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The Barbican and Brutalism: An Architectural Analysis

18 March 2022

Brutalism. Love it or hate it, Brutalist architecture holds a significant position in the UK’s history of post-war building construction. Angular, mostly symmetrical, and usually made from poured concrete blocks, Brutalist architecture is either a genius example of British post-modernism or a cold and unfeeling way of putting together structures that could look a lot nicer, really. 

Either way, London’s Barbican arts centre is considered a totem of the Brutalist movement to the extent that even their own gift shops sell Brutalism books and concrete ornaments to celebrate its style.  

The arts centre is part of the larger, thirty-five acre Barbican Estate that took eleven years to build.

Location-wise, this is an interesting part of London. The word ‘barbican’ translates as castle or stronghold, and the Barbican Estate is built on what was once part of the London Wall. It’s also rumoured that William Shakespeare lived nearby for a while, in a house on the corner of Monkwell and Silver Street.

Work started on the Barbican Estate in 1965 and included realigning 500 metres of the Metropolitan tube line to create a designated Barbican tube station that’s a five-minute walk away. Hailed as a breakthrough in modern living design, along with the arts centre, the estate includes 2000 flats, schools, a church, a library, an artificial lake, and a conservatory. In 2001 the Barbican Estate was designated Grade II listed status.

The Barbican arts centre is the largest of its kind in Europe. Its interior is as brutal (or as lovely) as the exterior. Incidentally, the centre is a ziggurat by design, a kind of stepped pyramid – in a 2003 poll conducted by the Grey marketing group it was voted London’s ugliest building.

This is an enormous building, home to a concert hall, two theatres, two art galleries, three cinemas, conference facilities, three restaurants and numerous bars and cafes. It’s also open seven days a week.  The centre’s interior public spaces are cavernous, with the high ceilings and low lighting giving the centre a strangely cosy feeling that’s at odds with its concrete facias. There are also plenty of outdoor terraces and patios for public use. Chairs and tables are strewn around the centre’s foyers and people are openly encouraged to come and spend time there.

Linger for a while and you’ll see students reading, couples meeting for coffee, friends catching up, and tourists wondering at the size of the place. 

This is an arts centre with a special cachet all of its own. The London Symphony Orchestra and the BBC Symphony Orchestra are both based in the centre's concert hall. Its theatres were designed by the Royal Shakespeare Company for their own use (and others) and the Barbican is the company’s London home. The centre’s main art gallery is famous worldwide for its group and solo exhibitions.

Of the centre’s two theatres, The Pit is the smallest.  It’s a studio theatre with 164 seats, and functions as an experimental space, showcasing emerging theatre companies and performers, although the RSC do use it on occasion. The Barbican’s main theatre has a capacity of 1156 seats set over four levels, and is a blockbuster of a place.

As it was designed by a real, live, world-famous theatre company it ticks all the right boxes on all the most important points.

The seats are comfortable, and views of the stage are great.  The acoustics are excellent to the extent that, if an actor whispers on stage, they can be heard at the back of the room. As with other parts of the complex, the theatre pulls off the neat trick of feeling intimate while still being large enough to hold a considerable audience.

Furthermore, accessibility is clearly important to the Barbican arts centre. While it’s only right that a venue of this size and importance takes these things seriously, there are still some that are sadly lacking. 

However, this place gets it right.

In terms of accessibility in the main theatre, there are spaces for wheelchair users in the rear of the stalls and in the upper circle, all with companion seats. Assistance dogs are allowed in the auditorium and there are headsets for audio-described performances.

The Pit’s smaller size means that space is more limited, but it can be reached by lift and there is room for wheelchairs. There is also step-free access from The Pit floor foyer to all front-row seats, and headsets are available for audio-described shows. 

As far as programming goes, the Barbican’s theatres host some of the world’s very best. However, don’t forget that this isn’t a West End theatre, so the work platformed here tends to be experimental and ground-breaking.

Thus, there’s contemporary dance, performance art, world and avant-garde music, and physical theatre on show, as well as workshops and discussions held by visiting troupes and performers.  And, of course, premieres from the internationally acclaimed Royal Shakespeare Company.

All the things you’d expect from theatres that are part of one of the best arts centres in the world.