By Inge Kjemtrup | From the January-February 2023 issue of Strings magazine
It’s a Sunday afternoon in October and the London Symphony Orchestra is playing a family concert at the Barbican Hall. From where I’m standing, in the foyer outside the hall’s doors, I can hear the final thrilling bars of the Star Wars suite and the enthusiastic applause that follows. Minutes later, Door 3 bursts open. I move to one side as an energetic horde of adults and children swarms the lobby. Some kids are in costume, brandishing plastic swords and light sabers.
This is only one hub of activity at the Barbican Centre today. Elsewhere, people wait for a theater performance to begin, relax at a coffee bar, shop for books, and sit outside at the man-made lake. The library, with its excellent music section, is busy, while the plant-filled conservatory hosts a corporate event. At the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, one of London’s leading music conservatories, students rehearse in practice rooms just visible from the lakeside area.
Visit on another day and you might catch a performance by the Royal Shakespeare Company, a jazz or rock concert, an exhibit at the Curve gallery, or a concert by the LSO (the Barbican’s resident orchestra) or the BBC Symphony Orchestra (associate orchestra). There are regular events that take full advantage of the multi-disciplinary nature of the place, like the BBC Symphony’s Total Immersion weekends.
The Barbican Centre truly deserves its status as London’s leading destination for culture. Sure, there are criticisms. There are those who dislike the Centre’s concrete bulk and an architectural design that isolates it from the neighborhood. Others bemoan the hall’s acoustics or note that, despite improved signage, it’s incredibly easy to lose your way.
Yet as it celebrated its 40th year in 2022, the Barbican Centre has been having a bit of a moment. Its architectural style makes it an icon of mid-century modernism. The Centre was opened in 1982 by Queen Elizabeth II, who declared it “one of the wonders of the modern world.” It seems fitting that the LSO marked the 40th anniversary on March 3, 2022, with a performance of Haydn’s “ The Creation,” preceded by performances in the foyers and interior spaces by young musicians from the LSO Discovery education and talent development programs.
What Londoners call “the Barbican” refers to not just the arts center but also the housing complex, which was completed in 1974. It includes three massive tower blocks, which for a time were the highest in Europe, and several buildings at lower elevations. There are some 4,000 residents, among them Maxine Kwok, a first violinist in the LSO. She moved in 20 years ago, shortly after joining the orchestra. “When I first moved here, it wasn’t a particularly trendy or desirable area. I was like, ‘Oh, this concrete monstrosity in the middle of the city.’ Now people see the beauty of it, and that there is so much green space inside. I’m a bit ashamed to say I only really noticed it during lockdown. Everything was closed, so every day I would do a walk around. There were places I just had never been and gardens that I hadn’t discovered. I realized it is a little oasis.”
The 40-acre Barbican stands in what was once one of the biggest bomb sites in Europe after the Second World War. In a single night on December 29, 1940, this former light industrial area—“a center for the rag trade and home to fabric and leather merchants, furriers, glovers, and a host of other tradesmen” in the 19th century, according to the Barbican—was flattened. Miraculously, the nearby medieval St. Giles’ Cripplegate Church survived relatively unscathed.
At the war’s end London was eager to rebuild. Fresh architectural concepts—clean lines and attractive forms with practical functionality—came to the fore, exemplified by the Royal Festival Hall, built for the 1951 Festival of Britain and now the centerpiece of the Southbank Centre along the River Thames.
Meanwhile, across town, plans for the Barbican area, also known as Cripplegate, were emerging, guided by the City of London Corporation (CLC). The CLC was the wealthiest of the city’s boroughs, although it also had the fewest residents. As Oliver Wainwright wrote in the Guardian earlier this year, “By 1951, Cripplegate had a population of just 48—a century earlier, it had been home to 14,000. Without residents and voters, the city faced losing its centuries-old powers and being absorbed into the wider London County Council.”
Faced with this dire prospect, CLC leaders invested heavily to attract residents and revive the area. In the mid-1950s, they took a leap of faith by hiring the youthful architectural firm of Chamberlin, Powell & Bon, which would make the Barbican its project for the next 30 years.
In a Barbican architectural tour, I was told to ignore the brutalist design books, coffee cups, and T-shirts on sale in the gift shop, because “brutalism” doesn’t capture the Barbican’s unique style. Call it “neo-classical with a sci-fi twist,” our guide suggested. Architects Chamberlin, Powell & Bon wanted to evoke Venice and other places in Italy they loved. A barbican is “a walled outwork or tower to protect a gate or drawbridge of a fortification,” and the architects wanted to draw upon on the area’s legacy as the heart of Roman London, Londinium, with massive columns. Sections of Roman and medieval walls pop up in the many gardens of the Barbican. I was charmed to learn that the columns on the Guildhall School resemble tuning forks.
To be fair, there is a lot of concrete, although the facades would have been marble if the architects had had their way and the CLC hadn’t put its foot down. Instead, there are variegated concrete surfaces, “bush-hammered concrete” created by painstaking drilling.
It’s the details that engage a visitor. Door handles and railings are graceful and easy to hold. High walks go from building to building to keep people above and away from the car traffic (parking is underneath the center). There’s one eye-catching view after another, which is one reason it’s so easy to get lost. They want you to lose your way.
Several years into the project, plans for a modest arts center to be used by residents transformed into something more ambitious. Chamberlin, Powell & Bon were asked by the CLC to fit an arts center into a very narrow space. Their solution was to build vertically, which is why the Barbican Hall and the RSC’s theater are subterranean. The architects also had to wrestle with exacting specifications from the LSO and the Royal Shakespeare Company. The latter’s tall fly tower juts up in the conservatory and is entwined with plants.
The 2,000-seat concert hall has proven problematic, acoustically and logistically. At the back of the stage, there’s a striking carved wooden panel but no space for an organ, and the stage is not as flexible as one might like. The lift to bring a piano onstage, for instance, was an afterthought. But for the audience, the comfortable seats are a joy.
Erica Worth, the editor of Pianist magazine, is a regular Barbican Hall concertgoer. She likes the hall’s warm look as well as its acoustics. “The seats are great, and you can see. I enjoy sitting in the hall more than any other place. You feel like you’re circling around the artist, as opposed to just looking at them as you do in other halls. You feel part of a concert.”
Kwok also has good things to say about the hall. “I like playing in there and find it’s almost like the color of the wood—very warm. In some ways I think if an orchestra’s home hall is a bit of a challenge, it almost makes you play better. It makes you work harder.”
Kwok says that the backstage could stand improvement. “It’s not the most spacious. I think the musicians would love to have something that works a bit more for what they need. Whether that’s quiet places to have a warm-up or a place to sit down and read a book, or a green room where everyone could sit down and have a coffee and a chat. Unfortunately, there’s only so much one can do with the space that’s available.”
Since its opening, the Centre has had many alterations. For instance, a major £12.1 million (at the time, about $21.4 million) upgrade completed in 2006 saw it finally get a street-level entrance on Silk Street. Today, what’s described as “an urgent program of replacement and upgrade” is in the works.
The LSO has long been closely tied to the Barbican as its resident orchestra, but the relationship hasn’t always been easy. Sir Simon Rattle, who ends his tenure as the orchestra’s principal conductor in spring 2023 and who has been a longtime critic of London’s concert venues, came onboard in 2017 alongside a flurry of enthusiasm for building a new hall for the orchestra. That dream, however, has been put to one side, as the LSO copes with the fallout from Brexit, the pandemic, and a sluggish economy, so instead of decamping for a new hall, the LSO will be remaining at the Barbican after all. (Wisely, the LSO had given itself breathing room in 2003 by converting a nearby church into a rehearsal and concert space, now called LSO St. Luke’s.)
As well as handling mercurial tenants like the LSO, the Barbican has also struggled with diversity, both onstage and behind the scenes. A 2021 external investigation cited “a lack of diversity in the organization, an absence of confidence in HR systems and in the handling of complaints and in managers to deal with or take seriously concerns of racism.” The Barbican has stated its commitment to addressing the issue.
Some things are changing. Performers and composers on recent Barbican concert programs come from a broader spectrum of backgrounds than in years past. I attended a concert by the BBC Symphony Orchestra that’s symbolic of this, featuring Finnish conductor Dalia Stasevska with cellist Sol Gabetta in Elgar’s cello concerto (which was incidentally played by Yo-Yo Ma at the Barbican’s debut concert), new works from Iain Farrington and Dai Fujikura, and Sibelius’s Symphony No. 1. Likewise, the LSO concert the following week featured rising young German conductor Kevin John Edusei leading the LSO in Stravinsky’s Petrushka.
Asked for memorable moments from her 21 years playing in the Barbican, Kwok starts with the 2004 LSO Centenary Gala. “To be in the orchestra at a time when it just turned a hundred was very special.” (Also at that star-studded gala: Mstislav Rostropovich, Michael Tilson Thomas, Sir Colin Davis, Sarah Chang, Dave Brubeck, Sir Antonio Pappano, and Queen Elizabeth II.) Kwok also recalls a momentous concert of three Stravinsky ballets with Simon Rattle. “It’s always amazing when you blow the roof off the concert hall.”
The first in-person concert last year, after months of playing streaming concerts in empty halls, was equally unforgettable. “When we finally had an audience, and you realize how much you’ve missed the engagement, it was incredibly moving. There was an announcement, ‘Welcome back to the Barbican,’ and the audience just went crazy.”
In its 40th year, the Barbican remains a landmark, and in my 25 years of living in London, I have developed a great fondness for it. I like the liveliness of the place and the sense of escaping to an oasis in the middle of one of the busiest parts of town. I even took it one step further: I got married in the Barbican Conservatory!
I can’t help but agree with Maxine Kwok, who marvels at the “immense amount of culture—theater, music, galleries—right on my doorstep. It’s quite special. I can’t think of many other places that would have this juxtaposition of homes and culture in the middle of what’s like Wall Street.” Long may the Barbican, this cultural marvel and concrete “monstrosity,” thrive.