The Chamberlin, Powell & Bon exhibition at the Barbican despite its small size, is worth visiting and I can attest to that as I have enjoyed it twice already. The main exhibit on display is a series of square photographs that were chosen to be featured on the seasonal greeting cards the firm used to send to its clients. The pictures are all square-shaped, similar to the hugely famous Instagram format of the social media with the same name. Chamberlin, Powell & Bon, quite ahead of their time, favoured the square frame recognizing its power.
The context of the pictures though is what is of importance. Looking at these images is like looking through an architect’s eyes. Form, rhythm and composition, shadow and the contrast of light and dark and of course, the human scale. This collection of photographs is a very good example of how architects were trained in the past. Attention to detail and great love for their labour is manifested on their handmade drawings that took months to produce. The scale rulers, the drawing compass and the triangle on display are reminders of of the architectural synthesis process as it used to unfold during previous decades. There is no doubt that this process is quite different to the one we have today.
Chamberlin, Powell & Bon were all teaching architecture at Kingston Polytechnic when they entered and won the Golden Lane Estate competition which is situated right next to the Barbican. Golden Lane was and still is a Council Housing project. Since it is often said that with this project the architects developed and tested the ideas they eventually used on Barbican, the latter has often been confused as a social housing project itself. This naturally brings harsh criticism upon the Barbican as it is a known fact that the prices for an apartment in the complex are truly sky-high. You can have a look here.
The Barbican was never meant to be a social housing project. It was supposed to encompass however many concepts that Le Corbusier and other modernist architects developed which definitely did not only have to do with aesthetics. Their goal was to reinvent urban living: to entwine private and public space, to provide cultural spaces and events, gardens and athletic facilities within in the same building complex. That was Modernism’s social agenda that brought humanitarian meaning to architecture for decades. The Barbican will always be an architectural monument for modernism and its galleries and performance spaces will continue to provide high quality cultural services. Still its most amazing feature is Barbican Centre’s spaces which are open to the public. Many times I go there and bring my computer along with my lunch to spend time writing next to the lake or in the foyer. The free wi-fi is much appreciated by many people who come here to work or study as friendly spaces where you can sit without having to buy and consume something are getting fewer by the minute.
Unfortunately the extraordinary humanitarian ideas of architects that dreamt post war urban utopia are fading faster than ever. The Barbican is stuck in limbo between the idea of free-for-all-quality space and the luxury overpriced apartments that only incredibly rich people can afford. Therefore it is not only a unique brutalist monument but also a symbol of the architectural dream of creating a better life for all and not only for the few privileged. The current situation of overpriced housing in London, along with gentrification, privatisation and reduction of social housing prove it without a shadow of a doubt.
This little exhibition that will remain open until the 17th of May though is a modest reminder of architectural ideals in their original form. The penetrating visual observations of architects that naively chose to dream of a better future.