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August 16 2012

Snap happy: photography to look forward to

From an ambitious survey of 1960s-70s photography in London to Kohei Yoshiyuki's controversial work in Liverpool and Amsterdam's Unseen Photo Fair, there's a lot to see

August is a quiet month for photography shows, so here's a preview of some of the exhibition highlights for the next few months.

The most anticipated London show is surely Tate Modern's ambitious double header William Klein/Daido Moriyama, which opens on 10 October. Taking the cities of New York and Tokyo as its starting point, the show contrasts the approaches of two pioneers of impressionistic urban photography. It considers the influence of Klein's seminal 1956 book, Life Is Good and Good for You in New York, on Japanese photography, and Moriyama in particular. The prodigiously productive Moriyama was a founder of the radical Provoke movement in Japan and, alongside previously unseen vintage prints, the exhibition explores photography's role in the representation of protest movements and civil unrest. This is an ambitious show that will be a chance for many of us to see lots of Moriyama's images outside of book form for the first time. I, for one, cannot wait.

The other big London exhibition is the Barbican's group show, Everything Was Moving: Photography from the 60s and 70s, which opens on 13 September. This survey show reflects on the radical cultural shifts that took place around the world during the two decades. It shows work by well-known names such as William Eggleston, David Goldblatt, Boris Mikhalov and Bruce Davidson alongside the likes of Graciela Iturbide, Shomei Thomatsu and Raghubir Singh. Iturbide's work was one of the highlights of last year's Rencontres d'Arles and Thomatsu is arguably Japan's most influential postwar photographer, so this show promises to be intriguing, if only for the range of styles on display from a seemingly disparate bunch of innovators.

In November, the Victoria and Albert Museum hosts Light from the Middle East, the first major show of contemporary photography from the region. This intriguing exhibition brings together 30 artists from 13 different countries, including Abbas, Yousssef Nabil and Shadi Ghadirian. I am most looking forward to Newsha Takavolian's provocative series Mothers of Martyrs, which may divide opinion, but is undeniably powerful in its evocation of belonging, belief and mourning.

Elsewhere, Amsterdam hosts the first international Unseen Photo Fair from 19 to 23 September, which will feature previously unexhibited work by emerging photographers. The aim is to give "new photography the platform in deserves" and, to this end, more than 50 galleries from around the globe will be showing work from their most promising new talents. Forty lucky visitors have already been given €1,000 each to spend on photography courtesy of the Dutch cultural lottery. There will be work for sale by the likes of Alex Prager, Pieter Hugo, Alessandra Sanguinetti and Richard Mosse. A place for the curious as well as the committed collector to look at – and buy – photography. Plus, it will be interesting to see just how far the galleries go in interpreting the definition of Unseen.

Also in September, as part of Liverpool Biennial, the Open Eye gallery presents two controversial series by the Japanese photographer Kohei Yoshiyuki: The Park and Love Hotel. Both investigate the seedier side of sex – and both precipitated furious debates in Japan about the blurred line between reportage and voyeurism.

The Park, already a cult photobook, is the end result of Yoshiyuki's participation in the nocturnal goings-on in Shinjuku's Chuo Park in the early 1970s, when he photographed voyeurs who lurked in the bushes to spy on couples having furtive sex on the grass. The images in Love Hotel were taken in 1978 from sex tapes made by clients of one of Tokyo's infamous book-by-the-hour hotels. Both series are grainy and indistinct, but undeniably evocative. And provocative.

In London on 12 October, the Photographers' Gallery presents a long-overdue retrospective of the Irish-born photographer Tom Wood, who has been working for the last 25 years in and around Merseyside and Liverpool. He also shot the unforgettable Looking for Love series in a "disco-pub" in Chelsea Reach in London in the 1980s. His book Photie Man – the name given to him by the kids he photographed on Merseyside – is the best introduction to his work, which skirts street photography, portraiture and reportage, but cannot really be classed as any of them. Great to see the work of a singular photographer who doesn't fit in neatly to any tradition being celebrated by the Photographers' Gallery.

The fifth edition of the Brighton Biennial takes place from 6 October to 4 November in venues across the city. It's titled Agents of Change: Photography and the Politics of Space, and will feature artists including Omer Fast, Julian Germain, Trevor Paglen, Jason Larkin, Corinne Silva and Edmund Clark, whose project, Guantánamo: If the Light Goes Out, is shortlisted for this year's Prix Pictet Prize. The winner is announced at London's Saatchi Gallery on October 9, and a show of the shortlisted artists runs there from 10-28 October.

Finally, and staying in London, the Taylor Wessing Photographic Prize Exhibition is at the National Portrait Gallery from 8 November to 17 February 2013. As one of this year's judges, I can't say much more about it at present, but will be commenting on it from the inside when the shortlist is announced in September. Watch this space.

Now see this

From 18 August, Third Floor Gallery in Cardiff is showing Encuentro by Irish photographer Maurice Gunning. It focuses on the Argentine-Irish community in Buenos Aries, descendants of the original immigrants that arrived there in the 1800s. Gunning's poetic, fragmentary style is perfectly suited to the kind of visual storytelling that draws on memory, text and longing to at once evoke the past and the present.


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May 02 2012

Bauhaus: Art as Life – review

Barbican, London
In pictures: Bauhaus: Art as Life

Tracing the trajectory of the radical German art and design school from its founding in Dessau by Walter Gropius in 1919 to its closure in Berlin in 1933, the exhibition Bauhaus: Art as Life is superb. It is filled with fascinating and often beautiful things, from table lamps to ceramic pots, glove puppets to advertising posters for Nivea, school party invitations, dresses, photographic portraiture, gorgeous weaving and much besides.

The Bauhaus tried to encompass both old and emerging technologies and bring a new approach to everything – from stained glass to advertising, theatre design to packaging, furniture to painting and sculpture. It was the last thoroughgoing attempt to apply a consistent idea to modern living, and we still live with and among its ideas and artefacts. At the time, everyone involved was feeling the way forward. There is a sense here of the genuinely exploratory.

What also strikes me is not the uniformity or rationality of the Bauhaus aesthetic but its richness and diversity, its humour and playfulness, whether actual children's toys were being designed (who would have thought the spinning top would be worthy of Bauhaus attention), or chess sets and coffee machines. But the Bauhaus was not without its zealots and excessiveness, its cranks and quirks.

"Play becomes celebration; celebration becomes work; work becomes play," wrote Johannes Itten, Bauhaus teacher, colour theorist and nightmare person. Itten, something of a fanatic, aggressively encouraged students to follow his new age mishmash of Hindu and Christian ideas, which involved shaving your head, strong laxatives and fasts, the wearing of monastic robes and the eating of large quantities of garlic – the pervasive smell of which many, including Gropius, complained against.

Of such things the modern table lamp was not born. But it did lead Paul Citroën to produce a ribald drawing of followers of Itten's Mazdaznan hocus pocus vomiting and defecating across the page. That said, Itten's lithographs and painted colour wheels and charts are extremely lovely and, in their way, useful things.

A whole chapter of the catalogue is devoted to the dietary habits of Bauhaus members, especially focusing on Ittens and Paul Klee. Klee liked nothing better than offal – particularly a nice lung ragout. Times were hard, but at the Bauhaus even the minutiae of the everyday was worthy of examination. But life wasn't all rigour and regularity, and the sense of play is particularly evident in photographs of the Bauhaus parties – which became so popular they were even written about in the press. Encounters with the individuals who came together at the Bauhaus are among the strengths of the show. You get a real sense of time and place – sometimes through a haircut, a party dress, a picture of a terrace lunch, or a snapshot of a studio.

Seriousness and fun, study and play, innovation and infighting, charismatic – sometimes mad – teachers, and cohorts of lively students made the Bauhaus a model for later art schools. Dadaists and constructivists, hard line geometry and expressionism, photomontage and crazy drawing, the rational and the loopy all had their place. Among the terrific period photographs of staff and students – the serious, besuited teachers and tousle-haired students who wouldn't look out of place alongside today's Dalston or Brooklyn hipsters – one feels a sense of optimism but also disquiet of a whole world about to be dismantled.

Innovation and pleasure went hand in hand at the Bauhaus. Klee's paintings, and the glove puppets he made for his son Felix, are a delight. So too are the weavings, particularly by Gunta Stölzl. Anni Albers's wall hangings, and Josef Albers's vibrant sandblasted glass abstractions, could have been made yesterday (or tomorrow). They are a visual and technical jolt, electric and dazzling. There were inklings, too, of where the world was headed. Citroën went on to make the monumental collaged cityscape that directly influenced Fritz Lang's nightmarish film Metropolis, and a late Kandinsky painting shows a grim, brown world encroaching on the light-filled Bauhaus utopia.

Not only do we follow the rise and fall of the school against a backdrop of Germany's hyperinflation and the rise of Nazism but it is also a reminder what art schools could be like. There is a lesson here about much contemporary art education: the lack of common purpose, the overweening bureaucracy, the disillusionment and grasping for fees, the box-ticking lostness of so much of it. The Bauhaus had a sense of common purpose and shared ideas, of arguments that meant something, of making things up as you go along. And so much that it gave us was practical, and a delight to the eye. No wonder the National Socialists wanted it closed. Go see, and never mind the garlic.

Rating: 4/5


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April 27 2012

Art as life

At a time when idealism in design and architecture is in short supply, the Bauhaus exhibition at the Barbican is a timely reminder of this bold and beautiful experiment

Any mention of the Bauhaus conjures up a sequence of those well-known design objects: a Wagenfeld lamp, a Marianne Brandt teapot, a Marcel Breuer chair. But the Bauhaus was much more than the originator of such now iconic artefacts. It was an idea, a vision of the future, a community of artists and designers whose joie de vivre and dedication made it for a while, until the Nazis killed it, the most celebrated art school in the world.

The concept for the Bauhaus – literally "building house" – came from Walter Gropius, one of the great visionary thinkers of the 20th century and a practising architect himself, from a Berlin dynasty of architects. His famous great uncle Martin Gropius designed the Kunstgewerbe museum, the building now known as Martin Gropius Bau.

The young Gropius's idea for the Bauhaus emerged from his experience of the first world war in which he served as a cavalry officer on the western front for almost the whole four years. His response to the devastating scenes he lived through was a stark determination to "start again from zero". Only a new outlook on design and architecture could provide the means for a shattered civilisation literally to rebuild itself.

His opportunity came in 1919 when he was appointed master of the school of arts and crafts in Weimar that became the Bauhaus. Gropius's vision was for the "unification of the arts under the wings of great architecture". It was a democratic concept of art for the people, art for social betterment in which everyone would share. The Bauhaus aesthetic replaced bourgeois furbelows with a geometry of clarity, sharp angles and straight lines.

The influence of John Ruskin and William Morris, great 19th-century artistic seers, is obvious. But Gropius was too thorough a modernist to put his faith completely in these ancient gods. He was involved as a member or a leader in the myriad small groups of revolutionary artists forming in the European cities of the period. The founding of the Bauhaus took place in the context of a whole movement of European expressionist ardour. The design for the cover of its manifesto, Lyonel Feininger's jagged cathedral with three spires standing for architecture, arts and crafts, is a masterpiece of expressionist graphic art.

In its early years in Weimar, the character of the school was dominated by the Swiss-born painter Johannes Itten. It was Itten who, as Gropius's "master of form", invented the Bauhaus's most lasting contribution to art education, the Vorkurs, the preliminary training course in basic forms, textures and colours for all students entering the school. It was also Itten, a mystic and follower of the esoteric Mazdaznan faith, who established the Bauhaus reputation for crankiness. Students followed him in shaving their heads, wearing loose robes and taking up the Mazdaznan macrobiotic diet consisting of "uncooked mush smothered in garlic". In a fascinating essay on cooking at the Bauhaus, in the catalogue of the new Barbican exhibition, Nicholas Fox Weber quotes Gropius's wife Alma Mahler complaining of all-pervasive "garlic on the breath".

Gropius's marriage to the notoriously fickle Mahler exemplifies the social and sexual networking that underpinned the Bauhaus and was indeed part of its success. Alma was married to the already world-famous composer Gustav Mahler, who was 20 years her senior, when she first met Gropius in 1910. Both were taking a rest cure at Tobelbad in Styria. It was a spa romance in which Alma was overwhelmed by the young architect whose saturnine good looks could, she said, have had him cast as Walther von Stolzing in Die Meistersinger.

Their torrid on-off love affair destabilised Mahler to such an extent he consulted Freud about the problems in his marriage. Mahler died in 1911. Alongside her equally turbulent affairs with Oskar Kokoschka, Franz Werfel and other cultural celebrities, Alma married Gropius in Berlin in 1915. They divorced in 1920. Gropius made use of his enormous range of contacts, including his wife's lovers, in building up the Bauhaus's reputation.

From the early 1920s there was a change of emphasis. Itten left and the aura of crankiness diminished. "The new unity of art and technology" took over as the Bauhaus became dominated by ideas of standardisation and co-operation with industry. Gropius's genius as director of the school lay in his ability to recruit a line-up of teachers of extraordinary talent. Paul Klee, Oskar Schlemmer, Wassily Kandinsky, Josef Albers, Lázsló Moholy-Nagy: all these were Bauhaus masters. Gropius was also adept at publicising the international scope of Bauhaus design and architecture. Through its publications and its exhibitions the Bauhaus pioneered a truly global language in its use of images and typography.

There was, however, growing opposition to the Bauhaus, with its progressive artistic ideals, as rightwing elements took over in the Weimar state government. Financial support was withdrawn from the school. Gropius made the decision to move the Bauhaus further north, to the industrial estate of Dessau, encouraged by support from the local mayor and by the prospect of links between the school and local industry. Gropius designed a new building for the Bauhaus in Dessau, a radiantly inspiring functional design with a great glass curtain-wall rising high above the city. The interior was fitted by the Bauhaus workshops. The building was immediately hugely influential. It's one of the real masterworks of international modernist design.

A short walk from the school, on a pleasant woodland site, was Gropius's own purpose-designed director's house, alongside three pairs of semi-detached houses for Bauhaus masters. Kandinsky and Klee shared one of these white double cubes; Georg Much and Schlemmer shared another; Moholy-Nagy and Feininger the third.

These were the famous Bauhaus years. According to Klee this was "a community to which each one of us gave what we had". The communal life was richly experimental in the areas of theatre and creative play. This was "art as life" with a vengeance, as the Barbican exhibition promises to show. There were wonderful parties, with that element of clowning which was central to Gropius's educational vision. For one fancy dress party Gropius came costumed as his rival modernist Le Corbusier. At the famous Metallic Festival in 1929, Bauhauslers and guests came in metal costumes, jangling, shimmering and glittering, dancing through the night.

The mid-20s saw the evolution in the Bauhaus workshops of such technically sophisticated products as Breuer's tubular steel Wassily armchair, designs which spoke the unmistakable aesthetic language of the modern world. International visitors arrived in Dessau to admire not just the school itself but Gropius's plans for the Törten housing estate on the south edge of the city. This estate, consisting of 300 workers' houses, was his first opportunity for putting into practice his ideas for solving Germany's acute housing shortage by introducing rationalised building components and standardised methods of construction.

As with all experimental ventures, there were problems. The concept of the Bauhaus workshops as laboratories for industrial production failed to make much headway with large scale German manufacturers. Bauhaus products, far from being art for the people, were still in fact exclusive, handmade products for the wealthy. Gropius had not solved the dilemma that had driven William Morris into revolutionary socialism.

In spite of Gropius's theoretic championing of sexual equality within the Bauhaus workshops, in practice female students were directed to the weaving class. Although the best of Bauhaus weaving is sublime, there were evident frustrations in a system in which only one exceptionally determined student, Marianne Brandt, entered the product design workshop, producing that whole sequence of tea and coffee services, lamps and metal ashtrays now viewed as archetypal Bauhaus design.

Given time and a more propitious economic climate, such underlying problems might have been resolved. But time was running out. The internationalist tenets of the Bauhaus told against it as German politics became more crudely nationalistic. By 1928 Gropius saw he had exhausted all possibilities in developing the school and returned to Berlin to refocus on his own architectural practice. The architect Hannes Meyer, a communist and formerly professor of architecture at the Bauhaus, became the new director; he was followed two years later by Mies van der Rohe. Political pressure against the school stepped up as the Nazis took control of Dessau city parliament. In 1932 the Bauhaus in Dessau was forced to close.

Mies van der Rohe reopened the school in the Steglitz suburb of Berlin, taking over a disused telephone factory. This phase did not last long. Soon afterwards the Nazis seized control of Germany and Hitler became chancellor. The Bauhaus was marked out as "one of the most obvious refuges of the Jewish-Marxist conception of 'art'". In April 1933 police arrived with trucks and closed the school, carting off some of the Bauhaus members. The modernist utopia, or what was left of it, was ended by a regime that viewed the whole spirit of the Bauhaus as degenerate. Gropius and his second wife Ise moved to London in 1934.

Gropius was one of many foreign architects, designers and artists taking refuge in London in the 30s. Many of them, unlike Gropius, were Jewish. Others were avant-garde artists who were finding the cultural climate in Germany increasingly hostile to their work. Of the Bauhaus masters Moholy-Nagy and Breuer followed Gropius to England. Gropius and Breuer were found accommodation in Lawn Road Flats in Hampstead, one of the few modernist buildings in London at that period, while the constructivist Moholy-Nagy rather improbably lived in Golders Green. The convivial Lawn Road Flats became a social centre for the emigrés, a kind of home-from-home where former Bauhauslers mingled with other Hampstead residents, the artists Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson, and leading leftwing intellectuals of the time.

But it was a bitter exile. Life in England was anything but easy for an architect who had once been at the centre of the European avant garde. He was taken into partnership with Maxwell Fry, one of the conditions of his entrée into Britain, but Britain at the time was endemically unsympathetic to the modern. Apart from his still splendidly impressive Impington Village College and some private houses, Gropius found very little work. Schemes for recreating a Bauhaus at Dartington Hall in Devon came to nothing. Attempts to bring Gropius in to restructure design teaching at the Royal College of Art were nervously abandoned. What opportunities we missed.

In 1937 he and Ise left London for the United States. He became director of the department of architecture at Harvard, a post he held for the next 14 years. To some extent he settled into this new environment, becoming a US citizen in 1944. But there were inevitably cruel compromises. In a talk given in London after her husband's death, Ise Gropius described the special problems encountered in America by an architect-idealist who back in Bauhaus days "had always been his own man in a self-created environment", operating his own school with hand-picked staff in a building he had himself designed. A Harvard professorship was quite another thing.

In his own architectural practice, The Architects' Collaborative (known as TAC), Gropius was up against problems of keeping a large office financially viable in a competitive capitalist country. There were some good public buildings, most notably the Graduate Center at Harvard and some beautiful private residences, including Gropius's own house in Lincoln, Massachusetts. But this was a far cry from his original socialist aspirations for low cost mass-produced community housing. The Pan Am building in Park Avenue now seems more than ever indefensible, and Gropius's involvement in the London Park Lane building that became the Playboy Club strikes one as a bitterly satiric joke.

The Bauhaus itself had been more or less forgotten by 1968, the year of the last Bauhaus exhibition held in London, at the Royal Academy. It was there I met Gropius, then 85 years old but still a handsome, upright figure, with an aura of glamorous arrogance. You could see why Klee called him "the silver prince". That exhibition generated a reunion of Bauhauslers, masters and students, as well as a gathering in of Bauhaus objects, scattered since its pre-war closure. At the time it seemed like the exciting rediscovery of a whole lost civilisation.

The visual style of the Bauhaus spoke vividly to people of my 1960s generation, attuned as we were to the hard-edged and the streamlined, the reduction to essentials. The Bauhaus love of simple geometric form mirrored our own desperation to jettison the worn-out design clichés of traditionalist Britain. The first Bauhaus exhibition coincided with the huge expansion of the British art schools and that whole release of anarchic energy. For the students of the time it was surprising to discover that mad clothes and swinging parties were nothing new at all.

That early exhibition was by no means a complete one: in 1968 Germany was divided, with Weimar and Dessau in the eastern block, where attitudes towards the Bauhaus were at best equivocal. Only after German reunification in 1990 did the important Bauhaus art and design collections in Berlin, Weimar and Dessau begin co-operating. What is so exciting about the exhibition at the Barbican is that it draws on all three of them, in depth.

The Bauhaus building in Dessau, badly damaged in the second world war, has been restored immaculately. It is back to being a building full of light and space and hope. Gropius's own house in the pinewoods, almost totally destroyed, is now being reconstructed and will be opening later in the year. The Bauhaus revival could not be more timely. In a world in which idealism in design and architecture is in short supply, it is good to be reminded of this bold and beautiful experiment in bringing creativity alive.


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April 13 2012

Bauhaus: Art as Life – in pictures

Bauhaus's HQ was a single building in a provincial German town, yet its influence on 20th-century architecture, art and design is unparalleled



March 07 2012

30 years of the Barbican centre – in pictures

Built as the 80s began, the Barbican has become a cultural and literal landmark, delighting fans of brutalist architecture



Barbican marks 30 years of the arts, brutalism and disorientated visitors

London arts centre, a stalwart of ugly-building polls, is hoping its new cinema will kickstart a cultural quarter in the City

For an organisation that is trying to be more inclusive, more involving, the name "Barbican" – a defensive structure, a fortification to keep the hordes out – is possibly not ideal. "I say 'watchtower'," the arts centre's chief executive, Sir Nicholas Kenyon, says when asked to define it. "It is something that looks out on the city and beyond it."

Whatever the definition, most people know what the Barbican centre is, where it is – and even how not to get lost there. That has not always been the case but, after many uphill battles, an awful lot of people now even love the place.

On Thursday the Barbican will celebrate its 30th anniversary, entertaining guests in its enormous and unlikely tropical conservatory – with more than 2,000 species of plants and trees as well as finches, quails, terrapins and koi carp – before offering them the chance to sample a typically diverse range of artistic delights, whether a gig by country rockers the Jayhawks, Cheek by Jowl's sexy 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, or Terence Malick's film The Tree of Life.

Kenyon, who ran the Proms for 11 years before taking over at the Barbican in 2007, is only its fourth overall boss after first Henry Wrong, who got the place built; then Detta O'Cathain, whose early 1990s tenure is seldom mentioned; and 12 years of John Tusa who, with his artistic director, Graham Sheffield, established it as a powerhouse of eclectic and internationalist commissioning.

In 2012, Kenyon's priorities include scaling the Barbican's brutalist concrete ramparts: "We want to be porous, we want to get beyond the walls and show that the arts that animate the Barbican can really serve the city as a whole.

"The issue for all arts centres is can they respond to the changing desire of the audience which, in our view, is to belong more, to have a sense of ownership and to participate more."

Part of that is doing more in the local area of the City of London as well as moving east, forming partnerships in boroughs including Hackney and Tower Hamlets.

Kenyon also wants to help create a cultural quarter on the centre's doorstep and in the autumn will open a new Barbican cinema just outside its main entrance. The centre's main screen will remain but the new cinema – with two 156-seat auditoria – replaces the two smaller screens in the centre, which few people could ever find.

"It will be a local cinema for the City and an international cinema for an arts centre," he says. The centre is also collaborating with the Guildhall schools in a new 650-seat concert venue on Silk Street.

"With those two buildings, you're starting to get the beginnings of a cultural quarter round here," said Kenyon.

Kenyon accepts that the Barbican was built with "a very defined idea of what the arts was – the old model of the arts being offered to the audience, 'We know what's good for you.'"

It has, though, turned out to be much more flexible than its designers could ever have imagined. The foyers in particular have proved ideal for more informal work and the centre was packed last Saturday and Sunday for two days of mostly free arts events at the Barbican Weekender.

Like most arts organisations, the Barbican is having to operate with less money. Unlike most arts organisations, it gets little public money. The biggest chunk of its funding comes from the City: this year it amounts to £17.3m – a 7% decrease.

It is trying to cope with that by increasing box office and commercial income without, Kenyon says, compromising in terms of innovation and experimentalism.

The staging of popular musicals including South Pacific last year and Les Misérables for its 25th anniversary in 2010 will continue with Opera North and Carousel in the autumn. All at the risk of the producing company, though – "that gives us a security to be able to invest in the development and innovative work that we want to keep on doing," he Kenyon.

The centre will also announce new programming details. It will, for example, continue its tradition of staging theatre in foreign languages – last year's German Hamlet is just one of many examples – and present Nosferatu in Polish, based on Bram Stoker's Dracula and a co-production with the company TR Warszawa. The new cinema will open in the autumn with lots of German expressionist silent horror films.

One of the centre's biggest art shows will be a photography exhibition in the autumn focusing on the 1960s and 1970s, a golden age for the genre when auteurs from around the world were emerging and were documenting what was happening – not necessarily for magazines and newspapers, but with the aim of trying to make sense of what was going on.

The show will feature the work of artists including David Goldblatt from South Africa, Boris Mikhailov from Ukraine and Bruce Davidson from the US.

It will also announce the renewal of one of several artistic associate partnerships it has formed. The choreographer Michael Clark and his company will present a new work this year and have signed up with the Barbican for another three years. Next year the Los Angeles Philharmonic, led by Gustavo Dudamel, will play their first associate residency.

That the Barbican is stepping forward so boldly is a sign that it seems to have won the many uphill battles it has faced.

Just getting built was one. The idea of an arts centre was first mooted in the 1960s but construction, at the then truly enormous cost of £156m, did not begin until 1971. When the Queen opened it, in 1982, people were falling out of love with its brutalist, concrete architecture.

Early visitors complained of electric shocks from the metal handrails – or they simply got lost.

Much of those orientation problems were sorted out when the architects Allford Hall Monaghan Morris completed a £35m "acoustic and aesthetic" overhaul of the centre in time for its 25th anniversary. If anyone were in any doubt that not getting lost was an issue, then just look at the vast 9-metre (30ft) high orange arrow telling people to "go this way" installed near the Silk Street entrance.

Another crisis involved the Royal Shakespeare Company's decision in 2002 to completely give up the Barbican as its London base. The centre got over that by forging its own reputation for eclectic commissioning.

Fast forward to 2012, and the idea of the Barbican riding high in ugly building polls, as it once did, seems a distant memory. Architectural tours of the Barbican centre and estate are hugely popular and many people would give their back teeth to live there, although upwards of £500,000 for a pokey one-bedroom flat might provide something of a disincentive.

There is an enormous amount of affection for the Barbican, although Kenyon is not complacent: "Sometimes I feel, do we put out enough warmth in return? We can sometimes appear quite severe."

That's one reason the centre has scheduled a big James Bond show and that popular musicals are now an annual fixture. "It's quality, it's popular and it welcomes in a whole new audience.

"Any arts organisation has to move with the times, it has got to move with the way the audience is changing – the question is, how flexible can the Barbican be going forward?"

"I think you'll see the Barbican adjust, adapt and expand – it is a very exciting time and I feel incredibly lucky to be here at this moment."


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