October 23rd, 2009


Hanging gardens of Barbican

Performing at The Barbican last night felt like a bit of a homecoming; ten years ago I was living (on the last of my Japanese publishing royalties) in a penthouse flat just next to the vast and bewildering arts bunker. From the orange plastic-themed kitchen of my flat, which topped a 1970s office block, I looked out over the Barbican's towers, its raised concrete walkways, its ziggurat apartments cascading with plants.

The Barbican is, itself, all orange plastic and paint now, after a bit of a redesign inside. Once upon a time I'd routinely deplore this place, comparing it unfavourably with the light, airy, accessible, ingenious, flexible and futuristic Pompidou Centre in Paris. For a major, massively expensive arts centre, The Barbican is in the wrong place (they should have put it bang in the middle of Trafalgar Square), designed by the wrong people (most people know Piano and Rogers, but who recalls the faceless construction company that, between 1962 and 1982, put The Barbican together, painful piece by piece, on a site consisting of leftover rubble from WWII?) and has entirely the wrong attitude.

It's almost impossible to find the entrance. You go up some concrete steps, down some others, and -- unless you follow the painted thread -- get quickly lost in a warren of ramps and lifts leading to areas called "minus one" and "minus two", or to a glass walkway leading to a cul-de-sac with a view of a pond and some flats. You half expect to confront a minotaur.

But The Barbican has grown on me. It has its own charm. With age, it's becoming more weird, eccentric and unique. Yesterday, before running through the Brel show in the big theatre, I had a good rummage through the building. There's a fantastic installation in The Curve gallery just now by an artist with a Polish name, who's transformed the entire gallery into a musty warren of rooms in a 1941 military bunker.

The conservatory upstairs is -- like a lot of the complex -- evocative of one of those 1970s sci- fi movies set on an orbiting ecosystem; under graph-paper glass lush bamboo, orchids and koi ponds create a secret, empty world of paths, ladders, fecund plants, hidden upper walkways. It must be one of my favourite places in London.

Even the gents toilet at the back of the cafe is amazing. The big, solid quirky-yet-quality 70s fittings so typical of The Barbican (a chunky oblong tap that juts out of the wall) greet you, then a long curved, tiled corridor leads you to the urinal. Instead of sharp corners everything has rounded edges; ceiling panels, concrete detailing, it's all organic in the way they found futuristic back in the 70s, and yet also discreetly luxurious. Never has a building boasted more bowel-shaped "bowels".

The artists' quarters backstage are as warren-like and confusing as the rest of the complex -- it's as if the whole place is expecting an imminent visit from Ghengis Khan, and intends to fox, split, entrap and slaughter his army. To get backstage you have to come down a ramp, go through the artists' entrance, descend a confusing set of brass-handrailed stairs, go along a gallery past a "choir room" used, incongruously, for catering, descend another staircase...

Everything is curved, split-level, windowless. You aren't sure whether you're above ground or below it, on earth or up in space, in 1980 or 2009.

And then you're ushered to a side door by someone wearing headphones, down some steps in the dark, up some more, and suddenly you're standing in a vast room, singing an intimate, hesitant song from the stage, and behind the dazzling follow-spot two thousand people are sitting, listening intently. Some, you later learn, are weeping.