Info & Images: Ar. Amit Khanna
“A visit to the unsympathetically, but aptly named Barbican Estate means coming face-to-face with the Brutal!” Ar. Amit Khanna of the eponymous AK Design Associates muses about his visit to the district…
“Global travel and photography allows for classic and contemporary architecture to be read and viewed under the guise of many theoretical notions,” informs Amit. This photo-essay creates the backdrop for such a discourse and allows for a novel, contemporary interpretation of an otherwise brutal perspective of the Barbican.
Over to Amit:
To hope for vivid backgrounds for buildings to enhance appreciation might be seen as wishful thinking, but photography and writing works with the intent to engage in discourse that allows for architecture to be seen in a new context, free of the historic biases we hold against places.
When I say that visiting the Barbican Estate is nothing short of coming face-to-face with the brutal, I don’t mean only the grim English weather, but also the architectural style that this midcentury urban experiment championed so fiercely.
Raised above the vibrant streets of the city of London, the experience of walking along the desolate windswept podium harks back to the barbicans of old - akin to being in a fortified outpost high above the terrain. Except, you are in the middle of one of the busiest cities on the planet and yet, completely devoid of life and colour.
Cities were low-rise agglomerations, never more than a few storeys tall until the steel reinforced frame emerged at the turn of the last century. It spawned an entire genre, with some architects using it as a pristine cuboidal form; and others as they saw it – as a raw, rough and plastic material.
The Brutalists combined these virtues, famous for making buildings almost entirely of only two materials - rough concrete and smooth polished glass. In the UK, Brutalism caught on as the need for low-cost functional architecture in the post-war era was compounded by the need for reconstructive planning. Amongst these, the Barbican Estate was arguably the most radical, albeit not the most successful reconstructive urban design of its time. However, the Estate is now Grade II listed and the ambition of the project is lauded as being visionary in its time. Yet the façade remains as uninviting as ever, devoid of any color save for the railings and planters. On a rainy September morning, the buildings seemingly merge into the gloomy sky, the weather doing its best to match tones with the beton-brut, the glass somberly reflecting the atmospheric mood.
It comes then, as quite a shock, to see the difference that a little colour can make. Simply replacing the sky with flat neon tones leads to a dramatic re-perception of form. The skyline acquires clarity and the planar juxtaposition of the prismatic volumes and textures holds attention. Even the apparent disconnect between the 3 towers and the podium level blocks gets understood as a way of ordering movement along the plaza by creating urban walls. Rather than try and upstage the buildings, the intent is to provide a shocking contrast to the dramatic silhouette and bring the architecture itself into focus.
Ar. Amit Khanna is an acclaimed and widely published photographer and writer. As Design Principal, AKDA, his practice is driven by passion in the pursuit of design excellence.