The Barbican Centre and surrounds are a cross between some dystopian future and the fun house from the 1980s kids program.
Your first challenge is finding your way in. The place is very 3D, it’s a bit of a labyrinth where the lines are blurred between where the theatre arts centre begins and council estate / blade runner future ends.
And I think that is the point. It was part of some grand experiment in the 1950s, 60, and 70’s to build their version of a Jetson’s Family future.
At the Barbican it feels like they had future flying cars in mind with all the multiple levels.
From the street I followed signs that lead to a mysteriously empty glass shaft labelled exhibition halls.
I’d wandered past gardens and fountains, while looking up at balconies from what can best be described as the hanging gardens of Babylon.
Some luxury penthouses, glass fronted, sit at the top and I imagine this would be a nice place to live (or retire there like a couple of my elderly parents friends did) if you don’t mind looking at granite. Or you’re an aging skateboarder (signs say ‘no skateboarding’ which normally indicates a good spot for a ride. Until they finally invent the hoverboards they promised in Back To The Future II.)
Some workers in overalls having a fag break (cigarette break for British workers) pointed me through the maze to an entrance (the glass room wasn’t it.) Then from street level it was a lift two storeys down to emerge at street level again (I’m not sure how this is possible, it’s like a Escher painting) across a service road, into an empty foyer and up a sweeping staircase. I passed the indoor garden which was hosting a ‘women in tech’ event, up some stairs, ignored a sign that says the restaurants are two storeys up, and peered through the Escher cavernous hallway, spot some chairs, round a pillar, and found the cafe.
It was roughly in that order, but don’t quote me on that, and I doubt I’d find the route straight away next time.
But I suppose that’s the point with this place. A concrete maze where random adventures can be found round any corner.
I quite likely expected to find a talking worm Terry Jones creation, a goblin, or an ogre round any corner. And I do quite expect to find David Bowie relaxing in his throne room at the centre of this Labyrinth. Probably in the restaurant, where-ever the fuck that is.
I think they call this a “people’s palace”. On the way here I stopped in a gleaming shopping centre to use a loo (with a stingy only 2 stalls) the shopping centre had no benches: a pseudo-public-space designed so every moment is spent consuming and spending and having your expectations pushed out of whack by slick billboard marketing of fashion models in the latest activewear not looking sweaty.
But here at the Barbican people loiter, wander, drink coffee. Work on laptops while listening to a mother and baby group do the hokey cokey song on space hoppers, through an open door to a glass room.
London needs spaces like these. Where people can be without getting moved on. And discover, be inspired, and actually do work – without the obstacles of office politics, meetings, conference calls, and extroverts.
I’ve always liked this sort of brutalist architecture, it reminds me of sci-fi movies like the Terminator.
At its worst it’s crumbling, cheaply built council tower-blocks, towering infernos, with disused ghost-town playgrounds below.
At it’s best, its places like this, The Barbican Centre, Southbank, or the Portsmouth Tricorn centre (RIP), where an underused, dystopian concrete shopping centre was turned into a Laser Quest game arena straight out of The Terminator.
That day I’d come from a government run ‘Innovation Hub Accelerator’ bullshit corporate speak building that was every bit as officious and unwelcoming as any other government office, all be it with better decor and coffee.
I couldn’t help thinking the government needs entrepreneurs, more than entrepreneurs needs the government’s office space, when open spaces like the Barbican exist.
Free WiFi, art, and inspiration, are provided.
[advert Labyrinth 2 at Deptford Cinema]
[end of advert]
Leave yourself extra time to find the toilets in this maze. The clue is the toilet signs are bright yellow cubes. I once, after a dodgy latte-in-a-can, shat myself trying to find the loos. Which was awkward because I was on a corporate team build at the time, and I had to chat to my new boss afterwards, in an exhibition, while sat next to her playing retro video games.
By the smell of the toilet cubicle I’m sat in now while writing this paragraph, and the wheezing of the guy at the urinal outside, I don’t think I’m the only one who’s had to run to find this loo in a toilet emergency.
But the toilets are palatial, the granite wipe clean, and a bonus is the sinks have futuristic foot button pumps to switch on. You can have a lot of fun guessing which one operates which sink.
On eventually finding the exit, (it’s almost like a Las Vegas casino where they trick you into staying by hiding the exit on some nondescript side door of a stairwell) I was greeted with a beautiful terrace, fountains and lake.
Sadly WiFi connection is flakey outside, otherwise I’d work here on sunny days in this Ancient Greek style paradise.
I guess this is the entrance, from the huge sign saying ‘Barbican’ but god knows how all these people picnicking outside found it. There’s no road is sight, just more stairways to nowhere, and lakes. Perhaps they came by gondola?
I suppose the future we’re headed for here “Roads? Where we’re going we don’t need roads.” And the planet will be much the better for it. 😬
The Barbican do architecture tours most days for about £15. (If this page isn’t comprehensive enough.) Meet at the information desk if you can find it.