangular battons cut across the grain, facing upwards to create a mosaic-like pattern of all the different grain patterns. The blocks look about 150mm deep, the depths of which can be seen where they form the top step of one of the staircases.

A subtle theme runs throughout the centre of repeating circular and lozenge shaped elements, almost like an identity. The square cavities on the ceiling have curved edges, as do the doorways and lift openings. The air vents and plug sockets do also, but because of their smaller size the curved edges in the surrounding concrete create more of a lozenge shape. The curved theme continues outside with the curved vaulted glazed dormers. The round edges contrast the hard brutalist concrete to give the centre a softer, more friendly personality.

Lighting is important and particularly emphatic due to the darkness created by the natural material colours. As well as the downlights, the ceiling lights also have coloured backlights to fill that particular square with a different colour, highlighting the rugged texture of the concrete. Up and down lighting on the walls further exaggerates the shingle-like texture of walls and ceiling.

Gold seems to be a feature of the centre, which blends with the yellowy-beige tone of the concrete. Improvements were made to the centre during the mid 1990s by Theo Crosby of Pentagram Design Studio. As well as a new entrance, reception area, improved signage and arrows painted on the ground indicating how to navigate the complex, the improvements introduced more decorative additions. These include a gold leaf gilt sculpture of the nine Greek muses at the Silk Street entrance by artist Bernard Sindall, as well as further gilt sculptures by Matthew Spender. The decorative additions introduced an Arts and Crafts feel to the centre. Gold can also be seen on the staircase banisters, plaques, lettering and golden downlights on the walls. The wood flooring also matches in golden tone. The gold tones give the centre a feeling of warmth and the metal in particular a touch of glamour to contrast to the concrete.

Inside, the building is very open and reminds me of a large underground cavity or warren. It has high ceilings, open staircases and mezzanine floors which allow you to see right up to the top of the building giving a sense of height and vastness, whilst also letting light in from the sky above via skylights on the top floor. There are woven elements thoughtout; open staircases, beams, walkways, bridges, columns and soffets can all be seen interweaving both inside the building and out. The same open staircases and ceiling lights feature outside the building.

Beautiful trees and planting add a further texture to the outside spaces of the complex, as does the moving water and waterfalls. Date palms and rushes in the water catch the wind to create drama, whilst pretty colourful flowers contrast the solid, rough textured beige walls. The columns which support the apartment blocks above the centre loom like giant legs to emphasize the sense of drama and colossalness of the surrounding complex.

I've visited The Barbican Centre many time for various events and exhibitions and really enjoy the space. It will always be particularly special to me as my degree graduation ceremony was held there.