Why it’ll be a happy birthday for the Barbican

Cultural centre marks its 30th anniversary with a packed programme in Olympic year.

Thirty years ago this week, the Queen cut a ribbon to open an ambitious new arts complex built in the heart of a sprawling housing estate.

On March 3, 1982, she memorably proclaimed the Barbican Centre to be “one of the wonders of the modern world”.

Decades on and many would say Europe’s largest arts centre has lived up to those words. It has long cemented a reputation as a world-beating venue that attracts stars from all corners of the arts world.

Just last weekend it hosted the varied talents of singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright and Mercury Music Prize winner Ms Dynamite, each performing genre-defying concerts with Barbican residents the London Symphony Orchestra.

The venue is pulling out all the stops for the Olympic year, with shows featuring Hollywood star Cate Blanchett, jazz legend Wynton Marsalis and Chocolat actress Juliette Binoche among the many highlights.

It will also mark 50 years of James Bond films with a major exhibition of original gadgets, props, costumes, cars and more.

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Managing director Sir Nicholas Kenyon said: “It’s extremely thriving at the moment. We’re really committed to the Olympics and the cultural programme around it, and that’s paid dividends for us as we have been able to put together such a fantastic programme in our birthday year.”

When it opened, the centre was the final piece in the jigsaw of a vast project to revive an area flattened by bombing in 1940.

In one night, the Luftwaffe wiped out the maze of streets and warehouses that were where the estate now stands.

Plans for housing were drawn up in the 1950s and the first flats were completed in 1968. By 1974, the three soaring towers that make it such a landmark were in place.

The site had been designed in the brutalist architectural style popular in the 1950s and 1960s. It was constructed from concrete and looked harsh, angular and urban. Some saw it as drab, ugly.

So it was perhaps an unlikely setting for an arts centre intended to bring culture and beauty to the intersection of Finsbury and the City.

Sir Nicholas said: “The Barbican took so long to design and build that when it opened it was really unfashionable in terms of its style. It has had its critics.

“But it was a utopian idea, to have a place where people live with the arts at its heart. That’s still quite unique today.

“Its reputation has changed now. It contains some of the great urban spaces in London, and I think many would describe the Barbican as beautiful in its own way.”

The Barbican Centre boasts three auditoriums, two galleries, a cinema and three restaurants, not to mention the tropical conservatory and library.

Sir Nicholas, who took up his post four years ago after running the BBC Proms, describes it as “the place where you get all the arts under one roof”.

He added: “The mission of the Barbican is to be an arts centre for the city, the nation and the world.”

This year will see the opening of the complex’s first new buildings for 30 years.

Two new cinemas will launch in September, situated at the junction of Beech Street and Whitecross Street.

It is hoped this increased street presence will help to draw in new audiences – and drive a cultural boom in its surrounds.

Sir Nicholas added: “It will have a glassed front and be great for attracting people from the street. We want to get beyond the walls of the centre and build a feeling of there being a new cultural quarter around here.”

n Visit www.barbican.org.uk for upcoming events.