Tuesday, 24 May 2011

The Barbican, a beautiful mess

Do you love it or hate it? I love it, look how elegant it is, look at its simple rhythms, it's like Meccano, only better.
But I hate with all my being the way it touches the ground. The trek around the base of the Barbican takes a good twenty minutes. It is 'anti-legs' in scale at street level. It destroys everything which might happen unexpectedly on the street because there is, literally, no space for unexpected things to happen. No nooks or crannies for interest to nestle in, just vast and cavernous service-runs which are awesome with a nostalgic echo of the socially utopian communal heating systems.

It's an age-old argument, if the New Brutalism is really as brutal as all that. Look at the place, they cry, it is incredibly expensive now, and beautifully maintained. The flats are so well appointed, with such beautiful original fittings. The bankers whose pied a terres have such magnificent views are so rich and well dressed,  architects live there, and no-one knows design like architects (!)

But it is almost in the square mile. Ten minutes walk to Shoreditch and the bustling and youth and vibrancy ooze out of every middle-class pore waltzing by in brogues; a bar at every turn, little galleries and studios and sweaty nightclubs . . . where is all that around the Barbican?
It's easy to see why the Barbican because a hell hole. It still is, in so many ways. It is a parody of good architecture for the city, beautiful, beloved of designers, but ultimately a behemoth which blights the streets around it.

This is not to say, at all, that I do not love the place (I do), but at a planning level, the scale of intervention needs to be (very) small. It needs small. Small is beautiful. Small is a guy with a burrito van selling them. Small is a little old lady sitting watching the world go by. Small is a cigarette and a coffee and the paper. It needs to be in the streets. It needs to make space for things to happen. It would be an interesting test, to see if the tiny and the vast can coexist comfortably beside one another.

They seem to manage it in  New York:
Image source: http://universityandstate.wordpress.com/2009/06/

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