Kam Bava breathes new life into the Barbican sunken bars
We visit the restoration and interiors refresh of the Barbican sunken bars by London architect Kam Bava
The much loved Barbican Estate in London comprises many parts and elements – from its famed performing arts centre, a key cultural hub in the City of London and beyond and the largest of its kind in Europe, to its iconic residences, outdoor spaces and brutalist architecture environment. Its scale means that there are many smaller areas, however, which often remain lesser-known, yet are no less important to the Barbican experience. Part of the Grade II-listed Barbican Centre Theatre, the Barbican sunken bars are two hospitality corners of the seminal modernist development, constructed between 1965 and 1971 and located under the steps of the theatre. The spaces were in need of a refresh, so London architect Kam Bava was asked to lead a careful restoration and interior redesign to breathe new life to the complex’s much-loved leisure offering.
The bars’ facelift was not just about aesthetic fixes and a superficial polish. The architect ensured a technical upgrade was incorporated as well, because, after years of intensive use, the listed fabric was in dire need of an update. Seeking to maintain the interior’s original character, as well as emphasise reuse and recycling as an approach, Bava cleverly redeployed elements found within the Barbican campus. ‘The steel bar structure is made from the handrails on the [Barbican] centre, and the ceiling comes from the art gallery. The handling of these pieces together with the use of mirrors creates a very different scale of experience, using very familiar design cues,’ he explains.
He continues: ‘We wanted to intensify this interesting play on scale whilst highlighting the forgotten qualities of the spaces. With the use of improved lighting focusing on elements of the bar, key walls and the use of original Barbican colours, we have struck a balance between conservation and recognising the intensive and varied use of these spaces in a modern institution.’ Existing furniture was reupholstered, while any new features were conceived to respect the spirit of the existing design.
Cleaning up the interior included practical yet necessary gestures, such as asbestos removal, reworking of the lighting, security, visitors’ facilities such WC, bar operation facilities such as washing, serving and refrigeration, and improving storage. It all results in a set of spaces, the new Barbican sunken bars, that feel respectful and celebratory of the estate’s long and important history, while at the same time are fit for 21st-century use. §