The chance to delve back into Barbican history, before our time working in the Centre (at least this writer’s…), to learn more about the Centre’s construction, the people who brought the Centre to life and those who captured its evolution is often placed at the top of our team’s agenda. Last year, we were given the opportunity to do just this.
In the first of our archive series, we meet Susie Stanton Staikos, a photographer based between London and Florida, who will take us back through her time working with the Barbican and guide us through a veritable treasure trove of photography and archive material dating back to the 1980s when the Barbican Centre first opened its doors to the public.
Describe your role at the Barbican?
My earliest association with the Barbican was as a Press Officer for the Corporation of London in the late 60s. It was one of my duties to take journalists and town planners from the UK and all over the world, to show them the architectural model of the proposed Barbican Development Scheme and explain the project to them.
Many years later, in 1979, I was working at the Central Office of Information and we were invited to see the progress of the Barbican. At this time, the Performing Arts Centre was well underway in its construction and about to reach a point where the interior elements of each of the spaces were being put in place. Having recently taken up photography and eager to find a new photographic project, I could see the possibility of recording the bringing to life of this long awaited performing arts complex that I already was so familiar with. With the help of Sir Kinsley Collet, a former Chief Commoner, and the Barbican Press Officer, Angus Watson, I was able to obtain a pass to wander through the buildings over the following 18 months until completion and the grand opening by Her Majesty the Queen in 1982. I spent all my free time in between a fulltime time job to dash over to the Barbican and capture the latest installation or witness many first time events. After a while I brought my work to show Angus Watson. The result was an invitation to have my work on exhibition in the Barbican foyers during those opening months.
The following year I partnered with two other photographers, Suzie Maeder, London Symphony Orchestra photographer and Donald Cooper, Royal Shakespeare Company photographer, and designer, Jim Allen, to create a Barbican exhibition at the Lincoln Center in New York as part of the Britain Salutes New York Festival.
What was the best part of your job?
Being able to a have a free hand and pass to go anywhere throughout the complex and witness and record the bringing to life of this enormous complex. My aim was to artfully show not only the architecture but to illustrate the part played by those who were working on the project.
What was the most challenging part of your job?
Trying to make sure that I was on the spot to capture major turning points in the completion process and being in the right place at the right time. I scrambled up to precarious heights at the top of the fly tower in the theatre to capture the testing of the apparatus that supported the scenery. I recorded the installation of the seats in The Pit and Cinema, and teetered on the gantry to watch and capture the installation of the overhead acoustic spheres in the roof of the concert hall, among many other elements and activities that were going on each day
I was working with rather unsophisticated photographic equipment and had to rely on available light. This presented challenges in areas of the complex that did not have natural light. My only tool was a Cannon SLR camera with a wide-angle lens and using 800 fast film that had a grainy texture to it.
Do you have a favourite spot in the Barbican Centre of Estate?
There are a few spots and images that remain in my mind from that time. I do love the soothing atmosphere of the concert hall with its beautiful wood paneling. Some of my favourite spots have changed since those early years, such as the stunning formal restaurant designed by design guru of the 60s, David Hicks. The bright hot pink upholstered dining chairs were memorable. There were spots that I loved that have sadly disappeared; the foyers had beautiful leather sofas and the bright orange mottled painted walls. Together with the extraordinary hanging light sculpture over the staircase these elements provided an elegance that seems to have vanished from these public spaces.
What was the first performance or exhibition that you saw at the Barbican?
I was privileged to witness many firsts, including the acoustic test in the concert hall when a gun was shot and all the audience and orchestra musicians covered their ears. I was able to see and capture the installation of the first exhibition in the Art Gallery, Aftermath, a retrospective of artists’ work from after World War 11, including many of Picasso’s major sculptures, from the Pompidou Centre in Paris. This was so exciting seeing the crates being unpacked and the works mounted on the walls and placed around the gallery.
The biggest and most important first of all was the official opening of the Barbican Centre by H.M. The Queen on 3 March 1982. I was part of the Royal Rota taking photographs of the Queen as she drew back the curtain to unveil the plaque at the opening ceremony accompanied by the Lord Mayor, Sir Christopher Leaver, and flanked by Pikemen of the Honorable Artillery Company. The inaugural concert played by the London Symphony Orchestra, was conducted by Claudio Abbado. The first exhibit in The Curve devoted to contemporary tapestries was also on show that evening.
What is your best Barbican memory or experience?
Certainly that opening night has to be on top of the list. But, there are many more personal and intimate experiences that I treasure. The friends I made during those 18 months of work with the staff and contractors – hopefully this is reflected in illustrating the human side of the completion process in my photographs. Not least the opening of my own exhibition, Preview at the Barbican. What a thrill! And to have Sir Gilbert Inglefield, former Lord Mayor, to do the honors. Later there were two more of my photographic commissions that were exhibited at the Barbican; A Community Celebration (1984), a photographic essay for the centenary of Marks & Spencer, and The Move (1986), a photographic essay for Lloyd’s of London to commemorate the move to its new Richard Rogers building.
Do you have any advice for people interested in pursuing a career in photography?
Go for it. There are so many more tools available now to work with. New concepts and ideas. Experiment and don’t be afraid to go in directions that no-one else has been. I still try to keep things simple so that I can manoeuvre with more flexibility. I took chances and never got into the technical side, however I do advocate taking the time to take a few courses, because even with the new technology in cameras there is so much more you can do once you learn how… We all take thousands of photos these days, but are we all photographers? To me, it’s the eye that matters above all. Photography has many different categories these days. It is now a recognized art form and the bar has become higher than ever.
Describe the Barbican in five words?
People’s Palace for the Arts
Want to dig deeper into the Barbican archive?