Building the Brutal

Barbican Centre

The Barbican is one of London’s best examples of Brutalist architecture. It was part of a utopian vision to transform an area of London left devastated by bombing during the Second World War.


The arts centre took over a decade to build and was opened by The Queen in 1982, who declared it ‘one of the modern wonders of the world’.


But how did it rise from rubble to be the Grade II listed, multi-venue arts centre it is today?

Capturing the Brutal
During the mid 1970s, photographer Peter Bloomfield was commissioned by the Barbican’s first Managing Director, Henry Wrong, to document the final stages of the building’s construction and the first public events in the building. We take a tour through the Barbican Centre, as it once was...

The Barbican Lakeside was once the main entrance to the Centre, accessible through an elevated series of pathways, known as the 'highwalks' that were intended to run through the City of London.

Architects Chamberlin, Powell and Bon were inspired by Le Corbusier and Brutalism in the design but they also invented their own style.

While we often fall under ‘Brutalism', the truth is the design was influenced by many architectural styles. You’ll spot features of Modernist, Mediterranean, Roman and even Medieval architecture.

The Conservatory
Home to London's second largest Conservatory, the Barbican Centre Conservatory is situated in the heart of the residential estate, above the arts centre - providing a handy covering for the large concrete fly-tower in the Theatre. 

With the Conservatory located above the main entrance to the Barbican Centre, the plants and trees had to be lifted from the road by a crane.

The Barbican Conservatory is home to hundreds of species of tropical flora and fauna and is open for the public to visit every Sunday.

The Theatre
Behind the Conservatory lies the 120ft Theatre flytower, and below this, our 1,100 seat Theatre

Today, our fly system is fully automated rather than manually rigged. Watch the video to learn more about the mechanics behind our flys.

The fly system is used for everything that moves on stage – for example raising backdrops or set.

Using winches, motors, hydraulics and pneumatics we move, lift, turn, control the weather and even fly people in and out of the set

Known as 'the iron' to the Barbican team, the stage is protected by a striking large safety curtain. Watch the video to see how the theatre begins its performance before the audience even arrives.

The Barbican Theatre has 1,110 seats and was designed as such that no seat is ever more than 21 metres away from the stage.

You’ll notice we have no central aisle in our Theatre auditorium. Each row of seats is closed off with its own individual door which closes by magnet as the curtain is about to rise.

One of the most iconic features of the Barbican's architecture is it's trademark textured concrete which covers the entire outside of the building and much of the interiors. This effect was all done by hand using pneumatic drills. 

This effect was created by hand-powered pneumatic drills, creating a rough surface but, thanks to the black granite aggregate material in the concrete, when chipped, shimmers and sparkles in the light.

The Barbican is made from 130,000 cubic metres of concrete, enough to build over 19 miles of a six-lane motorway

The Concert Hall
Home to the London Symphony Orchestra and host to international orchestras every year alongside our diverse contemporary music programme, the Barbican Hall is one of our most striking venues.

The Hall stage can hold an orchestra of up to 110 players and when the forestage is extended, a chorus of up to 200

The Hall is encased by a 3 metre thick wall that supports the arts centre – and also explains The Curve gallery which lies beneath.

The Barbican Centre was opened by HM The Queen on 3 March, with a performance by Resident Orchestra, London Symphony Orchestra and pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy.

The Curve
Following the curve of the Concert Hall is the eponymously named, The Curve gallery. Back when the Barbican Centre first opened, The Curve was known as the Concourse Gallery. 

The Curve hosts many new commissions from artists across a variety of disciplines every year. Watch this video to see how United Visual Artists interpreted this unique space in their work.

Art Gallery
From fashion to design, architecture to photography and contemporary art - the Barbican Art Gallery showcases a variety of internationally renowned artists in our exhibition programme. Built as an open, blank shell, the Art Gallery offers curators an exciting space in which to create. 

The Art Gallery is reinvented by our curators several times a year with each exhibition, utilising the flexible space. Watch this flythrough of 2015's 'The World of Charles and Ray Eames' exhibition.

The Art Gallery’s inaugural show was 'Aftermath' and featured works by Matisse, Picasso and Braque.

Above the Barbican
The Sculpture Court was situation outside the Conservatory, accessible through the Barbican Estate and through the Art Gallery. It was used for a variety of purposes including live concerts, such as this from the London Symphony Orchestra

Lying beneath the Sculpture Court is the Concert Hall. Now, the Sculpture Court is a peaceful garden filled with seats and plants.

The Foyers
The large open foyers of the Barbican are an inviting place for pre-performance relaxtion and are often brought to life with live performances and art installations that animate the public spaces. 

The ridges you see in this photo of the Stalls foyers are the seats, curving around the Concert Hall.

While this particular sculpture is no longer on display in the Barbican, you will find many installations decorating our public spaces, from light sculpture to interactive video art.

Below the Barbican
Measuring over 20 acres, the Barbican Centre requires a lot of care from our engineering team and an intricate network of pipes and machinery to keep our venues up and running. 

Take a tour, deep beneath the Barbican through the secret engineering tunnels..

There are over 75 miles of pipes running through the Barbican Centre.

The People
From press to architects, finance to management - we look in the archive to meet some of the people responsible for opening of Europe's largest multi-arts centre. 

As part of our 25th anniversary celebrations in 2007, we invited our first Managing Director, Henry Wrong, back to the Barbican for a special tour of our architecture.

Construction of the Barbican began in 1962 with the first residential flats finished in 1968. In 1971, the City’s Court of Common Council held its longest sitting on record to decide whether to proceed with the arts centre.

‘It’s nearly finished, you’ll go round, you’ll find dirt and dust and mess, but we we want to see the Barbican as it’s going to be in a couple of years’ time' Press Officer Angus Watson briefs Bloomfield

Still a highlight of the City of London calendar, the Barbican Centre and Guildhall School of Music and Drama staff joined the annual Lord Mayor's Show to celebrate the Barbican's arrival.

The Barbican Today
While the London skyline has dramatically changed since 1982, the Barbican Centre remains the same, its Brutalist architecture standing strong amongst the buildings in the City of London. 

While they might not be the highest buildings on the City’s skyline, when the towers were first built, the Barbican Towers were the highest residential buildings in Europe.

Experience a day in London, as seen from the top of one of the Barbican's residential towers in this timelapse.

Credits: Story

Browse more from Peter Bloomfield's archive:

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Translate with Google