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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

A rarely seen grandeur

By Norman Lebrecht and Giles Worsley / March 7, 2002

When it opened, the Barbican, a combination of arts venues and apartments, attracted severe criticism. But, 20 years on, attitudes have changed - and so has the Barbican.

IT is always a mistake to judge a performing space when new. It takes time for the acoustics to settle and longer still for the hall to find a place in the public's affections. Twenty years is about right - a milestone that the Barbican Centre has just passed, modestly and with a minimum of pomp.

Tower power: the Barbican has a sense of drama, like a massive gorge with crags of rock towering above. It has been very successful as housing, but the problems arose when the arts centre was added

The Barbican has much to be modest about. Built from a hole in the ground with materials that looked obsolescent by opening night, the arts centre's layout proved more convoluted than the Hampton Court maze, and its concert hall resounded in pp passages to the noise of car exhausts and loo-flushings. Although the date was 1982, the deficiencies spoke of industrial winters of discontent, of Britain on its knees. These shortcomings have been steadily addressed over two decades. It is now possible to enter the Barbican without abandoning hope of finding your seat before the interval. The concert acoustic has been markedly improved by last year's 7 million refit. The clarity is not Vienna class and never will be, and it may take a meteor bursting through the roof to relieve the sepulchral lobby gloom. However, in contrast to its rival amenity, the sink-estate South Bank Centre, the Barbican has made a distinctive niche for itself in London's fast-flowing cultural marketplace.

Its redemption arises from a character change in its teens. The City of London had designated its 153 million "gift to the nation" to be a place of cultural summiteering. Under Graham Sheffield's artistic direction, the Barbican became instead a leader in agenda shifting. Its spaces now throng with world music, jazz and postmodern art. The London Symphony Orchestra admirably dominates its concert hall, but the Royal Shakespeare Company is on the way out, to be replaced by more contemporary European drama. Tradition is being challenged and remade. The Barbican, in grim surroundings, seems younger and livelier than the Centre Pompidou in Paris and Washington's Kennedy Center, its near-contemporaries.

To shrug off its concrete chrysalis required huge efforts of will and improvisation. The concert hall, at first hearing, was a catastrophe. Claudio Abbado, then LSO music director, demanded wood cladding round the stage to humanise the sound. When that failed, he vanished for months. Rafael Kubelik struggled in rehearsal to elicit Brahmsian warmth from a willing orchestra, raising some players on pedestals so that he could hear them. Kubelik's cycle played to a half-empty hall, and he never returned.

The LSO came within 10 pence of bankruptcy on Colin Davis's Berlioz-Tippett cycle, each concert repeated two or three times. I dropped in to see the manager one day. Peter Hemmings was sitting at an empty desk, waiting for the phone to ring with a job offer or foreclosure. Happily, he was called to Los Angeles to found an opera company, and the LSO pulled itself up by bootstrings under Clive Gillinson's astute management to a position of national pre-eminence.

Henry Wrong, the Barbican's first boss, kept walking into the most exotic accoutrements - such as the marble altar in the Ladies, intended for the incineration of intimate objects. While designers oohed and aahed, the lighting, heating and plumbing went on the blink. Wrong's successor, Detta O'Cathain, spent her time doing battle with performing ensembles. It took the urbane John Tusa, a former BBC presenter and World Service chief, to redeem the centre stage by stage - and he is not done yet.

Tusa would like to rip out the ghastly grey carpets and other "tasteful" tinkerings of the last redesign. He wants better entrances, a box office that customers can find without guide-dogs, and a change of lightbulbs. This is going to cost another 12 million, but one of the Barbican's key successes has been to turn the Corporation of the City of London into the nation's third-largest arts benefactor, pumping in 70 million a year. The City fathers will do what it takes to put the place right. Tusa has signed on for another three years, and the future is set fair.

If this reads like a classic British triumph over self-made adversity that is exactly what the Barbican represents. Its lesson has been well and widely learned. We will, I can state with confidence, never see its like again.

No concert hall in this country is ever going to be entrusted to an architect without an acoustician having power of veto. Simon Rattle enshrined that principle in Birmingham, and it paid off in Glasgow, Manchester, Basingstoke and beyond. The Barbican is the last great exemplar of how not to build a concert hall.

It is also the last arts centre we are likely to see. The concept of a Gesamtkunstgebau - a building for all the traditional arts - has outlived its time. It has been overtaken by a new eclecticism, by our reluctance to be nose-led by curators and our curiosity to seek culture from plural sources. The "arts centre" has educational overtones that offend the educated mind. It belongs to a nannying era. The audience, like the Barbican, has grown up in the past 20 years. The challenge now is to have fun, and not to grow old.

9 February 2002[Property]: Somewhere between utopia and a public loo
15 February 1997: The Barbican's musical gift to the world

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001