Barbican at 40: Creating an iconic cultural model

We speak to the Barbican’s in-house design team and long-time collaborators North Design about the role of branding in helping cultural institutions adapt during challenging times

First opened in 1982, the Barbican is the largest performing arts centre of its kind in Europe, welcoming well over a million visitors to its site in London every year. Aside from hosting everything from plays and concerts to major exhibitions, the centre is equally well known for its iconic Brutalist architecture. Envisioned as a city within a city and partly inspired by ancient Roman fortresses (the word ‘barbican’ roughly translates as ‘fortress’), the expansive estate was originally designed to house 4,000 residents, organised around schools, a church, a library, an artificial lake and a conservatory, along with the arts centre itself.

As it marks its 40th birthday this year, it’s clear that the Barbican brand plays a vital role in promoting the cultural institution’s offering to the public, as seen most recently with the campaign for its anniversary programme coordinated by art director Will Gompertz. Its emphasis on the power of branding and design hasn’t always been so clear cut, however.

Recent programming designs

“When I first started, there were a couple of people in the team that had design skills and I was one of them, but the kind of design work we did was very basic,” admits designer William Allen, who has worked at the cultural institution since the mid-90s. “The branding at that time was literally all over the place, because all these different venues had their own sub-brands. There was a Barbican brand above all of that but it wasn’t very widely acknowledged or used.”

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