All Ears

Written by: Duncan Hadfield

When the Barbican Hall reopened its doors last weekend with concerts by the City of London Sinfonia and the London Symphony Orchestra, the eyes and ears of the audience will have seen and heard something they haven’t before. Over the summer the venue has undergone a major refurbishment. The Corporation of London has funded the £6 million improvements, which include a new suspended ceiling and over-stage canopy designed by Adam Caruso and Peter St John, the award-winning architectural partnership. Teaming up with them has been the Chicago-based acousticians, Kirkegaard Associates, to create an inspired new aural design that promises to enhance both the dramatic impact and ambience of the hall.

“Since my arrival at the Barbican in 1996, it has been my commitment to realise the proposed acoustic improvements, whilst also to enrich and develop the artistic programmes to match the new potential,” comments Robert van Leer, Head of Music at the Barbican. “I feel certain that this major redevelopment, alongside the entire programming for the upcoming season, should establish a new standard of music-making at the Barbican and in London.”

“Ever since the Barbican opened twenty years ago, there always seems to have been complaints about the acoustic. Part of the problem arose immediately because of what was to have been the Hall’s multi-purpose nature, plus as part of the architecture of the Barbican’s complexity directly above, there lies a flat sculpture court. So with a horizontal ceiling and lots of necessarily-angular fixtures holding it in place, any sound starts bouncing around, giving rise to what is termed secondary reflections. Now any concert hall needs to resonate and, as such, some reflections are always necessary – it’s just that from the off, the Barbican had far too many: reflections of reflections, one might say. Over the years some of those unpleasant effects have been ironed out, but they weren’t enough to make a genuinely perceptible difference.”

“So now that the Barbican has decided on a major structural refurbishment it was the ideal opportunity to nail the acoustics once and for all. Adam Caruso and Peter St John were chosen for the task because with over ten years of working together they have extensive experience of renovating. I think the powers that be who commissioned them were impressed by their desire to raise the dramatic temperature of the interior whilst preserving all that is good about the Hall. The matters that needed to be concentrated on were airflow, lighting, production lighting and stage modernisation. What we now have is an entire replacement of the original worn-out air-handling unit, and air-flow has been reversed so it’s supplied at seat-level and extracted at ceiling-level, which also reduces background noise. We have one-hundred-and-forty new lights, plus an entirely new lighting bridge; and new stage-risers replacing the old hydraulic system.”

“On top of those extensive improvements comes the new acoustic design, with Kirkegaard Associates’ objective to enhance the sound, importantly, for audience and musicians alike. The over-stage canopy has been raised by two metres and integrated into a succession of curved acoustic reflectors which ascend from above the stage into the main body of the Hall. More reflectors are situated in the ceiling and along the walls – in fact, a total of thirty-five Rimex-coated reflectors, each made up of four to seventeen separate panels. They also promise to look very attractive, taking up the ’warm wood’ look of the interior in general, coloured gold, through bronze, to dark red. So, the theory is that all those unpleasant ’sound-bouncing’ surfaces will have been stripped back and/or covered up, especially as a lot of old or outdated lighting and wiring in the roof has been replaced at the same time.”

“This is a mixture of science and aesthetics; to my mind acoustics are virtually an art form in themselves. Some concert halls seem to have them, almost magically, in place; most do not. It was originally thought – and still is in some quarters – that the old shoebox shape was probably the best way to start, as demonstrated by Vienna’s Musikverein, but when the Barbican Hall was originally designed, partly also as a conference centre, that wasn’t possible. But newer thinking suggests that diversely shaped auditoria can be equally sonically enticing. I think of both Glyndebourne and Birmingham’s Symphony Hall being exactly that.”

“With this major refurbishment in the City of London we hope to be right up there with the best, reinforcing the Barbican’s reputation as a leading international music venue, and not just for mainstream ’classical’ repertoire. The changes should improve the situation for everyone from a period Baroque ensemble, via the resident London Symphony Orchestra, to a contemporary gig.”

I’m given – obligatory hard-hat on head – an intriguing preliminary sneak preview of the building work in progress. Much is certainly happening in the roof space, and the impressive overhanging series of canopies are also in place. Add the plethora of new lighting rigs, and even detailed attention to matters such as the precise curvature of the balconies, and the Barbican Hall is undergoing a major, high-tech renovation indeed. Aesthetically and sonically, it’s all happening. But will it be six million well spent? There’s only one way to find out – by being there and listening.

  • David Wordsworth reviews the opening LSO concerts of the season – click hear to read
  • Colin Anderson also reports on the new acoustic – click here
  • Photographs by Rob Moore

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