The Barber – once described as ‘the perfect place to contemplate art’ – has been awarded the highest heritage honour: Grade 1-listed building status.
Historic England’s new web listing – an upgrading from Grade 2 praises the Barber as ‘a building of exquisite architectural quality’, recognising ‘the sophisticated design which follows logically from its plan, arranged around the central auditorium.’
The commendation is, it continues, ‘for the set-piece interiors, particularly the auditorium, which express the sophisticated style of the 1930s; for the remarkable quality of the detailing throughout, with even the smallest features contributing to the thoughtfulness of the overall design; for its survival with relatively little alteration.
And it recognises the Barber as ‘what is thought to be one of, if not the first integrated facility of its type for the teaching of music and the arts, with gallery and exhibition space’.
The Barber was founded in 1932 as ‘a civic (indeed a national) centre of humanistic culture for all and sundry’, as Sir Charles Grant Robertson, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Birmingham, described it during the building’s opening ceremonies in 1939.
Funded through the philanthropy of Hattie, Lady Barber, in commemoration of her late husband, Birmingham-born philanthropist Sir Henry Barber, it was designed by architect Robert Atkinson (1883 – 1952), working closely with the Barber’s first Director and Professor of Art, Thomas Bodkin (1877 – 1961).
Before embarking on plans, Atkinson and Bodkin embarked upon a fact-finding tour of recently built museums in Germany, Holland, Belgium and France, as well as in the UK, in 1935. They visited the Gemeentemuseum at The Hague, the Boymans in Rotterdam and the new Courtauld Galleries at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, examining the latest advances in gallery design – from gallery layout to lighting.
Opened by Queen Mary on 26 July, 1939, the Barber’s modernist form – designed to follow its function as gallery, concert hall and teaching institution – was realised in the finest materials, including handmade brick and Darley Dale stone facings to lower storeys, entrance portico and façade decoration. Its interiors were to include travertine marble for floors, door-surrounds and its elegant curved staircase in the entrance foyer. Its centrepiece Art Deco auditorium was clad in Australian walnut with a proscenium arch of inlaid maple.
The building was first listed in March 1981 and given Grade 2 status – an accolade itself at a time when understanding of 1930s architecture was at its lowest ebb. The assessor noted that Atkinson’s design was ‘sophisticated’, with even the ground-floor windows described as ‘suavely combined’ and ‘giving a crisp linear definition to the design.’
The Barber’s Director, Nicola Kalinsky, welcomed the new listing: “There is no doubt in my mind that Bodkin’s involvement was instrumental in why Andy Foster, writing in Yale University Press’s updated Pevsner Architectural Guide Birmingham, said: ‘Among public buildings, Robert Atkinson’s Barber Institute of 1936-9 at the University is an exceptional, nationally important example of this style. Cool and sophisticated, with interior finishes in beautiful materials, it is a perfect place to contemplate works of art.’”
Added Nicola. “One of the many delights of the Barber is that today’s visitors and students experience a building – whether walking to the Library along the original linoleum corridors or contemplating art resting on the substantial oak banquettes in the picture galleries – pretty much as Atkinson and Bodkin intended.”
Sir David Eastwood, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Birmingham, commented: “The University of Birmingham glories in an exceptionally attractive campus at its main Edgbaston site, with its rich mix of distinguished buildings testifying to our institution’s historic and continuing commitment to setting the highest standards for all it does. This highly merited upgrade, underlining the unusual survival of this 1930s building’s nature and characteristics, is a wonderful testament to our stewardship of our estate.”
10 September 2020