35 Years of Firsts

We look back through 35 ‘Firsts’ from our boundary-pushing heritage over the last three and a half decades including a short essay by Cerys Matthews


3 March 1982: The Barbican Centre opens

First arts centre in the world to have music, theatre, visual arts, film and a tropical conservatory all under one roof opens.

Photographer Peter Bloomfield captures our rise from the rubble of a World War II bomb crater in the heart of the City of London into a world-class multi-arts centre.

Browse the full Building the Brutal archive

In the first Barbican brochure, or Diary, as it was then called, we announced our opening celebrations, five days of events including a visit from Her Majesty The Queen.

Our opening celebrations also included performances from the Royal Shakespeare Company and London Symphony Orchestra as they settled into their new home venues.

Upstairs in the Art Gallery, we presented Aftermath: France 1945–54, New Images of Man.

The first public concert in the Barbican Hall was a gala performance presented by BBC Radio 2, Friday Night is Music Night.

Photo: Peter Bloomfield

A message from... Managing Director, Sir Nicholas Kenyon

The Barbican has always been an innovative, international organisation, pushing the boundaries of art forms and welcoming the finest artists from across the world.
It’s difficult to overstate the scale of ambition and vision required to plan and build the Centre in the first place, particularly in the context of the devastation brought about in London during the Second World War.

This boldness in the initial planning and building of the Barbican feels like it has been at the forefront of the minds of all who have led the Centre, challenging us to create work that takes risks, that innovates and that is genuinely new.

These 35 'firsts', chosen from so many over the 35 years of our programme, show how the Barbican has always been pushing the art-forms forwards – and how we continue to do so today.

From Richard Mosse's Incoming to Jean-Michel Basquiat, Simon Rattle and the LSO, Toneelgroep and Jude Law, we aim to continue celebrating the very best adventurous, distinctive work in the arts to build on our remarkable sustained history made possible by the generosity of our founder and principal funder the City of London Corporation.

The Centre gradually carved out a distinctive identity for itself in the capital’s arts scene

How the Barbican has evolved and changed over the last three and a half decades is clear from the events featured here, as the Centre gradually carved out a distinctive identity for itself in the capital’s arts scene.

This identity will, I’m sure, continue to alter and shift over the coming decades as we respond to the constantly changing way the arts are created and experienced. What will remain though is the Barbican’s international focus.

We sit at the heart of a centre for international trade as part of one of the world’s great international capitals and our global outlook has been a principal part of the Centre’s mission since its inception.

8 October 1985: Les Misérables

First ever performance of the RSC's Les Misérables

Directed by Trevor Nunn and John Caird, the Royal Shakespeare Company and Cameron Mackintosh present the world premiere of Les Misérables on the Barbican stage.

The musical adaptation of a 19th Century novel by Victor Hugo opened to unfavourable reviews.

Now in its 32nd year, Les Misérables is currently the world's longest running musical, and has played to more than 65 million people in 42 countries and 22 languages.

From the early celebrations of Nordic and Japanese culture in the Barbican’s first decade to last year, when we worked with artists from 37 different countries and received ticket bookings from 91 different nations.

International cultural exchange is the lifeblood of the arts

The new global perspectives we’ve presented have helped us gain new understanding of both ourselves and our neighbours. Whether that’s through new interpretations of Shakespeare from bold European directors such as Thomas Ostermeier and Ivo van Hove, outstanding visiting orchestras from Leipzig, Amsterdam and Berlin, or exhibitions made in collaboration with galleries from across the world.

International cultural exchange is the lifeblood of the arts and we’re proud of the role we have played in making London the great cultural capital city it is. As we move into the next phase of the Barbican’s development we hope to continue to seize opportunities for our world class arts to represent us overseas and to shape our national identity at home.

The UK has always been a bold, creative, outward looking nation, and the Barbican will embody these values as we aim to play the fullest possible part in shaping our collective future.

The arts have an increasingly important role to play as we look to them to provide inspirational ways for us all to articulate our hopes, fears and aspirations.

The Barbican will continue to provide these opportunities for the widest possible audience, guided by our belief that the arts transcend national boundaries and should be available to all.

Here’s to the next 35 years!

Sir Nicholas Kenyon

12 December 1989: Leonard Bernstein conducts 'Candide' with the LSO

'The Barbican has been a major presenter of my music in London for many years. Recently they mounted a series of first rate concerts in honour of my 80th birthday, and so it gives me great pleasure to congratulate them on becoming 35.'

Steve Reich


A message from... Cerys Matthews

I first became aware of the power of art when I was 5. A recorder was put in my hand when I was a pupil at a regular Welsh Language state primary school. It felt like I’d been given the key to something, and I was hooked from the get go. I couldn’t get enough, and began listening with intent, collecting music books, buying cassettes and records.

Mississippi John Hurt was my guide, and Bob Dylan my map.

Through music I learned about foreign affairs, Native American Indians, the Irish famine, the Chilean coup; civil rights issues, questions of faith, identity, injustice, politics and history...

There I was, a white, Welsh child, making sense of the world from the confines of a Swansea bedroom. I realised then that art was a special kind of key which allowed me to cross borders, collect information, and respond.

The power of art as enlightener has been a constant for generations, but the way we devour it is constantly shifting.

I began writing songs, and that was that, in my mind, like many, I'd found a way of making the most of this miracle of life. The power of art as enlightener has been a constant for generations, but the way we devour it is constantly shifting.

I grew up in a time (and place) where film fans went to the cinema, music fans went to record shops and installations probably meant something to do with British Gas.

Ballet, theatre, art all had their own temples of worship. We knew where we had to go to find them.

Roll on a few a decades, through the boom and bust of video, the demise then rise of vinyl, to today, where we find coffee, coffee, coffee fuelling our obsession with the virtual world, now accessible wherever we Iive, and pretty much all of the time.

Gadget handy, we can be 24/7 processing, questioning, and responding (mostly to email, I know) pretty much on any topic... But hey, here’s where it gets interesting...

A beautiful, all encompassing, all exploring physical manifestation of this kind of boundary-less reference library that we’ve fallen in love with

As a yin to the yang, (every action has an equal and opposite reaction after all), we can witness, in EC2, the coming of age of its terrestrial mirror image - a beautiful, all encompassing, all exploring physical manifestation of this kind of boundary-less reference library that we’ve fallen in love with.

Yes, I'm talking about the Barbican: this wondrous, instigating, agitating, inspiring, multi-platform building.

I first went in the late 80’s, an 18 year old student nurse wanting to know the secrets of Flamenco. I remember being shocked by the concrete, 30 years later I return again and again.

The stark edges seem perfect in 2017, softened with a few trailing ivies from the balconies, and the buzz of ideas. I recognise there a sense of a utopian future in the present...

You enter with dance tickets, come out with a painting under your arm...

It still offers a cornucopia of artistic projects. You might, for instance, first go in as a theatre fan but you’re exposed to such a variety of offerings so that curiosity never fails to be piqued. You enter with dance tickets, come out with a painting under your arm...

Recently I enjoyed more Roma music, this time a battle of the brass bands with Boban y Marko Markovic playing against Mexico’s Banda Estrellas de Sinaloa de German Lizgarra, surprising collaborations helping to make sense of this ever changing world.

Next time you’ve got an urge to explore, grab your coffee and enter, the door is open, and it might give you the key to something too.

Happy 35th birthday, Barbican.
Cerys Matthews

'The Barbican has raised the game for all who work in British theatre, welcoming and supporting British artists and inviting the best of the best from the international world.

Its ambition and passion make it the most important institution for international theatre in the country.

Happy 35th Birthday Barbican…and many more great years ahead!'

Fiona Shaw


Sun 14 Oct 2001: DJ Prichard G. Jams aka Aphex Twin

First silent disco in London

Audience members experience the first silent disco in London with Aphex Twin in the Barbican Conservatory

Audience members experience the first silent disco in London with Aphex Twin in the Barbican Conservatory

'To borrow a 1960s coinage, Aphex Twin's DJ set is more of a happening.

As ticket-holders enter the venue's handsome conservatory - steel and glass above, soil and woodchips below - they are issued with cordless headphones through which they will hear the set.

Take them off and there's no music, just the murmur of conversation and the trickle of water features.'

The Guardian

A message from... Director of Arts, Louise Jeffreys

The Barbican opened to a flurry of excitement 35 years ago on 3 March 1982 when Her Majesty The Queen declared it a ‘modern wonder of the world’.

The opening night featured performances from the London Symphony Orchestra and the Royal Shakespeare Company in their new homes the Barbican Hall and the Barbican Theatre, followed by fireworks over the Barbican Lake. This was all broadcast in its entirety on BBC 2, before the Centre opened its doors to the public the next day.

Her Majesty The Queen declared it a ‘modern wonder of the world’

Over the next few days the opening celebrations continued with a performance from the Orchestre de Paris playing Beethoven and Berlioz, the opening of the first Barbican Art Gallery exhibition, Aftermath: France 1945-54, New Images of Man, a display of contemporary Canadian tapestries in the foyers and much more – with media broadcasts of live performances helping to ensure as wide an audience as possible was engaged with the new artistic happenings in this previously Blitzed corner of the City.

Visitors attend the inaugural exhibition in the Barbican Art GalleryPhoto: Peter Bloomfield

Visitors attend the inaugural exhibition in the Barbican Art Gallery
Photo: Peter Bloomfield

Over the years, the Barbican has become increasingly bold in its programming, gaining a reputation for the adventurous and the avant garde and attracting world-class artists from around the globe.

The range of the work we offer has always defined us: from Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s Roman Tragedies to Chailly’s Brahms Cycle (2013) with Leipzig Gewandhaus; from Rain Room to a Bergman retrospective; from Tropicália to Beck’s Song Reader; from AfroReggae to Femi Kuti at Walthamstow Garden Party and free Weekenders in the foyers – the Barbican offers something special to its many different audiences.

16 May–15 September 2002: Game On

16 May–15 September 2002: Game On

We’ve been committed to taking our work outside the walls of the Centre

Today, we continue to present a rich and varied programme, always informed by our vision of Arts Without Boundaries, and are firmly committed to providing access to the arts for people of all ages and backgrounds.

Over the past decade we’ve been committed to taking our work outside the walls of the Centre, working with artists and organisations from across east London to bring our world class arts and learning programme to communities across eight east London boroughs.

The arts open up different ways of seeing the world and provide us with new and vital perspectives

As the UK reimagines its place in the world these kind of events, which encourage a sense of community and unity, will be more important than ever. The arts open up different ways of seeing the world and provide us with new and vital perspectives, and the Barbican aims to be not only a home for outstanding arts but a valued local community resource that contributes to east London’s thriving cultural life.

I am immensely grateful to the thousands of artists who have made the past 35 years at the Barbican such a joy, and to the Barbican team whose hard work and dedication knows no bounds.

I hope you will enjoy your journey through our selection of ‘firsts’.

Louise Jeffreys

20–22 Nov 2009: Toneelgroep Amsterdam, Roman Tragedies 

20–22 Nov 2009: Toneelgroep Amsterdam, Roman Tragedies 

'The Barbican and Toneelgroep Amsterdam have proven to be a perfect match.

Our relationship started in 2009 with the presentation of 'Roman Tragedies', a 6 hour Shakespeare-marathon in….Dutch.

We are proud to be part of their great international family of theatre companies from all over the world.

It challenges us in the best way thinkable.'

Ivo van Hove
'I've always had a very special relationship with Barbican audiences who have an appetite for such a rich breadth of music.

In this world, the one uniting factor we have is a beautiful shared musical and cultural landscape, so from across the Atlantic I wish the Barbican the very happiest of birthdays!'

Joyce DiDonato


27 Feb–23 May 2010: Céleste Boursier-Mougenot

First time that finches have played electric guitars (in public)

'It turns out these birds can rock – one even goes all Jimmy Page with a twig'


French artist Céleste Boursier-Mougenot's installation for The Curve consisted of a walk-though aviary for a flock of 40 zebra finches, furnished with electric guitars.

As the birds went about their routine activities, perching on or feeding from the various pieces of equipment, they created a captivating, live soundscape.

'I have had a lot of fun with the Barbican over the years, and was thrilled when they mounted an exhibition of my work, 'Pioneers of the Downtown Scene, New York 1970s', in 2011 along with Trisha Brown and Gordon Matta-Clark.

It gives me great pleasure to wish them a very happy birthday.'

Laurie Anderson

3 Mar–22 May 2011: Laurie Anderson, Trisha Brown, Gordon Matta-Clark: Pioneers of the Downtown Scene, New York 1970s

A message from... Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London

'The Barbican encompasses so much of what is great about London – it’s bold, international, innovative and outward looking.

Whether bringing the best of the world’s arts to our doorstep or taking its programme to communities in its neighbouring boroughs, for the past 35 years the Barbican has played a huge role in ensuring London is a world leader in arts and culture.'

'Happy Birthday Barbican!

You have proved yourself to be a wonderful and vitally needed centre on the east side of London.

You have proved your worth with spectacular exhibitions that have pushed artistic boundaries that are fresh and relevant, starting with ADITI (the 1st festival of India), Jean Paul Gaultier and more recently 'The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined'.'

Zandra Rhodes

6 Oct 2011–19 Feb 2012: OMA/Progress

A message from... the Lord Mayor of the City of London, Andrew Parmley

'The Barbican Centre is an internationally renowned multi-arts and conference venue, a major player in the Square Mile’s vibrant cultural hub, and a prime example of radical post-war architecture.

I am thrilled to be celebrating its 35th anniversary and I send my warmest congratulations.

Over the years, the Barbican has gained an outstanding reputation for its outreach work and ability to attract world-class performers, and with Sir Nicholas Kenyon and his superb team at the helm, its diverse and loyal audiences are in the hands of people who take pride in commissioning and delivering excellent work.'

'I am extremely pleased to have had the first UK survey of my work at the legendary Barbican. The interdisciplinary buffet that the Barbican fits my unfocused practice.

Seriously I love the building the utopian feel and the programme that has kept me coming and coming as a tourist since my parents took me there in the 80s.

I wish them a brilliant and very happy birthday!'

Ragnar Kjartansson

4-13 May 2012: Einstein on the Beach

'I first performed at the Barbican as a young actor twenty-two years ago and I am delighted to be returning in April for Toneelgroep’s 'Obsession'.

In the intervening years the Barbican has carved out a truly special place in our theatre landscape, offering audiences something they can’t get anywhere else.'

Jude Law

4 Oct 2012–3 Mar 2013: Random International: Rain Room

First time the UK has been able to control the weather

Random International's largest and most ambitious installation to date, Rain Room was a 100 square metre field of falling water designed for visitors to walk through and experience how it might feel to control the rain.

On entering The Curve, which was transformed by the monumental proportions of this carefully choreographed downpour, visitors heard the sound of water and feels moisture in the air before discovering the thousands of falling droplets would respond to their presence and movement – meaning they never got wet.

On average, the queue to see the piece lasted for around 6 hours.

The Barbican actively embraces the unknown in its search for meaningful experiences for its audiences.

The bold acts of faith this entails are what makes it possible to first publicly present works like 'Rain Room', which have a huge impact on the development of artistic practices.

We look forward to continuing to expect the unexpected over the next 35 years.

Random International

Photo: Wayne McGregor Dance perform in the Rain Room

'Over the past six years, working with the Barbican as part of the Los Angeles Philharmonic residencies has been a wonderful experience.
Many congratulations on the Barbican’s 35th anniversary, and we look forward to many more collaborations!'

Gustavo Dudamel

'Our performance in 2016 was a transformative event in Ballet Black's history and exposed us to a much wider audience.

From my first meeting with the Barbican to opening night and our sell-out run, we felt incredibly well supported by the whole team.

On behalf of everyone here at Ballet Black: happy 35th birthday to the Barbican!'

Cassa Pancho
4 July 2013: Beck: Song Reader Live

4 July 2013: Beck: Song Reader Live

Barbican by numbers

We look back through some of our highlights from the 2015/16 season...

We welcomed 1.1 million attendees

We hosted a Barbican record-breaking 3,910 events

12–13 Sep 2013: LOOP>>60Hz: Transmissions from The Drone Orchestra with John Cale and Liam Young 

7,500 people participated in a Barbican Guildhall Creative Learning workshop or programme

36,000 people attended our free festival, Walthamstow Garden Party

Our Young Barbican scheme provided 50,000 affordable tickets

Read more about how we built a Young Orchestra for London

32 Community Ambassadors worked across eight east London boroughs

2,657 artists performed or exhibited at the Barbican

Tickets were booked from 91 countries

Read more about the Barbican in 2015/16 in our season review

5 Aug–31 Oct 2015: Hamlet

First NT Live broadcast from the Barbican - and the biggest single NT Live broadcast to date, seen by over 550,000 people worldwide

Directed by Lyndsey Turner

Produced by Sonia Friedman Productions

'The Barbican has been conjuring fantastic theatre experiences for 35 years, and my time on their stage was hugely enjoyable.

Long may it continue.'

Benedict Cumberbatch

Benedict Cumberbatch took on the title role in Shakespeare’s great tragedy for an exclusive twelve-week run of this compelling new production at the Barbican.


23–25 March 2017: Room 29

First UK performance of Room 29 by Jarvis Cocker and Chilly Gonzales

Do you believe in ghosts? What if a room could tell you the life-stories of the people that have inhabited it? Better still - what if it could sing you those stories? In Room 29, Jarvis Cocker and Chilly Gonzales give a voice to those ghosts, using music, theatrics, clips from classic Hollywood movies and more to reveal the secrets of Room 29 of the Chateau Marmont hotel in Hollywood.

Featuring contributions from film historian David Thomson and the stories of famous former occupants of the room such as Jean Harlow & Howard Hughes, the show was conceived during Jarvis’s own stay at Room 29, using one of the room’s more unusual features – a baby grand piano.

Visitors will be greeted by our concierge and given a key. Sit down, get comfortable – it will be our pleasure to serve up a night of entertainment like no other.
We look forward to welcoming you as our guest.

6–13 April 2017: What London Watches: Ten Films That Shook Our World

First time Londoners have been asked not only which films have changed their world, but will also have the opportunity to see a selection of London’s choices on the big screen.

Last year, we invited Londoners to share the stories behind the films that shook their world.

We wanted to create a unique crowd-sourced film season to represent London’s diverse communities on the big screen: What London Watches: Ten Films that Shook Our World.
Your films dated from 1902 to 2017, but the 2000s were your favourite decade.Your films spanned romance, drama, documentary, science fiction, animation and everything in between. Your favourite genre was drama.

With the support of London’s community groups, we received entries from across London’s boroughs, across the ages and backgrounds and the films and stories you shared represented just that.

The ten selected films include Bob Fosse’s Cabaret (1972), Hayoa Miyazaki’s Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), Michael Curitz’s Casablanca (1942) and Ramesh Sippy’s Sholay (1975).

From cinema evacuations in the Blitz and personal liberations to seeing humour and satire as a tool against prejudice, read the fascinating stories behind the films we’ll be screening at What London Watches.

Read more about the films that London chose for What London Watches

19 April–20 May 2017: Barbican/Toneelgroep Amsterdam – Obsession

First performance of Ivo van Hove's Obsession
Jude Law plays the magnetically handsome, down-at-heel Gino in a new stage adaptation of Visconti’s penetrating social drama directed by Ivo van Hove.

Drifter Gino, powerful and graceful as a puma, encounters Giuseppe and his much younger, trapped wife Giovanna at their roadside restaurant and petrol station. He and Giovanna are so irresistibly attracted to one another they begin an affair while plotting to murder her husband. But the crime does not unite them in this chilling story where passion can lead only to destruction.

Obsession is one of three Toneelgroep Amsterdam productions directed here by Ivo van Hove in 2017 with Roman Tragedies in March and After the Rehearsal/ Persona in September.

14 September 2017: London Symphony Orchestra - Silent Symphony

First symphonic silent 'disco'

To celebrate the opening of the London Symphony Orchestra's 2017-18 season, and to mark Sir Simon Rattle's first concert as LSO Music Director, audiences will be able to enjoy the concert relayed live to the Barbican Sculpture Court, bringing silent disco technology to classical music for the first time. The programme will feature the best of British music from Helen Grime, Thomas Adès, Oliver Knussen, Elgar and Sir Harrison Birtwistle.

Back in 1982, the LSO performed on the Sculpture Court, and it's this excitement at the heart of the Barbican Centre we look forward to recreating in 2017.

21 Sep 2017–28 Jan 2018: Basquiat: Boom for Real

First large-scale exhibition of Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) in the UK

A pioneering prodigy of the downtown New York art scene, Basquiat came to the media’s attention in 1978 when he teamed up with his classmate Al Diaz to graffiti enigmatic statements across the city under the collective pseudonym SAMO©, before swiftly becoming one of the most celebrated artists of his generation.

Drawing from international museums and private collections, Basquiat: Boom for Real brings together an outstanding selection of more than 100 works, many never before seen in the UK, including a partial reconstruction of the first body of work that Basquiat exhibited, made for Diego Cortez’s watershed group show New York / New Wave at PS1 in 1981.

Photos: Room 29 - Jarvis Cocker and Chilly Gonzales © Alexandre Isard; Obsession, Jude Law and Halina Reijn © Jan Versweyveld; LSO perform on the Sculpture Court, 1982 © Peter Bloomfield; Jean-Michel Basquiat, Glenn, 1985. Courtesy Private Collection.

'Happy birthday to the Barbican, whose work has always inspired me as an artist because of its originality and creativity.
I am excited to be a part of its past, present, and future.'

Julie Cunningham

Barbican at 35

Share your Barbican Firsts with us on Twitter @barbicancentre #barbican35

Read more about our 35 Firsts, and our 5 Future Firsts in our 'Barbican at 35' blog collection.

Watch more videos from our archive on YouTube

As part of our 35th anniversary celebration, we commissioned poet, and Barbican Host, Paul Haworth, to write a poem to capture a day in the life of the Barbican, as seen by the people who work here.