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Building the Brutal

How we built the Barbican

The Barbican is one of London's best examples of Brutalist architecture. It was part of a utopian vision to transform an area of London left devastated by bombing during the Second World War. The arts centre took over a decade to build, and was opened by The Queen in 1982, who declared it ‘one of the modern wonders of the world’.

The photographer Peter Bloomfield was commissioned by the Barbican's first Managing Director to document the final stages of building's construction and the first public events in the building. His beautiful images - which have never been widely shared with the public - capture the astonishing scale and ambition of the construction effort. Explore them here.


Photographer Peter Bloomfield was commissioned by Henry Wrong - the first Managing Director of the Barbican Centre - to photograph the final stages of the arts centre’s construction and the first public events in the building. This collection of photographs has, as far as we know, never been widely shared with the public. Earlier this year, Peter gifted the c. 1400 negatives he produced to the Barbican...

Capturing the Brutal: Peter Bloomfield, the photographer

Born and raised in London, Peter Bloomfield found himself drawn to photography after taking advantage of the learning opportunities that came along with his career in the Royal Air Force. Following the war, with a camera in hand and a new career in mind, Bloomfield decided to try his hand as a professional photographer, believing press photography would be the right place to start. However with limited experience, aside from portraiture of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) on the airbase, the press offices of Fleet Street were not so forthcoming with jobs for the aspiring photographer. Refusing to be disheartened, Bloomfield soon found his first photography job with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, a position that introduced him to the Central Office for Information and his contact in the Barbican…

'It might be outside your field of experience, but would you like to phone this chap at the Barbican Centre?’

After a phone call with the Barbican’s press officer, Angus Watson, Bloomfield was invited to the Barbican offices – or rather a flat high up in Cromwell Tower - for a meeting where he was introduced to Henry Wrong, the first Managing Director of the Barbican Centre. With the opening date of 3 March 1982 fixed in the diary and the Queen invited to open the Centre, the pressure was on to reveal to the public what had been emerging in the heart of the City of London since the 1960s – Bloomfield was given free rein to wander the Barbican in the making, to explore and, most importantly, capture its rise from rubble to arts centre.

‘What do you want me to photograph? Well, anything and everything was the answer’

Bloomfield’s brief was simple. The Barbican needed someone to photograph an arts centre emerging from the ruins which resulted from heavy incendiary attacks in the City of London during the Second World War. ‘It’s nearly finished, you’ll go round, you’ll find dirt and dust and mess’, Angus Watson assured, ‘but we don’t want to see that. What we want to see if as much of the Barbican as it’s going to be in a couple of years’ time. Do you think you can do that?’

‘If you can see it, I can photograph it’

Wholeheartedly accepting the challenge, Bloomfield took his cameras, initially a 5x4 ‘black cloth over head’ Gandolfi then later a more convenient Sinar Monorail, and entered the building site that would become the Barbican. Moving scaffolding, builders’ rubble and rogue fire extinguishers, Bloomfield set about his task.

‘I was looking for views. I don’t look for great wide vistas. I wanted detail in the foreground, detail through to the background and strong perspectives that fed you into the picture.’

As the photographs began to pile up, with sheet after sheet of film rattling through his camera, the Barbican’s structure and character emerged before his lens. Bloomfield moved to 6x7, the biggest film size available at the time, to keep up the pace. For Bloomfield, photographing the Barbican was all about recognizing the moment – and capturing it. Dealing with the building’s vastness, the speed and spontaneity required to shoot ever evolving spaces, battling the inclement weather around the estate, Bloomfield was propelled up a steep learning curve as a photographer.

Kaleidoscopic seats of the Cinema, the beautiful and instantly recognizable wooden board that would serve as a backdrop to the world’s finest orchestras in the concert hall, the theatre and its 120ft fly tower - the Barbican was no longer a dream, it was becoming a reality. And Bloomfield’s photographs were to show the reality.

‘The Barbican was going to be a significant part of the City of London and I wanted to be part of it’

Bloomfield’s pride goes back further than the rolls of film he produced for his Barbican commission. As a school boy during the Second World War, he would ride his hand-tarred bike around the streets of the City, noting their names as he explored their geography. The Barbican area was badly bombed during the Blitz and so at this time, many of the buildings in the City had been reduced to rubble. Once the debris had been cleared away, their basements were left exposed to the weather. To try and limit further damage, the City erected 6ft walls around the sites, filling the holes with water pumped from the Thames to create Emergency Water Supplies, on hand should the City fall victim to further attacks. Thankfully, they were never called upon.

Looking back through his photos of the Barbican as it stands today, this building borne from a bomb crater, Bloomfield reflects on these childhood adventures around the streets of ruin, forty years before he picked up his camera. Cycling around these strange scenes, Bloomfield would consider the buildings that were there before. What was in this space that is now a hole in the ground with water in it? As a young boy exploring the sites of destruction in his home city, little did he know that there could be, and indeed would be, an arts centre in the City of London. And that he would be called upon to capture its rise from the rubble with his camera.

A huge thank you to the photographer Peter Bloomfield and to his assistant, wife and constant source of support, Margaret Bloomfield. Together they have shown generosity, warmth and an unstinting loyalty to the Barbican.

Project credits

Photography: Peter Bloomfield


Producer: Siddharth Khajuria

Editorial: Rachel Williams

Thanks to: Jane Alison, Natalia Calvocoressi, Katrina Crookall, Anna Ferrari, Sam Franklin, Philippine Lefas, Ryan Nelson, Sagar Shah, and Adam Thow

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