The Barbican is due to get a makeover for its 40th birthday next year

By Yvonne Courtney

The Barbican is due a makeover
The Barbican is due a makeover

The Barbican is an outstanding architectural achievement but it’s beginning to show its age. Home to three cinemas, two art galleries, a concert hall and theatres, the Brutalist complex is in need of what the City describes as “major renewal”. 

As the arts centre approaches its 40th birthday, the City of London Corporation has launched an international design competition for a £50–£150m repurpose of the Grade-II listed development.

The challenge will be striking a balance between respecting and preserving its architectural heritage while adapting it to meet the needs of 21st-century audiences and communities. 

A revamp was on the cards following the cancellation of a new concert hall (to be situated on the Museum of London site following its move to Smithfield). It is also part of the City’s goal to reposition itself as a cultural destination. A modernised Barbican is central to the CultureMile hub, which includes the Museum of London, the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and the London Symphony Orchestra (see page 17).

The plans are intended to be as inclusive as possible; a key part of the brief is to ensure spaces are safe, accessible and welcoming for all, with more people feeling a sense of ownership and belonging. 

Reviewing its membership fees might help further achieve this, as well as a discount for local residents – of EC1/EC3/EC2 postcodes – who don’t currently qualify, unlike their Barbican estate neighbours. The baffling directions, always an issue within the labyrinthine  

Barbican, will no doubt be addressed by contestants. The Barbican currently acts as something of a barrier between the area’s cultural zone and Smithfield, so making the entrances more visible and easier to find will be a must. 

Hopefully this won’t involve more surgery of the City’s unique pedway – which has been wonderfully reimagined in the area off London Wall by Salter’s Hall. Designed by Chamberlin, Powell and Bon, the Barbican Centre was completed in 1982 as the centrepiece of the City’s large-scale post-war reconstruction for the Barbican Estate. In recent decades, upgrades have included a £12.6m overhaul in 2006 and a £3.4m street-level cinema complex, renewed shop, and environmental upgrade of the main art gallery in 2019. 

Barbican Centre Board chair Tom Sleigh said: “The Barbican has been a huge success… adapting it to respond to the creative opportunities and urgent challenges of today’s world, ensures it will play a leading role in the recovery of the City, the capital and the nation from the pandemic.” 

Following the 21 October deadline, five finalists will be invited to develop proposals, with the winning design to be announced next February, just ahead of the Barbican’s 40th anniversary. 

With the right interventions, the Barbican’s car parks and other indoor-outdoor spaces could be adapted to deliver much more to support its creative, civic, and commercial ambitions. 

Creative solutions that bring these currently under-utilised spaces to life will deliver an exemplar of how a heritage building can be sensitively repurposed for the future. 

Yvonne Courtney is the founder of City-based repurposed clothing startup www.collage.london , design/retail, PR advisor and commentator