Henry Wrong: a man with a bee in his bonnet
Published: 13 September, 2012
by ANDREW JOHNSON
The terrace of the Barbican Arts Centre is usually packed at the weekends as culture lovers take a break from the concerts and exhibitions at Europe’s biggest arts complex.
Henry Wrong, the first artistic director, is often among them. He knows something they don’t, however, about the dozen years of hard work, infighting and political squabbles that turned one of London’s biggest bomb sites into a place to celebrate the best of humanity.
The three architects – Peter Chamberlin, Geoffry Powell and Christopher Bon – are renowned for their work on the Barbican, but Wrong has nothing but scorn for them.
“My wife says I have a bee in my bonnet about those architects,” he says. “She’s right. I do. When you come to a concert what you don’t think about is what had to happen to get the concert on the stage. There were no offices, no rehearsal area, there was no box office [on the plans]. The auditorium itself was faulty because the architects didn’t understand acoustics. With everything concrete they could not understand that the concrete did not reflect the music and the spoken word in the way they thought. Therefore the interior of the auditorium had to be completely lined with wood.”
Last month in the Review we looked at the construction of the Barbican’s three residential towers in the 1960s, the building of which was marred by design flaws and constant strikes over conditions (Dramatic entrance of the Barbican, August 2). Those towers were mostly finished by 1970, when Henry Wrong was appointed. He was fresh from working in New York as business administrator of the Metropolitan Opera, advising the Lincoln Center on what the opera house would require when it moved into the new building.
His brief at the Barbican was to oversee the construction of the arts complex in the middle of the site, which would give the Guildhall School of Music and Drama access to the resident companies – The Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) and the London Symphony Orchestra – that were having spaces at the Barbican especially created for them.
“Looking around, it’s matured beautifully,” he says. “But it had one huge flaw. The architects thought ‘let’s get the housing built, that will bring in the income, then the City will let us build what we want here’. That thinking, of putting the arts centre in the middle, was absolutely fatal in as much as people can’t come and go, they can’t find it. There are no properly designed car parks, there is no access and no exit.”
Canadian by birth, Wrong cut his artistic business teeth at Glyndebourne as a student before going to the Met. He is now a British citizen and lives in Hertfordshire.
Although he was appointed with a brief to oversee the construction of the arts centre, and then run it, the Corporation of London didn’t give the project the green light for several months after he took the job.
Also, he explains, the architects were given the project “through the backdoor”. “It simply wouldn’t happen today,” he says. “There should have been a competition. Oscar Wilde said that arrogance is the energy of stupidity, and that is a good way of summing it up.” He points out that you can’t build a great arts centre without ways of getting things in and getting things out: “The catering, for example – there was no way to bring the supplies in, there was no way to get the garbage out. The concert hall had to be redesigned because the original plans didn’t work.
“The architects once tried to sue me. They said ‘if you don’t shut up we are going to design this centre as we see it, we will design everything from the building to the writing paper in your office’.”
He also had problems with some members of the City of London Corporation, which was bankrolling the project but still “living in a different age”. They handed Wrong a budget of £7million – roughly £98m in today’s money. By the time the Queen opened the building 12 years later he had spent £198m – the equivalent of about £630m.
“There was a serious underestimate, and I didn’t get that money without my chairmen’s approval and fortunately I had three wonderful chairmen. Those 12 years were unbelievably difficult because we kept discovering things just weren’t there. You see the lights in the foyer, there were no conduits for electric cables. People don’t believe it when I tell them.”
Once completed, establishing the arts centre was much less problematic. With Trevor Nunn in charge of the RSC everything moved along much more smoothly... until Mr Wrong stepped down in 1990. His successor, Detta O’Cathain, notoriously fell out with the RSC, leading the company to leave the London home that had been specially built for it.
“The whole centre was based on a working relationship between the orchestra, the school and the theatre company, it was unique in the world. By and large we got it up and working. But with great respect to John Tusa and Graham Sheffield [managing director and artistic director, appointed in 1995], they enlarged the artistic scope of the centre enormously by bringing in many international companies which present director Nicholas Kenyon has enlarged again. It is the largest and busiest arts centre in Europe.”
• Barbican Centre, Silk St, EC2Y 8DS, 020 7638 4141, 020 7638 8891, www.barbican.org.uk/