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London’s new concert hall will break down barriers at the Barbican

06. concert hall. concept design centre for music. courtesy of diller scofidio and renfro
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London’s Centre for Music will transform a drab and hard-to-reach corner of the City, says Perkins + Will’s Daniel Parker

With so many music venues under threat of closure, it’s refreshing to see Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s ambitious plans at the Barbican opening up this hard-to-reach area of the City with a project that boasts a major cultural asset and increased public realm as its anchors.

Music and architecture are often charged with élitism, walking as they do a tightrope between artistic and commercial sensitivity. Like many such schemes, there will be many different perspectives on it, with valid opinions on all sides. But I see important reasons to applaud the plans.

Firstly, the proposal breaks down élitism. Opening up the canyon-like arteries that choke London Wall will benefit everyone – something the City of London Corporation has astutely recognised.

Pedestrianised spaces in central London are few and far between and, while I’m a huge fan of the Barbican, Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s winding walkways – a nod to the practice’s New York High Line – are a cooling antidote to the thrusting Brutalism of the site.

Slicing away the roundabout to the south will create a magnet for activity, transforming a district of drab offices and chain coffee shops into something more vibrant and inviting. Making the area more people-friendly is precisely what we should be doing. Whether this is successful will depend on how the scheme is curated, but the values we have as designers will always set the tone for how places evolve.

Growing up in Sweden, as a teenager I took inspiration from Sigurd Lewerentz’s Malmö City Theatre. Social equality is embedded in Scandinavia’s DNA and the theatre has it in spades. It fuelled my passionate conviction that, when designing spaces, the public comes first.

When entrenched class systems dictate what, for whom and where we build, it’s no wonder that architecture often alienates people. But projects like the Centre for Music have the potential to break down preconceptions of who this project is for.

Secondly, the scheme provokes an honest conversation around blending civic and commercial uses. Public funding isn’t what it was and, whether we like it or not, having commercial uses to underpin project finance is necessary in some cases.

This will require careful consideration at the Centre for Music. Some will turn their noses up at the inclusion of a four-storey commercial space but, realistically, this is the future of civic funding. Cultural venues have to get more creative about their finances.

There will always be demand for music and the beneficial ‘halo effect’ of cultural hubs such as this one can be huge. I’m excited to see what Centre for Music scheme does for London’s City fringe.

I’m not suggesting for a second that we sell out cultural assets to the highest bidder. But we as architects can perhaps do more to help such projects engage the imagination, making the case for them to win funding or support, influencing policy and swaying investors.

On a technical level, we are overly constrained by outdated planning policy and planners should be looking at ways to mash up use classes and find inventive ways to make things pay.

But the payback of a project doesn’t need to just be financial – and this leads me to my final point: such landmarks as the Centre for Music are agents for change.

Whether it’s promoting the value of music venues, the need for cities to become more walkable or the responsibility we as professionals have to drive the sustainability agenda, projects such as this one tick a lot of boxes. The challenges of living side-by-side with traffic affect each and every city-centre project and finding innovative ways to neutralise pollution and maximise safety are some of the biggest we face.

We need to stand firm and lead clients along the right path, and projects like this, albeit they will rightly be subjected to much scrutiny, are absolutely crucial to making the necessary changes.

Daniel Parker is Design Director at Perkins + Will’s London office

05. education pod. concept design centre for music concert hall. courtesy of diller scofidio and renfro

05. education pod. concept design centre for music concert hall. courtesy of diller scofidio and renfro

Education pod - concept design for the City of London’s proposed new centre for music by Diller Scofidio + Renfro 

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