T he Barbican centre is nothing if not forward-looking. Built in 1975, its architects dreamed of a ‘city in the air’ connected by walkways and a public space for art. But while the building succeeded in making the arts more accessible, the promised walkways never materialised. As a result, the centre’s confusing floorplan and the lack of a proper front entrance have in the past put off corporate clients.
That was then. When the £14.1m redevelopment of the Grade II-listed building started in 2002, addressing these problems was at the top of the list. With the refurbishment officially completed this September, using the building has become a lot easier. The controversial architecture that provoked so much debate when the Barbican first opened is still very much in evidence, but it’s been softened by some very 21st century ideas.
Mark Taylor, the centre’s commercial director, says: ‘We never had a front entrance before. The architects had thought people would arrive in a car or come in via a lift, so the entrance was confusing for pedestrians at ground level.’ Now the blue curved canopy has gone from the Silk Street entrance, to be replaced with a sleek black portal. Head of corporate sales Anthony Hyde adds: ‘This gives people a sense of arrival – a sense of occasion.’ That’s for sure. The space is certainly imposing – and there’s a ‘proper front door’ for the first time, plus a lightwall of moving shapes created by artist Alex Hartley.
Getting to the Barbican couldn’t be easier: it’s half-way between Moorgate and Barbican underground stations, and, unusually for a venue in the City of London, it offers 550 parking spaces. When you get inside, the revamp is immediately obvious. There’s a new desk in the foyer, surrounded by the ubiquitous ‘portal’ shape, and a clearer route in the main atrium. Taylor says this reflects the changes throughout the Barbican: ‘The way the building was originally constructed, people had to go down a set of steps, across some space, then back up again. But having so many choices of which way to go confused people.’
Now, the floor has been levelled off. It’s just one example of how the redesign has made the space more user-friendly. An up-to-the-minute lighting system means it’s also possible to colour the ceiling in a company’s colours, or give the impression of daylight in the evening. The lights can also be lit to create a ‘path’ of colour – an incredibly simple but effective navigation aid, as anyone who has seen the orange lamp-posts between Southwark tube station and Tate Modern will agree. Finding your way around the building is further helped by new super-sized signage in six-foot-high letters, and colour-coding of the facilities.
As well as the structural changes, some up-to-the-minute gizmos have been added, including 42-inch plasma screens dotted throughout the complex, which can be used by clients to display showreels or their latest TV commercial. They can also be used as marketing screens, removing the need for any untidy (and decidedly old-fashioned) posters.
The Barbican’s facilities were already world-class, but these too have been tweaked to make them more attractive in today’s competitive venue market. On the first floor, there’s the concert hall, home to the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO). It can cater for between 500 and 1,947 people, and commercial users benefit from the same technical support given to the LSO. The hall was upgraded four years ago, at a cost of £7m, to give it hi-tech acoustic panels and air conditioning, as well as 24 wheelchair spaces and a lift onto the stage.
Shelley Tilley has organised the Royal National Lifeboat Institution’s AGM and awards ceremony there for 13 years and is impressed with the refit. ‘What attracted us was the size – there are so many places that are either tiny, or vast; this could cope with 400 for the AGM and 1,500 for the awards. We also loved the impressive AV facilities.’ Outside in the lobby, yet more changes are apparent. The hospitality area has been expanded, with frosted-glass screens replacing the lightweight wooden partitions. The entire entrance level (including the hall and theatre) and lower ground floor can be booked exclusively. And in summer there’s a bonus in the form of the Lakeside Terrace, which can be used for barbecues and drinks receptions.
Back inside, the theatre seats between 300 and 1,156, and has one of the largest stages in Europe. ‘We can get a bus on there,’ enthuses Hyde, pointing out that it is even possible to change sets during the course of a conference. But the Barbican is not just a venue for massive show-stopping events. ‘The perception is that the Barbican’s big, that you get lost, and that we only do big events,’ says Hyde. ‘People think Barbican, and they think big. But 65 per cent of what we do is smaller events of up to 300 people.’ Accordingly, the majority of the venue’s events space is on level four. There are seven conference suites, two cinemas (seating 150 and 250 and available for hire), and the Conservatory and Terrace. The conference suites are flat-floored and slightly semi-circular, with floor-to-ceiling mahogany-framed windows. They can seat 22, boardroom-style, or 50 in classroom configuration. They can also be combined in twos and threes, so that up to 170 delegates can sit theatre-style. The Redgrave Room, for example, has stylish grey and white walls, with views of Sculpture Court.
Conservatory, a slant-roofed, fully lit glass affair that hugs the flying tower of the theatre and is filled with 2,000 species of tropical plants, an aviary and a pond filled with koi carp. The welled area in the centre can hold 70 for dinner, and with the adjoining wood-panelled Garden Room (with its fine views over St Giles) that figure rises to 280. Up a level, there’s a terrace that overlooks this stunning greenhouse. It can accommodate 180 for dinner, or 200 for drinks and is used for registration and as a break-out area during the day. The proximity of the Conservatory and Terrace to the cinemas means all the spaces can be used in combination to hold up to 500 people. One such event was a private screening of the most recent James Bond movie, which was followed by a spy-themed reception in the conservatory.
Maggie Cahm, head of HR at Mintel, finds that the rooms make a perfect combination for a Christmas party. ‘We had drinks and a string quartet in the conservatory, then a sit-down dinner for 150 in the garden room,’ she says. ‘It was all casino-themed and very tasteful, not tacky.’ But she reserves greatest praise for the Barbican staff. ‘I was working in the US at the time, and I had to organise everything over the phone. The last phone call I got was from my event organiser at the Barbican at 11.38pm, telling me everything was going well and that I should relax. What other place would do that?’
For sit-down dinners, the Barbican can draw on its in-house caterers, Searcy’s. A typical lunch or dinner menu might start with pink roasted duck breast with Moroccan couscous, followed by guinea fowl pot-roasted in ale with root vegetables, and rum fruit savarins and a Champagne berry jelly to finish. Breakfast and canape menus are also available, as is a full vegetarian selection. The Barbican’s strengths of iconic architecture, large and small spaces, and a uniquely creative approach to event planning are now being fully used. It might have been designed to resemble a medieval fortress, but it’s now bang up to date.
Click through for The Barbican’s venue review.
Travel to 'Fresh Face' - Venue Focus Feature on the Barbican's Refurbishment in style with London's leading minicab firm Addison Lee.Get a quote »