Barbican Arts Centre

London. 2006

  • Project Details
  • Completion: 2006
  • Cost: £12.6 Million
  • Clients: City of London Corporation

The Barbican Arts Centre is a redevelopment project that deals with layers of fabric to interweave the past, present and future into a recharged piece of architecture. The original development was characterised by notoriously difficult visitor navigation – a confusion made worse by the lack of street address (its several entrances linked to carparking and a London-wide ‘skyway’ system that was never fully realised) and years of accumulated visual clutter. To clarify entry, a former ‘back door’ on Silk Street is made more prominent through the closure of the former roadway and the introduction of a new entrance portal. To clarify circulation, a wide new bridge – set back from the theatre façade and leading on to de-cluttered internal high street – is inserted to take visitors from the new Silk Street entrance right across to Lakeside in a single, unambiguous route. The language of the architectural interventions, including two new entrances, the new bridge, interval bars and information and ticket points, is that of a family of crisply-defined, over-scaled ‘portals’ that sit confidently within the robust original spaces.


Design Week Wayfinding & Environmental Graphics Award 2007 RIBA Award for Architecture 2007

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The particular problems of the Barbican centred on visitors being unable to locate themselves and their destinations easily – a confusion made worse by visual clutter accumulated over the last two decades, by the lack of a distinctive street presence and by the centre’s inherently compromised architectural arrangement with its 6 principal venues and main entrances spread above and below ground over seven levels. The whole building is listed Grade II but we were not disposed to radically change it, rather to work with it, recognising and celebrating the building’s best qualities while dealing head-on with its deficiencies.

Our strategy has been to clarify the Barbican’s circulation by creating a single, wide, unambiguous and welcoming route which takes visitors from the de facto main street entrance on Silk Street right across the centre to its other most-used entrance off the Lakeside Terrace, which is at the heart of the whole development.

This new grand route, actually a new bridge structure, has one major crossroads from which visitors can branch off to their chosen auditorium or restaurant or meeting room before it leads visitors directly to the central circulation core. These lifts and stairs, uniquely in the building, provide access to all of the centre’s many venues including the Library and the Art Gallery (refurbished as an earlier phase of the works) on upper floors and the main Cinema and the Pit Theatre below. 

Where new architectural form has been called for such as the new entrances, the new bridge, interval bars and information points, we have developed a common language of form and materials for their ‘portal’ enclosures which clearly highlights their function and respectfully distinguishes the new from the old. All of these new architectural elements have been deliberately over-scaled to occupy their sites fully such that they sit within Chamberlin Powell and Bon’s robust spaces with confidence and read as a necessary part of the architecture. Close collaboration has been a key feature of the project where lighting and graphic design has been carefully integrated with architectural form to ensure that all aspects of the design are supporting the principle aim – that of improving the legibility of the building and the visitor’s experience of finding their way around. To reinforce the new simplified routing, a visitor way-finding strategy has been developed with the graphic designers which, in contrast to the previous attempts, sets out to reduce the amount of signage needed to the minimum required to function – and at a completely different set of scales.

Floor-to-ceiling signage has been installed in the form of giant arrows and super-graphics spelling out the names of the two main venues, the hall and the theatre, using colours which match the predominant colours of the venues themselves. At each lift lobby, giant cut-out numerals wrap around the concrete denoting the relevant level while smaller scale directories give more detailed listings of venues and facilities. With the lighting consultants a bespoke light fitting has been designed which underlines the distinctive architectural character of the concrete structure and which subliminally reinforce visitors’ routes through its layout. Needless to say the six year-long project has involved a continuing partnership between the design team, the contractors, the client, and, through three years of disruptive works, its loyal audiences.

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