40 years of the Barbican Centre: the story of an artistic utopia

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Utopia, by definition, can never be achieved. When Thomas More coined the term in 1516, he imagined an ideal world, a self-contained community where people shared the same culture, values ​​and way of life. “Utopia” was also a pun, based on nearly identical Greek words for “no place” and “a good place”.

The Barbican Center was and remains a place where utopian ideas are made tangible. Designed by fledgling architectural firm Chamberlin, Powell and Bon, the labyrinthine complex symbolized a corner of London rising from its war-torn ashes; an example of the changing worlds of post-war arts and culture and an icon of modern, democratic life. Under a single 40-acre architectural vision, it encompassed theater and dance, music of all genres, visual arts, film and education, preparing its stages for a wide range of artists, communities, audiences and visitors.

The Barbican Centre: “one of the modern wonders of the world”

When it opened in 1982, its reception ranged from boiling hot to freezing cold. Some applauded its brave futurism (even Queen Elizabeth II hailed it as “one of the modern wonders of the world”); others despised his brazen brutality. Through fame and infamy, brutal name-calling and calls for its demolition, 40 years later, it remains a melting pot of international arts and one of Europe’s most sought-after residential postcodes.

The design of the project, including a diagonal route through the site, and the proposed use of the circular coal exchange. Both were later removed from the plans. Credit: Barbican Archives

As Nicholas Kenyon, editor of the new book Building Utopia: The Barbican Centernotes in its preface: “Some hated it, others loved it, but millions have used the Barbican through four decades of near-continuous activity and have come to appreciate its profound contribution to civic life and urban.”

Published by Batsford, building utopia coincides with the 40th anniversary of the Barbican Center and explores the history of this inimitable institution and the blueprint for its longevity. “I think the Barbican’s secret is to always be uncompromising in its pursuit of quality and variety, convinced that there is no conflict between excellence and popularity,” says Kenyon, who served as general manager. of the Barbican Center from 2007 to 2021. “The Barbican has always expanded its network to bring together the most international arts and offer [them] at reasonable prices for the widest possible audience.

The book contains rare illustrative material from the Barbican archives, some of which has never been published before. “The biggest surprise to me browsing through the archives was not how long it took – we had always known that the Barbican as a building project took ages!” – but the number of changes there have been in the design as the arts center has become a priority,” Kenyon recalls. “There are literally thousands of architectural drawings of the details. I searched and searched for evidence of the Barbacan myth that the building was only approved by a majority vote in the city, but I couldn’t find it. However, there were many close votes as the project progressed.

Recent programming designs. Credit: Barbican Archives

The book is complemented by essays by eminent critics who have lived and breathed the center’s history and art forms. Cultural historian Robert Hewison reflects on the center’s creation, and architectural historian Elain Harwood offers a deep dive into the building’s design. Elsewhere, we find Fiona Maddocks in music, Lyn Gardner in theater, Sukhdev Sandhu in cinema and Tony Chambers in visual arts.

Chambers, creative director, former Wallpaper* editor and self-proclaimed “big Barbican fanboy”, takes readers on a journey through the visual arts. He first encountered the building in 1983 while traveling to London for an interview at the Central School of Art. But his love for the place was cemented in 1994 when he rented a flat at Gilbert House, which he bought in 2000 and still lives in. “I was blown away by the modernity and sheer un-Anglicity of the arts center and surrounding residential estate: it had more in common with the Bauhaus architecture that I had recently been introduced to during my arts foundation course. in Liverpool”, his essay says.

Chambers takes us through landmark exhibitions, from the first “blockbuster”, “Aftermath: France 1945 – 55: New Images of Man” (1982), to captivating investigations such as the photography group exhibition “Through The Looking Glass (1989), and exhibitions based on concepts like ‘Seduced: Art and Sex from Antiquity to Now’ (2007).

The entrance to the art: the gallery ticket office and the design of the opening exhibition in 1982, ‘Aftermath’. Credit: Peter Bloomfieldhen

The Barbican Art Gallery has, over the years, developed a knack for anticipating future stars (Grayson Perry exhibited in 2002, a year before winning the Turner Prize); showed ability to expand global appeal with commercially oriented shows like “The Art of Star Wars” (2000); and extended its authority not only in the fine arts, but in the fields of architecture, design and fashion, and everything in between.

Chambers’ essay, and building utopia more broadly, highlighting the hair-raising, intersection-seeking and headline-grabbing role that the Barbican Art Gallery has played over the years. A fearless arbiter of art who has not always succeeded, but has earned a rightful place in cultural history. “The Barbican Art Gallery at 40 is a remarkable story: how, despite humble beginnings and a difficult environment, a long line of dedicated curators and directors with courageous and imaginative programming have established a world-renowned reputation and identity” , says Chambers.

Over 40 years, the Barbican Center has proven itself to be not just a building complex, but a cultural microcosm where getting lost and lost is inevitable.

Few buildings have divided opinion to such extremes or made the boundaries between creative disciplines so indistinguishable. It was born as an experimental multi-arts center and eventually became a catalyst for every art imaginable – a creative manifesto brought to life. §

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