Opening the square mile to culture

London Essays – Issue 4: Culture

Opening the square mile to culture

The new cultural hub planned for the City of London will reflect a 21st century sense that the audience matters.

By Sir Nicholas Kenyon

London is changing; people are changing; the arts are changing. The biggest development I’ve seen in my decades in the capital has been the sense that culture and the arts belong to everyone: they are an essential part of the attraction of London as a world city.

In the past, the great temples of culture were built in a way that seemed designed to intimidate visitors. It was a privilege to enter these buildings; they were cut off and offered a special experience: a sense of wonder but also a whiff of exclusiveness, a feeling that this was for those in the know rather
than for you or me.

Lovers of the arts now want something very different. We still want spaces to be awe inspiring – we want to feel the thrill of entering the Royal Albert Hall, or the Great Court of the British Museum – but there has also to be a sense of welcome, of accessibility. The achievement of the South Bank in recent decades has been extraordinary, opening up that area by the river as a free-flowing centre for a multitude of arts-based activities. The decisive act of pedestrianising the north side of Trafalgar Square has transformed public access there; and the emerging quarter around Granary Square in King’s Cross is an object-lesson in how new inspiring urban spaces
can be created around renewed buildings, with thriving educational
and recreational areas.

We still want thrilling, uplifting experiences from the arts and culture,
but there is something else we want, too: to participate, to be part of the process of creation. We can do this through listening to a great symphony at the Proms or seeing Shakespeare at the Globe, but both those experiences are much more likely now to be surrounded by a wealth of educational and learning opportunities for all, drawing in new audiences and offering young
people to chance to participate.

The City of London, where I now work at the Barbican, is a key part of London’s heritage and also of its dynamic future. It is a world business centre set in a square mile where Roman walls, City churches, historic livery halls and contemporary buildings rub shoulders. And a huge opportunity is offered by the arrival of Crossrail in 2018–19, which will transform access to the City, cutting travel times to both east and west, and with north-south links at Farringdon and Moorgate linking to airports, consolidating the area as an international hub.

Physical developments such as these provide a chance to redefine the relationship between audiences and arts by creating transparent, porous venues and welcoming public spaces – a common theme for cultural buildings old and new today, as the Royal Opera House embarks on its project to open out to the streets, the National Theatre creates its new visible rehearsal rooms and the South Bank Centre plans its future development.

One of the unique things about the emerging cultural hub in the City is the artistic collaboration between the Barbican and our neighbours, the Museum of London, the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, the London Metropolitan
Archives and the Guildhall Art Gallery. We’re increasingly coordinating with our local partners to create the highest-quality arts, culture, outreach and learning experiences in a place where arts lovers, concert-goers, families and students will want to spend the day.

A great recent example is Martin Parr’s exhibition of photos of the City at the Guildhall Art Gallery, alongside his curation of Strange and Familiar, the acclaimed exhibition of international photographers’ views of Britain, at the Barbican. Shakespeare 400 has been celebrated across the City, from a son et lumiere in Guildhall Yard to the installation of new blue plaque on the site where he lodged, near the present Museum of London.

Alongside the improvements to the public realm and the offer to audiences, two large-scale projects have the potential to define the change. The Museum of London has the opportunity to create a new Museum in West Smithfield, in the historic General Market close to Farringdon Station; and, when that move takes place, there is a visionary plan for a new Centre for Music to serve London and the nation on the present Museum site by the Barbican. Linked to the vista from the South Bank and Millennium Bridge up to St Paul’s Cathedral and to the north, this could be a defining project for the area.

Last year, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Mayor of London spoke together of the need to renew London’s infrastructure for the future, to ensure London would be a centre of the world’s creative and commercial life, underpinned by new investment in science, finance, technology and culture.

We know visitors come to London for its arts and heritage. We need to embed culture in the capital, to ensure that for those who live in, work in and visit London. this continues to be the most exciting city in the world.