Brutalism at the Barbican : a grand day out

Brutalism at The Barbican

Last month Gabriel and I took 19 year old Harry, then (and, let’s not kid myself, still now) impervious to the charms of a bit of Greek tragedy, to see ‘Antigone’ at the Barbican.

Why so late in writing about it?

Indeed, I had intended to post a review the day after we saw it. But I didn’t. Or rather, couldn’t. I’d promised myself that I would post only positive reviews…

What a stupid idea that was.

However, Juliet Binoche’s performance aside, I hadn’t anticipated how much we would gain from just a visit to the Barbican alone.

A Colossus of a cultural experience in its own right.

We had matinee tickets for ‘Antigone’  as we wanted to do it in a day. We set off at about 10 and found a car park close by ( not very busy, no doubt due to the price of a day ticket). We then had the decision – do we traipse around outside the Barbican looking for somewhere to eat? Left? Right? A bit of ‘You decide’, ‘No you’, or do we take our chances in the Barbican?

Judging the book by its very grey, concrete cover I wasn’t optimistic and was ready for my ‘I told you so’ moment. But, it didn’t come. As we walked along the high walkways and looked down at the well laid out recreational spaces I found myself softening. Snap happy, I’d started off taking photos to prove just how souldestroyingly ugly the whole edifice was only to find myself wanting to record the symmetry and strange order of the space.
It reminded me of a very large new campus university. Its own not insubstantial universe with everything it could possibly need.

I found myself liking it, but not without putting up a fight first.

The weather was poor, the sky overcast, and as we went from without to within, breaching the outer walls of the vast Barbican Estate, I felt no discernible change of mood. Or colour. Head down, walking up concrete steps, along tiled walkways with concrete walls, I found myself muttering ‘Such a grey, ugly building’, over and over again.

follow the signs
follow the colourful signs…on grey

The sight of colourful signs made me snort with derision at the failed attempt to distract me from the all-consuming greyness. I remembered that the Barbican had been voted London’s ugliest building back in 2003 in a Grey London poll. So, cold and feeling grey myself, I was surprised to hear Harry say (still a teenager so brace yourself for his choice of wonder words) – ‘Sick!’ ‘Awesome!’ ‘Cool!’ His tone was one of amazement. He’d entered a new world and found it monumental. Grand. Colossal.

I lifted my eyes from the floor to see what all the gushing awe was about, then started to take photos. I still saw rough, grey concrete. But I also saw open spaces, beautiful shapes, balconies.

grey columns
grey columns
arches - grey
arches – grey
grey flats on the Barbican Estate - Speed House and Willoughby House
grey flats on the Barbican Estate – Speed House and Willoughby House
concrete water features
semi-circles and concrete water features
fountains in the lake
fountains in the lake
lakeside terrace
lakeside terrace
view from the suspended walkway
view from the suspended walkway

Dated but modern the Barbican is an architectural oxymoron. It felt as though we were in the past as well as the future. Perhaps living in the past’s vision of what it thought the future would be.

An example of brutalist architecture at its finest (its name taken from the material in which it is constructed – i.e. ‘beton brut’, raw concrete, a term used by Le Corbusier), the Barbican is nevertheless ugly. The greyness accounts for that and British weather does little to lift it.  Yet I could see through Harry’s eyes that it was also worthy of wonder. Even if he did say that it reminded him of ‘Stanley Kubrick’s ‘A Clockwork Orange’.  Awarded Grade 2 Listed Building status in 2001, I could see that the Barbican Estate was a magnificent, living, working testament to the positive vision of its architects, Chamberlain, Powell and Bon.

And we hadn’t even stepped inside yet.

at last
at last
the Barbican Muse – by Matthew Spender 1994
absurdly grey inside
grey inside

Once within, the spaces were multi-levelled, with functions clear for all to see. Some in light, some positively subterranean. There was still much stark grey concrete and carpet. But there was also orange, which, ironically retro, warmed the atmosphere.

what it's all about
what it’s all about

As for the green, blue, yellow and red ceiling lights with the halo beneath, they had something of Gene Roddenberry’s Transporter about them.

Beam me up Scottie...
Beam me up Scotty…

We looked for a café and saw that there was a gin joint and lots of areas where you could get a drink or a sandwich. We eventually opted for the food hall. It looked good and felt buzzy and cosmopolitan. Stylish in a way Ikea refers to but is not. And no need to book. The food was good arty café fare and the choice was impressive.

My salad. It did look beautiful until my greed got the better of me at the prospect of unlimited vinaigrette...
My salad. It did look beautiful until my greed got the better of me at the prospect of unlimited vinaigrette…

It was time to take our seats in the gallery.

cheapest seats in the house
some of the cheapest seats in the house

It was dark (even before the lights dimmed). But comfortable. Although there wasn’t a lot of space to let people pass. The fixed seats don’t fold back and so it was a major challenge to move legs into spaces that weren’t there.
The views were good though. And you could hear the dialogue clearly (well, almost). I do like a bit of Greek tragedy – clue is in I went to see it I suppose – and after many years I now know who is related to whom. Always helpful. That Juliette Binoche is better on screen than on stage is true but I won’t go there.

But the star of the day was most definitely the Barbican itself. Beautifully ugly, the Barbican is certainly oxymoronic. An 80’s cultural palace dedicated to the future with concert halls, galleries, theatres, cinemas and libraries in a concrete-classical setting – colonnades, cool walkways, porticos, pillars, fountains and water features. A futuristic urban oasis, ugly on the outside yet with a beautiful cultural heart within. It’s not a future I would choose to live in myself, but I’ll certainly be making another visit.

As we left I noticed the posters advertising the International Beckett Festival / Season. Now that’s a must. Absurd?

I’m not joking.


What’s on


Cheap tickets for 16-25 year olds


Brutalist architecture

4 thoughts on “Brutalism at the Barbican : a grand day out”

  1. I didn’t know about the Young Barbican cheap tickets – it’s really expensive taking a family out once they’re over 18 and this would be a great way of introducing them to top quality theatre. One of my children is at University in London so we’ll consider taking her.

    1. Glad to be of help. If you’re interested, the RSC run a similar, might even be the same, scheme for young people. We once took our three young adults to the Swan for £15. Such an incredible experience for them, at at an incredible price for us! x

  2. I really liked this piece. I’ve always heard what a terrible place it was, but now I think I’ll go and see for myself. It reminds me of being Newcastle and stumbling across Newcastle Civic Centre. Designed by George Kenyon it’s earlier and less “brutal” but impressively sculptural :,-1.610199,2a,90y,90t/data=!3m5!1e2!3m3!1s45728662!2e1!3e10!4m2!3m1!1s0x0:0x1843de775fba4647!6m1!1e1

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