I went to London recently for a couple of days and visited the Barbican. I first moved to London in 2008 and the university I went to was close to the Barbican. I realise now that in all of my 10 years of living there I haven’t properly seen that place. It didn’t open up to me, and I wasn’t ready to explore it. I was distracted. It was not until now that I live elsewhere and went on a brief round-trip to London that I saw the Barbican; that I have actually seen it.
It’s located in a busy part of central London. Everything around it is filled with sounds, movement, cars, buses, trains, people, ever-moving stimuli of all kinds and stress. Once you step into the structure of the Barbican’s concrete space, everything becomes easier. The structures create a solid, unadorned context for plants, people and your own thoughts and internal experiences.
It’s the kind of presence that embraces a person and invites them to play without imposition. It’s not too precious to be used; in many ways it’s like nature – especially like rocks and stones in the grey colour and rough texture of its concrete surfaces. I said unadorned; but the multitude of plants create living ornaments against the backdrop of walls. The light we had that day was at a perfect autumnal angle of bright, cool September afternoons.
I sat by the water pool at its centre. There are fountains spraying water into the pool, creating a continuous landscape of sound – a wall of noise bouncing off the surrounding concrete shapes. Within a city environment this cocoon of noise comes closest to the possibility of silence. Raw surfaces and noise create a soundscape that feels private; even surrounded by other people you feel like the little enclave of tile and concrete you chose to inhabit is protected, intimate and safe. It also helps that people tend to move slower when they enter the space and naturally become calmer and quieter. In some ways the feeling is similar to entering a sacred space, minus the overtones of religion.
What were my feelings when I was inside the Barbican? I felt calm. I felt present. I felt safe. I felt free to play and explore. I felt close to nature. I felt a twinge of anterograde nostalgia for the loss that was sure to come once I left. A few parts of the building are accessible at all times of the day/night. Inside is vast like the outside, darker though, with colours of orange, brown and red. The absence of advertisements creates zero pressure to buy anything. You can spend time inside or outside in these vast open spaces – for free. ‘For free’ doesn’t necessarily equal freedom, but here it does. The borders of the Barbican are organic; created by difference in material and texture rather than money or the lack thereof.
A wonderful part of the Barbican is the Conservatory; walls of glass and concrete covered by tropical plants of a multitude of greens, textures, leaf shapes; structurally as varied as the building itself. I could see palm trees, monsteras, succulents, hanging plants living inside. At the time of my visit the Conservatory was closed to the public due to an event, but usually it’s open to all. I was looking at the incredible plants through the glass wall, my mind saying ‘I will come back, I will come back, I will.’