LONDON | Brutalism is one of the most divisive styles of architecture that exists. Brutalist structures tend to be imposing and fortress-like, with repeated modular elements and a lot of exposed concrete, used for its rawness and lack of pretention. Many refer to brutalist structures as “those ugly concrete buildings”, and applaud when they are knocked down. In recent years, however, there has been a growing appreciation for brutalist architecture, with many now trying to save the best examples of this style. Just like any kind of architecture, there are a good and bad versions out there (although this is arguably more subjective than objective).
One of the most impressive examples of brutalism that exists in the world today is the Grade II listed London icon, the Barbican Complex. A collection of buildings, rather than a single building, the Barbican Complex consists of housing, an arts centre, a public library, the City of London School for Girls, the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and the Museum of London. How did all of this come about, you might be wondering?
The main fort of Roman London was built where the Museum of London now stands, and when the city was walled in 200AD, a grand entrance known as Cripplegate was located in this area. This part of London was subject to intense bombing during World War II and, by 1951, was mostly destroyed. Even St Giles’ Church, which can be found in the middle of the complex and looks today much as it did originally, was almost completely destroyed and had to be rebuilt. The complex was designed by British architecture firm Chamberlin, Powell and Bon, and between 1965 and 1976, the first set of brutalist structures on this site, the Barbican Estate, were constructed. The estate officially opened in 1969 and today is home to around 4,000 people. Originally there were a mixture of residents and public housing here, but over time most of the residences have been sold to private owners, and in some cases are worth up to £4 million.
It’s hard to appreciate the scale of the Barbican Complex until you visit it. The architecture is imposing, and you feel small when walking through the elevated corridors that link together all of the structures. It’s not as cold as it appears at first glance though. There are gardens and there is greenery dotted throughout, there are always people walking around going about their lives, there are a lot of community focused things to do, and there are no roads within the complex. The structures may not be built to a ‘human’ scale, but there’s an unexpected humanity to the place. In fact, architects designed the Barbican Complext to create a clear distinction between private, community and public domains, but that also allowed pedestrians as much priority as cars.
The Barbican Centre, one of the newest buildings in the Barbican Complex, opened in 1982 and hosts classical and contemporary music concerts, theatre performances, film screenings and art exhibitions. There’s always a free exhibition on here, making any time of the year the perfect time for a visit. The Museum of London, meanwhile, is a great way to get acquainted with the history of London, and traces the city’s development from initial settlement through to the modern day.
If you’re fond of brutalist architecture, the Barbican is a must visit and if you think that “those big ugly concrete buildings” should all be knocked down, there’s even more a reason for you to visit the Barbican – it might just change your mind.