Killing time before last night’s LSO concert (Coleridge-Taylor, Liszt, Strauss – a grand night out, very well attended and received) I found myself browsing the Barbican’s two-storey gift shop.
While the shop contained plenty of the expected – art exhibition tie-ins etc – one thing that’s impossible to miss is that the Barbican is giving us the hard sell on Brutalism. The very hard sell.
For as long as I can remember (and I was born only two years after the Barbican was officially opened in the 1980s) Brutalism has been the butt of jokes, if not head-shaking exasperation at a previous age’s folly. The ugliness, the inappropriateness of such buildings – it was axiomatic.
Not any more. We have come full circle – Brutalism is not just in again, it has proliferated a small consumer economy of its own. The estate’s distinctive concrete design adorns a host of soft wearables – tote bags, socks, even a face-mask.
Another series of items – pencils, t-shirts, water bottles – showcase the disjointed word BRUTAL in stark black and white. A table groans under glossy tomes for the aspiring connoisseur of the architectural movement, with titles like Brutal Beauty and Concretopia, some as hard-edged and hefty as the building itself.
Most impressive of all are the gifts made from the Barbican’s own raw material – its grey gold. For less than a fiver you can buy a letter from a concrete alphabet. And if you have a spare £200, you can treat your Valentine to a miniature cast concrete model of the soaring Shakespeare Tower, or its equally iconic comrade on the other side of town, the Trellick.
But as I surveyed this accumulated rubble in amazement, I noticed a somewhat sad looking display in a dimly lit corner (the Barbican, half arts centre and half nuclear bunker, is generally somewhat dim, but the main body of its gift shop is a brightly lit lure).
It was the LSO merchandise.
I write this not to draw any big conclusions, or make familiar huffs about the side-lining or under-appreciation of classical music. The Barbican is a mixed-use arts centre, besides a residential estate; it is also a place to have coffee, to work remotely, to get lost in (all too easily done) or simply to hang out. And the attendance of last night’s concert suggests it has no trouble drawing people in to hear the LSO.
But it was nonetheless striking – the over-flowing surfeit of souvenirs trading on architectural chic, while its resident orchestra gets shunted into the shadows.
Because above all else – if we take the gift shop’s word for it – the Barbican is a Brutalist icon.
Who needs function when you have form?