THE BARBICAN CENTRE AS A WORK OF ART
“ There’s a little hidden treasure in the heart of the Barbican”, proclaims the official website of the gorgeous greenhouse located inside the Barbican Centre, Europe’s largest multi-disciplinary space. Indeed, this description aptly suits the glass and iron structure with its vast collection of tropical plants and trees —an architectural diamond embedded in a precious stone.
The center was inaugurated in 1982 as part of a larger ongoing redevelopment project in an area destroyed by bombings during the Second World War. The architectonic complex includes the greenhouse within, plus theatres, a library, cinema, galleries, cafés and bars, surrounded by residences and commercial activity.
The overall look is reminiscent of a castle surrounded by city walls, with imposing concrete blocks creating structures that seem to be actually made of stone. Raised walkways allow for movement across the common areas of the complex, and an artificial lake faced by terraces at various levels marks the center of the inner court.
This path is scattered with “rooms” and scenes, each characterized by curious botanical arrangements. As the only elements capable of competing with the material grandeur of the complex, the ubiquitous plants soften and harmonize with the interior architecture, making both equal contributors to the surrounding context.
The pleasant feeling of walking the exterior paths is magnified when reaching the interior of the greenhouse, conceived as a sort of grandiose respite from the winter, and where tropical plants flourish and reach dimensions rarely observed in Europe. Their majesty enhances – and possibly surpasses – the architectural elements. An entire wing of the complex is surrounded by a gigantic structure made of glass and metallic tubes, which serve both as a further extension of the main non-botanical components and as supports for more plants.
Intersections in the multi-level walking paths guide visitors around the various habitats and offer inviting views from different angles. Gradually, the experience of the visit turns into a magical journey into a universe far from everyday experience. The first sensation is that of destabilization. Surrounded by the abundant lush plant life, the urban elements of concrete, iron, and glass, and the temperate and humid climate, one feels as if in a post-apocalyptic world, where nature reclaims its former domain.
The greenhouse is home to many types of tropical plants, some truly remarkable, like the selection of Ficus or Strelitzia that grow upwards of 5 meters. Climbers such as Monstera creep up throughout, reaching the upper floors of the building. The paths are flanked by simple plant compositions that effectively lead to important focal points, such as lakes, groves, or some of the more imposing individual plants. On one of the higher levels, a room dedicated to fat plants and succulents transports the visitor into yet another dimension.