The latest content and news from the Barbican. Book tickets at barbican.org.uk
The latest content and news from the Barbican. Book tickets at barbican.org.uk

256 Shades of Grey

In an extract from his book, The Barbican: Architecture and Light, photographer Alan Ainsworth describes the unique play with light you’ll recognise around the Barbican…

‘As an architectural photographer I am always looking for a ‘sense of place’. Recently I began to notice how the Barbican space is transformed by the light which emerges from between, around and above the shapes of the buildings and the remarkable effects it has on its material surfaces. I started to wonder whether these ‘lines of light’ might be a factor shaping people’s appreciation of the space and the result is my new book, The Barbican: Architecture and Light.

The Barbican’s current exhibition about Chamberlin, Powell and Bon demonstrate that the architects had clear ideas about the nature of the living space they were designing and that the way they envisaged light was no accident. Working with an almost blank canvas after extensive wartime bomb damage, CP&B were able to plan the huge estate and the way in which the buildings related to each other as a whole. Secluded from its surroundings, light within the Barbican displays its own logic.

Straight lines run horizontally, diagonally and vertically up staircases, counter-posed in many cases by the jagged line of the edges of the towers

The play of light in the Barbican’s open spaces was a product of CP&B’s concern for spatial layout. This can be seen when the sun streaks through the complex and plays across the shapes and textures of the buildings. The result is a collage of deep shadows juxtaposed with bright lines of light that change constantly. The multiplicity of lines and shapes, both positive and negative, catch and channel light in remarkable ways. Straight lines run horizontally, diagonally and vertically up staircases, counter-posed in many cases by the jagged line of the edges of the towers. As these multiple shapes combine with shadows moving slowly across the built landscape, a series of geometrical patterns emerge. Shadows form in different planes and the effect of this gradually changing montage can be mesmerizing. The Barbican’s multiple levels – building space over vehicle parking, pedestrian ways and terracing over housing, arcades passing through or beneath buildings – ‘shaped’ the light within the complex, creating ‘traps’ and ‘channels’ for light which merge in ever-shifting combinations.

The sheer number of ramps, decks, stairs, handrails and balconies starts to create a jigsaw of shapes which, when hit by the light, turn into a montage of planes

Another factor is the way in which the shafts of light animate the Barbican’s numerous design details: spherical exterior lights, mounted singly and in pairs on free-standing lampposts or in clusters on the external walls; solid brass interior handrails; plate glass windows and their reflections of light and shadow; fire hydrants recessed into their own sculpted settings in the exposed exterior concrete; and the plurality of surfaces created by different treatments of exposed concrete and floor tiling. All the materials are solid and textured. The sheer number of ramps, decks, stairs, handrails and balconies starts to create a jigsaw of shapes which, when hit by the light, turn into a montage of planes.

CP&B’s decision to face most of the Barbican with exposed pick-hammered concrete created the most distinctive element when lit. Welsh Pen Lee granite, a darker material producing a rougher finish, was chosen for the aggregate. The surfaces of the pilotis and ‘boat-edge’ balconies were coarsely pick-hammered while the top surfaces of the parapets were more finely point-tooled. The exterior floors were finished in brick and the window frames in a rich hardwood. The combination of these materials created a language of surfaces that is articulated and enhanced when hit by the light.

Remarkable photographs of concrete surfaces are possible when surfaces are highlighted by natural or artificial lighting, rain or sunlight, resulting in an almost infinite range of tonal gradations. It is at this point that concrete and photography converge. Concrete usually comprises subtly graded shades of grey spanning almost the entire range of tones from black to white. Monochrome photography is the ideal medium for capturing these nuanced features. With 256 subtly modulated tones between pure white and black, perhaps I should have called my book 256 Shades of Grey. I’m sure sales would have benefitted.

The Barbican’s exhibitions have displayed the exquisitely-composed and boldly contrasting black-and-white architectural photographs from around the world which CP&B used on their Christmas cards. These demonstrate how light and its effects on the buildings they had seen on their travels left a deeply ingrained impression that was bound to come out in their architectural conceptions.’

Alan Ainsworth is an architectural photographer and writer who lives and works in Clerkenwell. Visit his website: alanainsworthphotography.com

The Barbican: Architecture and Light is available online in the Barbican Shop – along with coasters featuring these prints.

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