Radical Theatre and Radical Architecture – The Barbican

Jack Thorne’s new play, The End of History, filled every seat at  London’s Royal Court Theatre in its recent run at one of the most adventurous of  West End theatres. A playhouse has stood in Sloane Square since the late nineteenth century and in the 1950s, a period of radical change following the end of World War II, it become the home of a subsidised theatre company. This was The English Stage Company and it contested convention by producing new plays that challenged audiences to think about their society. Its remarkable achievement is to continue to do so.

The End of History’s message is not a convincing one – taking its title from, and endorsing,Fukuyama’s infamous claim that there is no longer a creditable alternative to liberal democracy and free-market capitalism –  but the production itself was thrilling. It showed famous TV actors putting on bravura performances alongside younger less recognisable faces.

Total Immediate Collective Imminent Terrestrial Salvation, by the experimental theatre director Tim Crouch, is coming next to the Royal Court. And, to judge by its current reception at the Edinburgh Festival, it provides a stimulating and participatory antidote to the resigned fatalism of The End of History. It’s a National Theatre of Scotland production in association with the Royal Court Theatre, Teatro do Bairro Alto, Lisbon and Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts.

If the 1950s saw radical changes in the theatre alongside the creation of the welfare state, the nationalisation of key industries and an epoch-making change in the education system, it also produced new ways of thinking about housing design. 

The Barbican Estate, occupying some 35 acres of land in the City of London, was created on land largely destroyed during the Blitz. It took a decade or so of planning before building work began but the idea was to create a housing community in the heart of London, traffic free and with cultural resources that city workers who rented the cleverly designed apartments might need.  It was not designed for public housing, different in this respect to the work of the architect Lubetkin.

He was commissioned by the borough of Finsbury in London in the spirit of municipal socialism – witness his Spa Green Estate, opposite Sadler’s Wells in Rosebery Avenue – while the City of London had its money-making mentality firmed fixed on market rents. But their chosen team of architects,  Chamberlin, Powell & Bon, were as influenced by modernism just like Lubetkin and they produced something equally remarkable.

The  Barbican Centre, its creation delayed until the 1980s, includes a theatre, a concert hall, an art gallery, a public lending library, cafés and restaurants. The variety of artistic events at the Barbican Centre has made it London’s cultural capital and, until the end of August, part of its programme are eye-opening architecture tours of the Barbican. The focus is on the history and design of the housing estate and it comes as a revelation to the casual visitor who discovers that in among the brutalist towers, Escher-like walkways and concrete walls are some graceful areas of landscaping. Here are  places where residents and visitors can sit out in the sun, a  conservatory open to the public on selected Sundays and, everywhere, a blissful absence of the roar of traffic. 

The rental apartments of the 1950s were mostly snapped up by their tenants in the 1980s when  the right-to-buy legislation also applied to Barbican tenants. The result now is that a Barbican apartment is seriously out of the price range of the people for whom they were originally intended. 

Walking to the Barbican through the obnoxious tunnel road or viewing it from a distance, it is a series of ugly tower blocks and grey walls but this tour is a guided series of pleasant surprises. If nothing else, you will discover a walking route to the Barbican Centre that avoids the ugliness and noxious fumes of the tunnel approach and takes you instead across an open space of the housing estate. This alone makes the architectural tour worthwhile.