Residents: Inside the iconic Barbican estate

The Barbican, that twentieth century utopian vision, and one of the most documented housing projects in the world, is taking us for an intimate tour. A select group of its residence are letting us glimpse into their homes and hear their thoughts – all of which is documented in an intriguing new book Residents: Inside the Iconic Barbican Estate.

Here photographer Anton Rodriguez – himself a resident – has captured the interiors of 22 homes for an alternative view of this iconic brutalist estate. We visit the homes of an interesting collection of people, mainly creatives, who have made the Barbican their home, and hear their stories, and their interactions with a building that feels so pivotal to their lives.

This Grade II listed mixed-use residential and arts complex is a monument to the highpoint of modernism – to a time when London urban planners had more compelling visions than simply building luxury apartments for the elite. Constructed in the 1960s and 70s in an inner city area once devastated by World War II bombings, the Barbican was conceived as an urban village of sorts to help form strong communities.

As a piece of architecture, it is a fascinating contrast of hard and soft. The thick slabs of vertical and horizontal concrete encourage a mesmerising graphical play of light, artfully captured by Rodriguez’s lens in the book.

Today over half the world’s population live in cities, predicted to grow to some 75 per cent by 2050 as rural residents are forced to flock to city centres for work. As urban growth explodes, the Barbican vision could not be more relevant.

Residents: Inside the Iconic Barbican Estate is published by the Barbican

Nargess Banks

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The World of Charles and Ray Eames

For designers context is destiny, writes Sam Jacobs half way through The World of Charles and Ray Eames. The time and place in which the designer happens to emerge is decisive in shaping their world, he argues. And in this context Charles and Ray Eames are intimately connected with mid-century California. It would be impossible to consider one without the other.

Post war, California embodied the New World – the west coast became synonymous with a new kind of modernism. This particular interpretation of the movement had at its centre a sunnier thinking, an optimism lacking in Europe at the aftermath of two major world wars. It also benefited hugely from its geographical distance from Old World modernism, and perhaps the climate and vast beautiful coastline helped shape a very different mind-set.

Californian modernism rejected some of the more rigid dogmas whilst maintaining the core values of the movement, and arguably directing it towards modern life so that ideologies like social improvement married new sensibilities of popular culture.

Here film, music, magazines, mass-produced products joined art, architecture and design as tools for shaping our lives. Californian modernism embraced free thinking; it had a direct connection with lifestyle. It took design out of the strict codes set by the European avant-garde and set it free.

And Charles and Ray truly embodied Californian modernism. You cannot help but smile at image after image of this handsome and healthy couple working alongside other equally sunny faced artists and designers in their Eames Office. Here they collectively experimented with new material, finding new solutions for sustainable products, creating movies, stills and architectural models for living. Their energy is intoxicating, almost bouncing off the pages of this book.

European and east coast intellectuals looked over in awe, too. Jacobs writes: ‘The Eamses were ‘natives of a world that could only be glimpsed through the keyhole of media.’

The World of Charles and Ray Eames is a highly informative and visually engaging book published to accompany the exhibition held at the Barbican in London, and on until 14 February. Together they succeed in celebrating the inspiring and prolific world of this husband and wife team.

Chapters are divided into ‘life in work’, ‘at home with the Eamses’, ‘art of living’, ‘celebration of human need’ and so on to reveal their broad reach. Over 300 pages are dedicated to photographs, sketches, letters, original text and film stills, and it includes insightful text by Eames Demetrios, the couple’s grandson, art and design academics.

We also love the fact the book design also reflects the Eames workings whereby cropping, framing, design and presentation of image became central to their work, here captured through the very present grid, essential also in handling the large body of work presented.

Charles and Ray worked with product design, filmmaking, advertising; they explored folk art and an assortment of non-design objects to see how they can help shape our lives. Their multi-media architecture led them toward film and photography as tools for modelling ideas.

In Powers of Ten, a film made for IBM, for instance, they explore the relationship between design and the universe, as the film shows how nature, people, objects, books, and life can fit into a wider context.

Their design world was a collaborative one. Their ‘laboratory’ as the studio was referred to – active for four decades during the post-war period – involved such a wide selection of designers, architects, artists and engineers.

Charles and Ray took the principles of early modernism, the expressive visions of early Bauhaus, transported it to sunny California and moved it forward to be relevant for the new age. And what is most fascinating is just how relevant their work remains today. We are continuing this discourse.

Commissioned by the Indian government, they submitted their India Report in 1958 in response to the challenge the country was facing in the light of western design and philosophy. The recommendation was for a new educational model that would bridge tradition and modernity.

It begins with a ‘sample lesson’ and a quote that we feel captures the essence of the Eames philosophy. It is borrowed from the Bhagavad Gita, the 700-verse Sanskrit scripture of the Hindu epic Mahabharata:

‘You have the right to work, but for the work’s sake only; you have no rights to the fruits of work. Desires for the fruits of work must never be your motive in working.’ This simple quote beautifully underlines Charles and Ray’s curiosity with process, which remained at the very heart of their lifelong work.

Nargess Banks

The World of Charles and Ray Eames is edited by Catherine Ince and Lotte Johnson and published by Thames & Hudson for the Barbican.

Read The World of Charles and Ray Eames exhibition review here.

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Book review: Lucy Williams

Lucy Williams takes mid-twentieth-century Modernist architecture as her inspiration to create softly shaded, intricate collages. Working with mixed media, the artist turns these often cold and brutal constructions into warm, human spaces. Even though they remain unoccupied, we can almost feel the presence of people in these diverse settings that include housing projects, government buildings, department stores and swimming pools.

‘I am interested in how the architecture was first imagined,’ says Williams, ‘working from grainy images, the reconstruction of the past, and in turn, the forming of a contemporary narrative, become an element of my practice.’

In Lucy Williams the British artist reveals the multiple processes involved with creating her work, displaying her collages alongside photographs of the buildings that have inspired it.

Her intricate work depict deserted scenes. Williams breathes life into these constructions – many of which are sadly no longer in existence. She’s fascinated by process, with craft, working with wool, gravel and cotton to ask us to stop and marvel at their detail and beauty.

Her work depicts the tension of the precision and masculinity of the stark utopian architecture and the painstaking and traditionally feminine domain of craft.

‘The illusion that I aim to achieve is an image that is simultaneously industrial and tactile,’ she writes of the House of Glass at Twilight collage in 2009.

The book covers the work of some of the key Modernist architects – Alvar Aalto, Philip Johnson, Adolf Loos, Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius and Eric Lyons – as well as less remembered names. In recent years her concerns have shifted to buildings constructed after the Second World War, and in particular the housing estates around the Barbican Centre in London.

Williams says she is fascinated by the utopian ideal. ‘The period of time that those buildings were made was a period of optimism and hope.’

Nargess Banks

Watch Lucy Williams talk about her work and the book.

Lucy Williams is published by Roads.

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Exhibitions: Bauhaus Art as Life

It is near impossible to be a designer in this day and age and not have been in one way or another influenced by the Bauhaus. The modern world’s most famous art school operated relatively briefly – between 1919 and 1933 – yet it changed the way we see, think and create. Bauhaus united art and technology, its utopian vision sought to change society in the aftermath of the First World War.

Masters on the roof of the Bauhaus building c. 1926. From left: Joseph Albers, Hinnerk Scheper, Georg Muche, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Herbert Bayer, Joost Schmidt, Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Lyonel Feininger, Gunta Stolzl and Oscar Schlemmer, Courtesy Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin/Centre Pompidou Paris. © Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin/Centre Pompidou ParisFounded by architect Walter Gropius, the school changed location in Germany from its first home in Weimar to Dessau and finally Berlin before its members were dispersed before the Second World War. Even after its avant-garde teachers and pupils had emigrated to Europe, the US and beyond, the Bauhaus style remained the most influential movement in design and architecture.

It seems completely fitting that the Barbican – itself a brilliant example of 60s utopian thinking – should host one of the most comprehensive, and exciting, exhibition in the UK in over 40 years.

T Lux Feininger, Sport at the Bauhuas, Circa 1927 – At the Barbican. © Bauhuas:Archiv BerlinBauhaus: Art as Life explores the diverse artistic production which made up its turbulent fourteen-year history and delves into the subjects at the heart of the school: art, culture, life, politics and society, and the changing technology of the age. The exhibition features a rich array of painting, sculpture, design, architecture, film, photography, textiles, ceramics, theatre and installation.

There are examples on display from teachers at the school including Josef and Anni Albers, Marianne Brandt, Marcel Breuer, Walter Gropius, Johannes Itten, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Hannes Meyer, László Moholy-Nagy, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Gunta Stölzl.

It features a host of workshops, talks, films and performances as well as the Bauhaus Summer School, an intensive two-week school held at the Barbican and led by leading practitioners from all artistic backgrounds. In short, this is an exhibition not to be missed by anyone interested in design.

Bauhaus: Art as Life is at the Barbican in London, UK from 3 May to 12 August 2012.
The exhibition in co-operation with Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin / Museum für Gestaltung, Stiftung Bauhaus Dessau and Klassik Stiftung Weimar.

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