08. BEAUTIFUL BARBICAN
The Barbican Estate in London is often regarded as the best example British Brutalist architecture. It holds a special place in the hearts of brutalist fans all over the world, but as with all brutalist architecture it is not without its aesthetic controversy.
Strong flavours usually create divided and extreme opinions and this staunch, uncompromising brutalism of the Barbican certainly does that. This month’s blog focuses on the Barbican Centre as part of our study and new artwork releases on it. Being one of the most publicised examples of Brutalist architecture it seemed only fitting to further investigate this controversy over opinions on the aesthetics of brutalism.
A television advert produced recently by a UK energy company uses the Barbican as a backdrop for its portrayal of a better future world. Interestingly the Barbican is actually featured during the advert’s representation of a new beautiful world.
That the Barbican typifies urban beauty is agreeable to some, but its use here seems strange especially considering that the Barbican Centre was actually voted as London’s ugliest building in 2003 (Fortunately not before receiving listed status two years earlier, otherwise who knows what might have happened). There is something interesting though about how a place can be regarded as either ugly or beautiful depending upon the perception of the viewer. And this raises the question as to whether beauty is something that comes from subjective opinion, or whether it is an objective truth.
Is the Barbican Centre simply a styled architecture that can be judged good or bad by anyone, or is it truly a thing of beauty which is misunderstood by those who don’t like it?
Beauty is experienced as a something that pleases the aesthetic senses through combinations of physical attributes like shape, colour, and form. It is often argued that beauty has no set definition or even value, and that individuals interpret ideas of beauty according to their own genetic and cultural bias. But there is also evidence suggesting that certain qualities are consistently found to be beautiful regardless of culture or experience. Architectural designs that use grids, zigzags, spirals, and curves are always found to be pleasing which indicates that beauty may be universal.
If this is true then beauty is an attribute contained within something whether it is perceived or not, and can only be experienced if someone is able to recognised it. Essentially we can all learn to recognise that something is beautiful if by understanding the attributes that indicate its beauty.
Brutalism is perhaps experiencing this very thing now. It has been said by architectural historians that it takes around one hundred years for any architectural style to become truly appreciated. Victorian architecture was at one point disliked and seen to be unattractive, but over time became popular and is now appealing to most people. The social problems that were so often associated with the brutalist style, due in a large part to its use for public buildings, are less and less relevant to these buildings. New generations now look at these buildings objectively and are beginning to recognise the true aesthetic qualities that exist within the designed forms.
The aesthetic strategy of the Modernist movement looked to find truth in beauty through reducing objects to their purest forms. Designers worked to understand the nature of these forms as a pure language for the generation of beautiful things. Brutalism is built upon this work and brutalist architects excelled in using the art of forms to create carefully composed details. These details make clear use of the shapes and patterns that are commonly understood to be beautiful. And the Barbican Centre is one of the finest examples of this.
When opening oneself up to finding beauty, it is in perceiving and understanding the details along with their collective composition that makes us see it. And through more people looking more intently at the exquisite detailing of brutalist architecture there is a growing trend for finding its intrinsic beautifulness.