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Barbican Conservatory

Home > London > Rainy Day | Parks | Gardens | Escape the City
Published January 21st 2015
Brutalism Meets Botanic Gardens
Once upon a time an architectural practice conceived a place of superlative ugliness.
By 1982 it was set in concrete, and thus The Barbican centre was born. Exemplar of brutalist architecture and divider of opinions. Arts complex par excellence and home to the London Symphony Orchestra, poor blighters.

After a heavy-duty makeover, it re-emerged in 1984 boasting a third-floor conservatory. This two-storey glasshouse was craftily designed to conceal the fly towers, where theatre stage mechanisms are housed.

It is the second biggest conservatory in London, dwarfed only by that beast at Kew Gardens. Over 2,000 species of tropical plants and trees co-habit here, many of them rare or endangered. This precious spectacle is crowned by the majestic splay of a date palm that reaches the roof.

It is a luscious jumble of silhouettes and textures; glossy green ribbons, leathery tentacles, fleshiness, frills, and prickles. Something in the arid house looks suspiciously like it was knitted.

Too herbaceous for you? Overhead are walkways and platforms to explore. Crunchy paths lead you to a bridge beside a pond. Lamplight and the bubbly splutter of a fountain further contradict the fact that you're three floors above the nearest incompetent cyclist.

Barbican Conservatory, arid house
The arid house
Glistening Koi carp and the arid house are, for me, the chief attractions. The terrapins are always either AWOL or avoiding me when I check their pool.

Barbican Conservatory, Koi carp
Koi carp
I wish more of the species were labelled because I'm a horticultural dunce. But I always find the Birds of Paradise, and those ferns that look like Sideshow Bob from the Simpsons.

Barbican Conservatory, Strelitzia Reginae, Bird of Paradise
Strelitzia Reginae (Bird of Paradise)
Thanks to the architecture, yesteryear beckons throughout. Sounds horrid, but it works.
Despite time travel not yet being offered on an Oyster card, you've somehow fallen asleep on Silk Street, and ended up alighting in the 70s. For those truly at home in this decade, you'll lose bladder control when you see the rest of the Barbican.

The flipside is the nonchalant housekeeping, which makes my jaw drop for the wrong reasons. I last clocked waterlogged chips and a knackered sofa left in one unlovely corner. Not cool, Barbican management people, not cool.

Take it: Startling green space in the City, party/wedding setting (yes, it's for hire), novel date venue. Good in nearly all weather conditions. And let us not forget that conservatory essential, free Wi-Fi.

Leaf it: Only open on selected Sundays. Killer humidity in hotter months. Not suitable for those allergic to that 70s aesthetic.

Jesting aside, you must witness this if you're visiting the Barbican. It is too unique to pass up and the plant life will enchant you.

Barbican Conservatory, Aloe Aristata, Lace Aloe
What's green and ridiculously photogenic? Aloe Aristata (Lace Aloe)
That's why it's popular with artists, who sprawl on the floor to sketch, and fashion blog photographers - I've never visited without seeing a model amateurishly feigning foreplay with a cactus.

I will always tenderly regard this little gem as the lovechild of Kew Gardens and a multi-storey car-park. A collaboration that once seen is never forgotten. And believe me, after seeing those chips, I have tried.

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Why? It's London's very own concrete jungle
When: Open on selected Sundays 11:00-17:00. See www.barbican.org.uk/visitor-information/conservatory for upcoming dates
Phone: 02076384141
Where: Barbican Centre, Silk Street, London, EC2Y 8DS
Cost: Free
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