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Friday, 15 February, 2002, 17:21 GMT
Barbican goes back to the future
Looking Across the Barbican Lake c. 1959 by Kenneth Browne, courtesy of Chamberlin, Powell and Bon Archives
The Barbican Centre is now a listed building
By BBC News Online's Andrew Webster

Ask yourself if you fit into either of the following categories.

"A merchant banker who frequently plays host to international visitors." Or: "An intellectual couple with a musically-trained daughter who returns home often when not on tour."

If you are brave enough to admit to one or the other, then the post-war architects of London's Barbican complex had you in mind for one their apartments.

The exhibition, Barbican: This Was Tomorrow, traces the development of this unique attempt to create truly integrated city living in the heart of London.

For those not familiar with the City Of London the Barbican complex occupies about 40 acres, stretching eastwards from a point just north of St Paul's Cathedral.

Arthur Cross and Fred Tibbs, Bomb site (detail), 1942
The whole area now occupied by the Barbican was levelled by the Luftwaffe
Uncompromisingly concrete (of the pitted brown variety), and dominated by three, triangular tower blocks, the Barbican is home to about 6,500 people.

It incorporates a world class arts centre, schools, shops, lake-filled open spaces and ruined fragments of the ancient city.

This Was Tomorrow chiefly examines the period immediately after World War II through to the mid-1960s - years during which London struggled to rise from the ashes of the Blitz.

The whole area now occupied by the Barbican was levelled by the Luftwaffe in a single night of bombing.

Exhibition photographs and archive film footage vividly recall the City's devastation: blazing buildings; children playing in craters; the gutted riverside frontage.

With the blank canvas of a flattened landscape, architects and city planners were free to dream up competing visions of a new city, enthusiastically transforming familiar landmarks and locations.

What about a neo-classical utopia with St Paul's Cathedral at its centre? The Liverpool Street rail terminus rebuilt as a Dan Dare-style heliport?

In one sketch the graceful curve of Regent's Street is dominated by a swish, mono-rail transport system.

Out of these flights of fancy, the sober fathers of the Corporation of London honed their vision of a modern city home and who might live in it.

The new complex had to house thousands of people because the Corporation feared losing its political autonomy unless it could come up with an electorate.

And it had to be of high quality in order to justify the kind of high rental rates needed to make the whole economically viable.

The final result draws on influences from Renaissance Italy, urban Sweden and the villas of Corbusier. Nautical design elements contribute efficient use of space and graceful lines.

To 21st Century eyes the buildings' exteriors appear an anachronism - the epitome of 1960s architecture.

But the interiors could grace the pages of any style magazine and, as this exhibition shows, the Barbican's qualities, born out of post-war idealism, have survived the passage of time and continue to inspire.

Barbican: This Was Tomorrow: The Curve is at the Barbican Arts Centre from 14 February to 14 April 2002

See also:

06 Sep 01 | Arts
Barbican to get listed status
02 Feb 01 | Entertainment
Barbican may get listed status
16 Oct 00 | Entertainment
Barbican gets 6m makeover
30 May 01 | Arts
All change at the RSC
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