A response from Sir Nicholas Kenyon, The Barbican Arts Centre’s Managing Director, to the last issue’s guest editorial by Douglas Woodward regarding the plan to construct a new concert hall on the site currently occupied by the Museum of London when that moves to it’s proposed Smithfield site at the end of the decade.


Sir Nicholas Kenyon – Photo credit and copyright Sheila Rock

It was interesting to read Douglas Woodward’s guest editorial in the last edition of Barbican Life about the proposed new Centre for Music at the Barbican, especially as Mr Woodward has been such an important force for good in the architecture of the City during his time as President of the City Heritage Society. The Society understands well the relation between new and old, ancient and modern, in the environment of the Square Mile. So it’s a great pity that Mr Woodward was not in touch with those who are originating this idea, since there are several misunderstandings in his editorial which we would like to correct.

It was originated by three partners, the Barbican, the LSO and the Guildhall School, with the active support of the City Corporation. It represents a unique opportunity for a world-class orchestra, conservatoire and arts centre to create a new venue for the future. London is expanding, and the opportunity is all the greater, as residents here are the first to recognise, because of the imminent arrival of Crossrail, to be known as the Elizabeth Line, which will transform access to the whole area around the Barbican. The Museum of London’s desire to move to create a new museum in West Smithfield, and the commitment of the City Corporation, has added another key factor: the availability of a site. All these factors come together to make this a once-in-a-generation opportunity.

In widespread discussions with the music and wider arts sector, a strong point of agreement has been that London is in real need of a great symphonic concert hall for the 21st century. It has historic halls of great value, including the Royal Albert Hall where atmosphere triumphs over acoustics, but by comparison with Europe, Asia and even the rest of the UK which has built recent halls including those in Birmingham, Manchester, and Gateshead, London is in danger of falling behind.

As part of these plans it is not the case that the Barbican Hall would be ‘downgraded’; instead it would be enhanced. It is a marvellous venue for all sorts of music, and will continue to go on being so. John Tusa did much to improve it during his tenure here. It has been recognised for many years, however, that it simply does not have the volume or the layout to be suitable for large symphonic works, lacking proper sightlines, space for chorus, an organ, and sufficient resonance. What Mr Woodward refers to as the possibility of ‘sprucing up’ the Barbican Hall has been carefully investigated, and would not be possible without encroaching on other areas of the listed building, which I cannot believe he would favour. What we do want to do is to give it more flexibility for the flourishing genres of contemporary music that bring audiences to the Centre.

Mr Woodward is right to point out the funding challenges of such an undertaking, but no visionary project is undertaken without such challenges, and the very significant commitment of the project to raise funds privately will be a key part of the solution. The Government was confident, as a result of the Feasibility Study that was commissioned, completed and presented last year, to allocate development funding for the next phase of the project. This is now continuing. We can reassure Mr Woodward that no design plans have been made, only the work that he has seen to show that the scheme is possible on the site. A large amount of consultation and engagement will take place as the plans progress. Barbican Estate residents will be key to that consultation and their views on the unique heritage of the Barbican and its relation to any new building will be vital.

When the Barbican Estate was conceived in the years after the war, it was exactly the sort of bold, innovative and (to use the term which Mr Woodward seems to use derogatively) ‘state of the art’ project which made a long-lasting contribution both to the City and to urban planning. The Centre for Music aims to do exactly the same for the future of music in this country, providing a beacon which will bring a new generation to enjoy and participate in the art-form in which we all believe so passionately. Far from being unnecessary, it is a vital part of the future of music and we look forward to working with everyone to achieve it.