Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
The new music center could, regardless of its aesthetics, help to make the Barbican’s fortress walls feel more bridgeable.
According to plans released Monday, London could soon be getting a new “acoustically perfect” concert hall. The design, from New York’s Diller Scofidio + Renfro would cost £288 million ($371 million) to complete the city’s Barbican Centre on a site now occupied by a traffic roundabout and the soon-to-relocate Museum of London. In a country grappling with austerity and Brexit, a plan for a 2,000-seat “center for music” seems to hark back to the more confident, stable time in the early 2000s when the Tate Modern opened. Indeed, there have been claims that it could do for the city’s classical music scene what the new Tate did for London’s standing as a center for modern and contemporary art.
Unveiling in an altogether different atmosphere, the concert hall plan nonetheless poses some questions: Does London need such a facility? How will its design mesh with that of the widely admired Barbican Center? And in a city whose global standing has shriveled somewhat, will it be possible to fund?
It’s certainly an inopportune time to propose such a project. In a country battered and bruised by austerity and Brexit, spending money on anything more than keeping people alive and housed can easily be challenged as re-fitting the sinking Titanic’s bathrooms with gold door handles. The music center’s promoters, the Barbican, London Symphony Orchestra and Guildhall School of Music & Drama, nonetheless insist that its funders will be private. It’s a promise that may or may not hold in the long run.
The scheme also has one unassailable argument in its favor. London would unquestionably benefit from a better concert hall, and has a classical music scene that could easily expand to grow and thrive in the new space. The volume and variety of live art and music in London is phenomenal. Other cities might claim greater orchestras or better opera houses, but nowhere else offers a richer diet, larger portions, or (arguably) a more receptive audience. You’re more likely to find a public open to modern and contemporary music in London than in New York. You’re also less likely to find audience members that care about their neighbors’ shoes than in Berlin or Paris.
What London doesn’t have, however, is a great showcase. Its main venue, the 1951 Festival Hall, is beautiful but despite a 2007 revamp, its acoustics don’t truly support big orchestral sounds. The smaller Barbican Hall, minutes away from the new complex’s site is a little better but not great. A better auditorium wouldn’t just be another overblown architectural knickknack, it would provide a home for an already strong scene keen to have its corset unlaced so it can grow.
DS+R’s design could serve this purpose. Their hall’s interior recalls Hans Scharoun’s 1963 Berlin Philharmonie, which broke the mould by allowing in-the-round seating. This is not a bad source of inspiration given that Scharoun’s hall is wonderful, with largely great acoustics, a relatively unstuffy feel and a magical sense of harmony and ease to it. The London design may not be groundbreaking, but if it offers the acoustics its designers’ claim, then it’s still a good outcome.
As for the rest of the building, it may seem a little familiar. Its skewed angled, crazy-Toblerone-stuck-to-a-Modernist-box appearance is uncannily like the 2016 Herzog & De Meuron extension to Tate Modern. It’s also in stark contrast to the neighboring Barbican Center, the divisive but increasingly admired Brutalist arts and high-end residential complex, which it would effectively extend.
In its current form, the Barbican Center is a fortress—appropriately so given its name, though this actually refers primarily to the complex’s site on a former gate in the city’s medieval wall. While inside, the complex has a long fountain-filled courtyard flanked by balconies dripping greenery, the Center’s external walls of apartments function like a form of rampart, towering and with few points of entry. The new music center could, regardless of its aesthetics, help to make these fortress walls feel more bridgeable.
The music center’s look is still quite a contrast. Placed askew with the street and topping a road tunnel, it looks almost naked next to the Barbican, with a transparent shell that should blaze with light in the evening. Barbican aside, the surrounding area is an architectural and planning pile-up of chaos—both drab and flashy— with PoMo office slabs, dank walkways and noisy but still lifeless car-filled roads that you can’t walk down without wondering what went wrong with your life. Really, you couldn’t mess it up further, and this hall certainly won’t.
The music center’s look-at-me openness may still give a deceptive impression. Rather than being just a concert hall, the building will be a kind of concert hall sandwich. A lower main hall and a more intimate venue on the roof acting as thick slabs of bread will bracket the lucrative asset that will hopefully make it viable: four floors of private space for commercial clients. It’s this detail that gives the project a contemporary twist. Some might be tempted to wring their hands at the invasion of filthy lucre, but nothing else is remotely likely to fly in London right now. Indeed, as the project looks for backers, it should prove a fascinating test case as to whether or not London currently has the right climate to push such grand schemes through.