The Barbican at 40

40 years ago this year, on 3 March 1982, the Barbican Centre opened its doors for the first time, with a performance by the LSO conducted by then Principal Conductor Claudio Abbado, marking their new role of Resident Orchestra of the City of London.

The concert was attended by Her Majesty The Queen and HRH The Duke of Edinburgh, and featured Elgar’s Cello Concerto with soloist Yo Yo Ma, and Beethoven Piano Concerto 4, played by Vladimir Ashkenazy. The jubilant occasion marked the culmination of decades of planning – a visionary project designed to bring life back to a city still decimated by the Blitz, combining ultra-modern residential properties with the largest arts centre in Europe.

The building of the Barbican

After substantial fire from German bombers during the Second World War, only a few buildings still stood in the Cripplegate ward, including the damaged Church of St Giles’, which still sits at the heart of the Barbican development across the lake from the arts centre. In 1955, the Corporation of London invited proposals for a radical redevelopment of the area, and in 1959 selected modernist architects Chamberlin, Powell and Bon, who had recently completed the Golden Lane estate nearby. They came up with plans for futurist housing with a hidden gem at its centre – the Barbican Arts Centre. Construction began in 1965.

Seeking to serve the community who would be inhabiting this utopian new neighbourhood, that same year the City of London began discussions with the recently formed Royal Shakespeare Company, and three London orchestras, about becoming resident within the new building. LSO Archivist, and at the time Head of Development, Libby Rice, recalls ‘For the LSO, this was a dream come true. Previously, the Orchestra was all over the place – rehearsing in one hall, then dashing to a recording session elsewhere. And the admin team was based in an office near Oxford Circus, where we rarely saw the musicians. A new home could revolutionise our way of working, and music making.’

The LSO was selected as Resident Orchestra after an ambitious proposal, initially including the running of the new building. In the end though, the Orchestra had limited involvement in the design of the building, which led to some initial teething problems.

Libby recalls ‘On the first night, we were all still learning to navigate our way around the Centre. I had to lead Claudio Abbado’s wife from backstage upstairs to join him in the Royal presentation line-up. For security reasons the lifts were not working, so to avoid the crowds we decided to chance our luck and try an unknown dark stairway. We thought we might be lost forever in the depths of the Barbican but eventually we reached the Terrace Level and Gabriella met The Queen!’

For audiences too, finding one of the Barbican’s 123 entrances presented some challenges, and the LSO capitalised on this with a tube campaign featuring LSO members trying to reach the great opening. In due time, the wayfinding was improved, with an Ariadne-inspired yellow line helping people to navigate.

Today, the 40-acre Estate is home to more than 4,000 residents, living in 2,014 flats, and was Grade II-listed in September 2001. At the opening in 1982, Her Majesty The Queen declared it a ‘modern wonder of the world' and it continues to attract visitors from across the world, whether seeking to enjoy some of the broad range of arts on offer, or the ground-breaking architecture.

The Barbican and the LSO

For the LSO, the opportunity to become Resident Orchestra marked the beginning of hugely fruitful period. ‘Artistically, being able to rehearse on the Barbican stage made such a difference’, recalls Libby. A permanent home also allowed experimentation around what programmes worked best. ‘Initially, our work at the Barbican was formed of three one-month residencies, with concerts at different times. Gradually, we realised that certain times worked better for the London audience, and developed a dedicated following at the Barbican.’

Residency also allowed mutually beneficial partnerships with City businesses, who were keen to ensure the City was a great place to live and work. ‘These included Whitbread, former inhabitants of what was then still a working brewery on Chiswell Street, complete with Shire horses pulling the drays, and TSB, who supported a series of lunchtime concerts which included a TSB-branded lunchbox. The City Livery Companies were also hugely supportive, as they continue to be today. Private support was increasingly vital as the LSO undertook increasingly ambitious creative projects The Mahler, Vienna & the 20th Century Festival in 1985 changed the way the LSO presented and marketed concerts and was a real turning point in our fortunes!’ This was swiftly followed by a sold-out Bernstein festival in 1986 and a series of live concert-lectures, produced by Humphrey Burton for BBCTV.

Barbican at 40 celebrations

Looking ahead, on 3 March 2022 we celebrate this significant moment in the City’s cultural history with a special mini festival celebrating the creativity and community made possible by the foundation of the LSO’s Barbican residency. From 6.30pm the foyers will be filled with groups from LSO Discovery, including LSO Create and the East London Academy, as well as fanfares by Cassie Kinoshi and performances by members of the LSO.

Then at 8pm, the evening will culminate in Haydn’s The Creation in the Barbican Hall, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. Kathryn McDowell, LSO Managing Director said, ‘With London now once again struggling to recover from a worldwide crisis, the original vision of the Barbican seems ever more poignant. I firmly believe the arts has a role to play in rebuilding the City, and we hope that this milestone anniversary can underline to people of the life-enriching power of the arts as a communal experience. Whether local residents, City workers, or arts lovers from across London and indeed the world, we hope as many people as possible will be involved in this celebratory occasion, enjoying the hidden gem that is the Barbican Centre.’


Top image: Barbican Managing Director Henry Wrong shows LSO Principal Conductor Claudio Abbado and Chairman Anthony Camden around the Barbican construction site, 1980. Photo by Michael Humphrey

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