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Twelve things you didn't know about the Barbican

It’s played host to some fascinating exhibitions, art shows and performances over the years, but the warren-like venue is pretty intriguing in itself

1. It was opened by the Queen

No D-list celebrity ribbon-cutting here – the launch of London’s most ambitious urban regeneration project (as it was at the time) was presided over by none other than Her Majesty, who described the centre as ‘one of the modern wonders of the world’. High praise indeed from a woman who basically lives in a huge castle made of gold.

2. It’s huge. Like, really huge

The Barbican’s various performance spaces may be on the intimate side, but put them together, factor in all the cafés, shops and communal areas and the total floorspace adds up to over 20 acres. That’s the equivalent of 11 football pitches, although be warned that security staff don’t take kindly to people having a kickabout.

3. It’s got an amazing conservatory

The second biggest in London after the one at Kew, the Barbican’s conservatory is home to 2,000 species of plant (including rare and endangered species) and exotic fish. It’s open on Sundays and Mondays throughout the year and (unlike nearby parks) makes for an amazing place to demolish a sandwich during a rainy lunch hour.

4. It's made out of marshmallows

Just kidding – the Barbican’s opinion-splitting brutalist exterior is famously made out of concrete: lots and lots of concrete. Enough concrete to make 19 miles of six-lane motorway: 130,000 cubic metres of the stuff, which was textured by hand with electric drills. Presumably because the architects hated the neighbours.

5. You can’t knock it down, sorry

The Barbican became a Grade II-listed building in 2001, with English Heritage citing the project’s ambition, scale and cohesion. That’s an accolade that puts it on the same level as Lambeth Bridge, Billingsgate Market and Selfridges. Architecturally speaking.

6. It nearly looked like the inside of a public toilet

During the project’s design stage, it was proposed that the entire complex be covered in gleaming white tiles. The idea was abandoned when the architects realised that a fortnight’s exposure to London smog would have left it as grey as a vicar’s sock.

7. It gave birth to the world’s favourite musical

In 1985, the Barbican was the setting for the first performance of a very special musical (no, not ‘We Will Rock You’ – Freddie would never have allowed it). ‘Les Misérables’ has since played to audiences across the globe, won three Oscars as a Hollywood film and been sensationally interpreted by a slightly eccentric Scottish woman on primetime TV.

8. It hosted the world’s first silent disco

Since the Barbican complex includes three residential tower blocks, blasting out big beats in the wee hours is a definite no-no. When he played the centre’s conservatory in 2001, electronica artist Aphex Twin came up with a way to keep both revellers and residents happy, headphones, and the silent disco was born. In dance circles, that’s the equivalent of being in the front row when Dylan went electric.

9. It’s haunted

There are plenty of theatrical spaces in London with ghost stories to tell, but we reckon the Barbican’s have more weight than most. The Pit theatre isn’t called that for fun: during its construction, a plague pit was discovered where it now stands. Brrrr.

10. Despite being visited by millions each year, it’s still underground

Seventy-three feet underground, in fact: that’s the depth of the deepest point in Cinema 1. There’s more subterranean trivia, too. Take a seat by the centre’s lake and you should be able to feel the rumble of Circle and Hammersmith & City line trains running just 15 metres below you.

11. It’s pretty cheap

We’re not talking ticket prices here (although we’ll admit, they’re reasonable) but rather construction. The centre cost £156 million to build back in the 1970s (that’s £500 million in today’s money), making it approximately half as expensive as a certain massive, white, dome-shaped thing over in Greenwich.

12. The Saxons named it

Well, not the centre, but the area of London from which it takes its name. The Saxon words ‘burgh kennin’ mean ‘postern tower’ (a ‘postern’ being a secondary entrance to a castle or fortification). See, you’ve learned something!

Want to know more? Take the Barbican’s architecture tour to find out more about its design, or discover what goes on behind the scenes on the ‘Hidden Barbican’ tour. Both run throughout the year. Click here for full details.

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