With a concert hall big enough to seat 2,000; two theatres; three cinemas; a huge exhibition space; a conservatory; a public library; bars and three restaurants… the Barbican Centre is one of those places that genuinely has something for everyone.
Even if you don’t know your arts from your elbow.
The sprawling, multi-level concrete complex is one of the most iconic (and divisive) pieces of architecture in the city, holding its place as one of London’s brutalist gems. It took almost three decades to build, and every single slab of concrete cloaking the exterior was chiselled into by hand.
That kind of attention to detail has lived on in the Barbican’s programming, which covers not only an insane array of disciplines – from avant-garde dance to classical music – but also showcases the work of artists spanning the globe, tapping into both universal and nation-specific movements and issues. Giving a platform to a wide range of voices is at the heart of everything they do, designed to make the arts accessible to everyone.
The building itself is well worth exploring (they offer regular photography walks and backstage tours, if that’s up your street), and it’s open all day, every day, making it a good spot for getting a bit of work done; browsing the shop, stacked with books and quirky gifts; or exploring the free installations and displays that pop up on the ground floor. Of course, the greatest draws are the performances, talks, workshops and exhibitions taking place within its walls. Here’s what you can expect:
1) THEATRE, MUSIC, ART & DANCE
As is only fitting for such an iconic building, visual art is a huge part of the Barbican Centre. There are regular exhibitions that tend towards the unusual and subversive – from the graffiti collages of Basquiat to paintings of early 20th century cabaret culture.
There’s a densely packed programme of performative art, too, with short runs and regular appearances from international touring companies meaning that there’s something new on every week – and, chances are, there’s something for you. Unless, of course, you’re the kind of person who wouldn’t be interested in 360° virtual reality ‘immersive’ documentaries; stirring monologues; show premieres from award-winning playwrights; interpretive dance pieces inspired by poetry; performances by the Royal Shakespeare Company; musicals; or ballet troupes visiting from the other side of the world (see what’s on here).
But even then, you’d probably be interested in –
2) THE CINEMA
Three intimate cinemas play host to screenings of current releases, cult classics, foreign language flicks, obscure arthouse films, documentaries and recordings of West End theatre shows. There’s also a different festival on practically every month, celebrating particular directors, actors or epochs in cinema, from cyborgs in 60s anime to contemporary Iranian film, and in August they screen films outdoors against their brutalist architecture. Find out what’s on now, and book, HERE.
3) TALKS AND WORKSHOPS
As well as Q&As, talks and panel discussions with artists, thinkers and activists, the Barbican has plenty of opportunities to get involved, too. There’s masterclasses for emerging creatives, as well as drop-in workshops on all kinds of topics and activities that you might just want to learn more about, from architectural lino printing to an introduction to Polish cinema.
4) THE LIBRARIES
The libraries at the Barbican Centre are great – they just keep pretty quiet about them. Tucked away on Level 2, there are three separate sections, including one dedicated to music that boasts its own vinyl record listening station, as well as recordings of spoken word artists and a library of film scores. Cosy seats and tables make it an ideal place to get some work done, but you can also borrow books, films, graphic novels, language courses and more from the collection.
5) THE BARBICAN CONSERVATORY
The jewel in this brutalist crown is the Barbican Conservatory, a very literal concrete jungle built around the theatre’s fly tower that’s grown into one of the city’s most unexpectedly beautiful spots. In short, it’s home to some anti-social terrapins, over 2,000 different species of plant, and afternoon tea – you can read our full guide to the Barbican conservatory here.
It’s the kind of place you’ll want to put down roots.
NOTE: The Barbican Centre is open daily 9am-11pm (from 11am Sundays) and is free to have a look around. To book ahead for performances, exhibitions and the conservatory, check out their website HERE.
Barbican Centre | Silk Street, EC2Y 8DS
Last Updated: 8th March 2022
Keen patron of the arts? Check out our guide to what’s on in London’s art galleries right now.
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