Opened in 1982, the Barbican is Europe’s largest performing arts venue and one of London’s best examples of Brutalist architecture. Designed by UK architects Chamberlin, Powell and Bon, construction commenced in 1971 – a decade-long build that came in at a cost of over £150 million, or equivalent to around £500 million in 2014. Dubbed a gift from the City of London to the nation, the Queen declared it one of the wonders of the modern world when opening Centre, and while it attracts 1.7 million visitors each year, its grey, dreary, brutalist forms see it regularly cited as one of London’s most ugly buildings.
On a recent visit to Europe, Paul Hecker and Hamish Guthrie, founders of Melbourne interior design practice Hecker Guthrie, and photographer Shannon McGrath found themselves with a day to spare in the English capital, and felt a pull to visit the site.
With just an iPhone to hand, Shannon snapped a striking collection of shots, so we asked her and Hamish to share their experience of visiting and finding inspiration in strangely beautiful, brutalist behemoth.
As designers we are privileged to be able to use travel and the experiences gained through travel to inform and inspire us. Essentially, we are in the lucky position where we can combine our passion with our practice. Travel also gives us the ability to enjoy design for design’s sake – out of the usual constraints such as briefs, budgets and timelines.
As we mature as designers, we form a clearer sense of our own ideas, and with this comes a selective approach to what we choose to visit. Through the selection of buildings and spaces that we choose to see, we reaffirm existing design ideas as well as find inspiration in new ones. So what do we do when we have a day and a half to spend in London and I haven’t been there for 18 years? We didn’t quite know why, the Barbican was high up on our London hit list.
Opinions were conflicting, ranging from ‘London’s ugliest building’ to ‘a Brutalist haven’. Either way, we had to go and see this ambitious and complex space.
It didn’t disappoint. As a studio we strive for a rigorous design solution, a unified approach underpinned by a big idea often with a limited palette of materials. In terms of a project pursuing a clear set of ideas an ideals, the Barbican did this successfully and on a seriously large and impressive scale. With multiple performing arts venues and theatres side by side with three of the city’s tallest housing estate towers, the Barbican is the essence of ‘big idea’ architecture.
Unwavering in its approach, its architectural form is strong and its integration of architecture, interior and landscape design is seemless – so much so you you can’t see where one ends and the other begins.
While its aesthetic may not be for everyone, and its architecture is not without its floors – the good by far outweigh the negative.
When arriving out of the tube stop we were a bit perplexed as to where exactly the buildings were or what we were actually meant to be looking at. What we actually didn’t realise is that we were walking right underneath it. When we finally made our way through the Barbican Cultural Centre we became submerged into and surrounded by this monolithic, brutalist structure. It pulled us into its landscape of elevated buildings, all pushed up by these incredible pillars rising out of the ground.
We were all drawn into its sheer magnificence… and before long all of us had our iPhones out scrambling to get the best Instagram shot. We kind of became like kids in a candy store, discovering what was down this hallway, or what was up these stairs, or around the corner.
And it never failed to deliver, continually offering multiple levels and aspects of interest, from apartments high in the sky to ones situated right on waters edge, complete with a beautifully thought out walkway into the middle of the water feature.
I also loved the that I only had my iphone to take the images, meaning the process of taking a picture that didn’t interrupt the visual journey. Looking back, this was part of what was so special for me…
By Hamish Guthrie and Shannon McGrath
All images by Shannon McGrath.