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This series aims to point out the existing dialogues between art and space, intended as architectonical or geographical.

The topic will be developed from three different perspectives: an historical approach through theories and past displays; a research paper in relation to spaces in London; and some reviews of current exhibitions characterised by a curatorial awareness of the space or by artists working with the concept of space as a material.


Video Still_Babican Urban Poetry_Joe Gilbert

Urban Poetry (2015) (Video still), Joe Gilbert, Barbican

First Impression

Astonishment.
Is that real?
A city in the City.
More like a Kingdom.
An architectural Kingdom.
Reigned by concrete and brick.
Enriched by a sparkling oasis made of lakes, rainfall and plants.
Populated by light and shadows.
Bright, large public squares let you observe the buildings around, connected by dark and disturbing walkways.
By their geometrical and material identity, they are constantly 
declaring both their structure and their housing function.
And you, feel watched by three big towers.
Queen, King and Concubine.
And you, feel part of a utopia/dystopia of the 1970s.
They wanted to create a community.
Did they?
And you, feel part of the architectural history.

Barbican? Brutalism!

What is Barbican?
It’s Brutalism.
Brutalism: developed between the 1950s and the mid-1970s.
Brutalism: proclaiming a new moral seriousness.
Brutalism: in contrast to the frivolity of the 1930s-1940s architecture and its inclinations to cover the entire structure with white paint.
Strength.
Functionality.
Materiality (concrete).
Honesty of structure.
No interest in beauty.
Expression of ethic.
Duty.
Rigour.
All this in an historical period marked by the devastation of the war and the emergency of reconstruction.

The project of the Barbican complex belongs to the architects Chamberlin, Powell and Bon who proposed a functional solution to a housing problem that the area was facing as, in 1940, it was bombed and destroyed by the Germans. It was approved in 1959 by the City of London Corporation.

Brutalism? Dystopia!

Brutalism became popular especially with governmental and institutional clients as expression of order and as design not only of architecture, but cities themselves, and ideal communities sharing the space.
In Britain it was pioneered by husband and wife Alison and Peter Smithson with the deep involvement of the artist Eduardo Paulozzi.1
Since the late-1960s those kinds of architecture were criticised
 and became settings for novels and movies about dystopias
 and nightmarish totalitarian future cities.

Examples?

1975: James G. Ballard and his novel High Rise.
The author criticises life in collective housing, setting his story in a 40 storey building and references the Unitè D’Habitation, Marseille, project in 1952 by Le Corbusier.2

1966: Francois Truffaut and its movie based on the 1953 novel by Ray Bradbury (Fahreneit 451).
The story of a future city governed by anti-culture totalitarianism in a city characterised by concrete and Brutalist architecture. To achieve that, he uses the Alton complex, which is a council estate in Roehampton designed by the architect Rosemary Stjernstedt in 1958.

1971: Stanley Kubrick and his film A Clockwork Orange.
He famously uses the Thamesmead estate in South London to characterise the dystopian run-down society of Anthony Burgess’ original novel. A telling forecast of what Brutalist housing estates would come to symbolise in future years.

1972: Residential complex Pruitt-Igoe, in Missouri, destroyed by a dynamite blast. And this is reality, no fiction. The inhabitants themselves signed a petition to demolish some of the residential buildings only 20 years after their construction.
(It seems that Minoru Yamasaki, the architect, is destined to see his projects destroyed as he was the same architect who projected the two towers of the Word Trade Centre)

With Brutalism the architecture was mostly seen as complicit in decay and criminality.

Barbican: Failure or Success?

Decay seems not to be the case of Barbican as it actually works…
The complex nowadays has a strong identity: it was Grade II listed in 2001, but two years later it was on London’s ugliest buildings list. Contemporary chronicles, and the price of the rent, point out a positive value and consideration of the complex.3
Surely the central location in London, the great connections, the Corporation of London as a client and the fact that the area is at the financial core of the city are fundamental aspects to consider in evaluating the case. I am not sure the project could be inserted in the list of “successful utopian projects” as I think the committee and the project itself were too specialised to high-class accommodation and one of the main studies of post-war utopian projects was to bring together different classes and to solve housing problems.
Anyway, people want to live there, rents are high, a sense of community seems to be present… this is the context in which rises the Barbican Arts Centre, and through its curatorial attention to architectonic topics, some of its commissions and its public program, the Barbican Centre demonstrates full awareness of its location.

The Walkways

The walkways in the Barbican complex are a special identity.
A sort of witness of what it means to be a Dystopia.
Dark.
Huge.
Tidy.
Too tidy.
Same.
All the same.
They generate disorientation.
Have I already passed from here?
Oh gosh, I am lost.
They are part of the complex.
Part of the community.
They are public.
But even private.
They connect.
They tell stories.
The stimulate imagination.
They are tactile.
Scrubbed effect.
They host sounds and silence, and silence as sounds.
They host the void, but a speaking one.

What I think is that in a context in which the Barbican Arts Centre itself debates the Brutalist identity of the site…

This must be the place: curated walkways.

Caterina Avataneo


Caterina Avataneo (Turin, 1989) is an Italian architect and curator based in London. She is now attending the MA Curating Contemporary at London Met and Whitechapel Gallery.

Her past experiences include: Between Crinkles curated exhibition, Turin (IT); Norma Mangione Gallery, Turin (IT); Paratissima, Turin (IT); Hat Gallery, Valencia (ES); Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, Turin (IT).


 

  1. In 1953 Alison and Peter Smithson, together with the artist, Eduardo Paolozzi, and the photographer, Nigel Henderson, organised the exhibition Parallel of Life and Art at ICA which marked the beginning of a new trend in British architecture.
  1. James G. Ballard described a society that lives the building and is divided into the classic three groups of Western society: the lower, middle, and upper class. The lower class are those living on the lowest floors of the building, the middle class in the centre, and the upper class in the most luxurious apartments 
on the upper floors. On the 20th floor, the middle, there are all the common areas and here begins trouble among the habitants leading to a final degenerate situation. The tenants of the high-rise abandon all notions of moral and social etiquette, as their environment gives way to a hunter/gatherer culture, where humans gather together in small clans, claim food sources from where they can (including the many dogs in the building, and eventually even the other tenants), and every stranger is met with extreme violence.
  1. In 2013 prices for studio flats started from about £350,000, with one-bedroom properties selling from about £475,000
 to £850,000. Two-bedroom homes were sold for £800,000 to £900,000.
 Sources from: http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/ s/2/0d3837c8-1bba-11e3-b678-00144fe- ab7de.html

 

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