Browsing Tag: brutalism

    20th century, architecture

    Barbican Estate, Chamberlin, Powell and Bon (1965-76)

    December 14, 2014
    (c) Claire Masset
    (c) Claire Masset

    There are two Barbicans, we soon learn on a tour of the East London council estate: the multi-purpose arts centre; and the mysterious residential units which sell for seven figure sums.

    Most visits to the former involve passing beneath the latter. But there is so much more to this brutalist landmark and unlikely home than the short journey from tube stop to gallery.

    But if you feel the towers and apartments remain distant and inaccessible, this is no doubt part of the masterplan. Barbican, as etym fans will know, comes from old French and means outer fort.

    In practice what this means is vertiginous high rises, playful arrow slit apertures on some of the streets in the sky, and endless vistas of concrete much of it with an hallmark distressed finish.

    Our knowledgeable guide surrprises us by revealing that this extensive finish was achieved by hand, as a team of brave workers with pneumatic drills hung from the sides of the 42-storey building.

    In a 90-minute circuit of the complex, there are plenty more revelations. The Barbican has plentiful green space, tennis courts and a five-a-side pitch. The water features proliferate.

    So the famous concrete appears balanced by greenery and a sense of play. It is pointed out that a semi-circular motif ties fountains to benches to penthouse duplexes and all points in between.

    This is just one of a few subtle details which make the whole site cohere. The eye takes them in, but they can fly under the radar, so it is a real joy to have them pointed out.

    As you might have guessed, the approach to function and form is not entirely modernist. A tower built to house RSC stage sets above the stage of the theatre is disguised by a conservatory full of plants.

    Meanwhile the tower blocks appear to rotate as you move around. The sharp triangular footprints turn their four bedroom apartments to face in different directions.

    Upon their first appearance, not so long after WWII, they would have been dominant features of the London skyline. But from down here they still seem impossibly high and dynamic.

    Other weird components to this island of unreality in the City include a medieval church, namely St Giles-without-Cripplegate and a police station which keeps office hours.

    A tour lasts 90 minutes; it flies by; and it is recommended for anyone with rampant curiosity about the lifestyles of Britain’s best-heeled council tenants. If only they needed a blogger in residence.

    There are daily tours of Barbican Estate between now and February 26. See the arts centre website for booking details.

    20th century, architecture

    Ernö Goldfinger, Balfron Tower (1968)

    October 6, 2014

    2014-10-03 13_Fotor

    It’s been a sheltered low-rise sort of upbringing for this blogger. So the chance to ride a steel elevator up 24 floors to flat 130 of the Balfron Tower was not to be missed.

    This masterpiece of social housing is Grade II listed, and the flat in question is a pop up showpiece of 1960s living brought to you for 10 days only by the National Trust.

    The Tower is one of those once-seen, never-forgotten, but still out-of-the-way landmarks. Tell someone you’ve visited and you may have to qualify that with a description.

    In other words, mention the concrete, the height, the service tower, the streets in the sky. It may trigger the recall of an Oasis video, a Danny Boyle film, a JG Ballard novel.

    But you don’t need to be an artiste to recognise the appeal of the building. You just have to love a certain rationalism. The architect loved columns and beams, and to simply show those off.

    It seems totally unfair that Ernö Goldfinger had his good name swiped by Ian Fleming for the seventh novel in the James Bond series. The man was a hero not a villain.

    Shortly after the completion of his visionary tower block in Poplar, Goldfinger moved in to Flat 130 and, floor by floor, invited round residents for Champagne and consultation.

    He moved out circa 1968, at which point the incoming family might well have tricked out the interior in the style you can now find it in thanks to the National Trust.

    The 75-minute tour culminates in a fifteen minute opportunity to poke around, with something like envy, among the Beatles records and vintage cereal packets.

    Although the inhabitants’ prized posession was the view. Floor to ceiling windows at every available point afforded stunning views across what is now 21st century London.

    The balcony is a spot to make inhabitants feel kingly or queenly. And the balustrade doubles as a trough of earth in which they could grow flowers or even vegetables.

    Naturally it is made out of concrete, as is most of the building, and yet it makes one feel safe. You wonder how this material got such a bad rap, along with the corresponding Utopian dreams.

    If you’re not already booked on to a tour between the 8 and 12 October, bad luck. They are sold out. But Balfron tower and the nearby Lansbury Estate are still worth a look round.

    contemporary art, sculpture

    Rachael Champion, Naturally Occurring  Brutalist Structure (2013)

    September 23, 2014

    2014-09-10 14_Fotor

    An observation: spheres of Perspex and pea shingle have gravity in the same way that planets do. This piece by Rachael Champion has neither colour nor much visual stimuli, yet it has pull.

    Taken in isolation, gravel, pebbledash, and industrial tiling are unlovely things. And no one could argue this sculpture has much conventional beauty. But, along with presence, it has something else.

    Perhaps what it has is, despite the title, is a tangle with nature. In a tiled surround like this you might expect to find a tree, a shrub, even a piece of topiary. But here we have a man-made boulder.

    Were you taking a cigarette break outside the glass atrium of your office block, you would not even know this was a sculpture. Even if you noticed it, my guess is it would non-plus most people.

    You wouldn’t even think to vandalise it, let alone steal it. And for this reason if for no other, Champion has solved a couple of perennial issues with public art, if art it really be.

    Mind you, the title also suggests we consider this a piece of architecture, a brutalist structure no less. And indeed this piece overwhelms in the same way as, say, the Brighton Centre.

    That’s no mean feat for something about 4ft cubed. Champion’s piece threatened to dominate the recent show in which she was included, like a bull in a china shop, or a noisy piece of construction.

    And there’s a kind of righteousness about the work of a builder. He or she (usually he) feels no need to justify what they do, not even when they wake you at 8am on a Saturday.

    Every project completed, no matter how ugly or beautiful, has a clear use and a value agreed upon in advance. If artists like Champion want some of that, who can blame them?

    Naturally Occurring  Brutalist Structure was in Trade at pop up gallery Castor Projects between 29/08 and 10/09. See more by the artist on her website.