By Robert Clear, Researcher in the City of London Research team
The City’s north west flank, where Smithfield blends into Farringdon and Clerkenwell, is an unusual district of the square mile. It’s not a centre of finance or law, contains few international headquarters, no skyscrapers and none of the great monuments that draw crowds of international tourists. It is, however, one of London’s most historically and architecturally rich areas, and the City of London Corporation aims to turn the 800 metres between the Barbican and Smithfield Market into a globally important cultural quarter.
The first big steps in this venture will be in the realms of music and conservation, and will address one of the capital’s great cultural challenges: though its orchestras are world class, the spaces they play in are not. Its most important concert halls, the Barbican (home to the London Symphony Orchestra) and the Southbank Centre, are widely considered inferior to their counterparts in other global cities such as New York, Paris and Tokyo.
A decision, however, by one of the capital’s leading cultural institutions has created an opportunity to redress this imbalance: the Museum of London is moving home, and a world class concert hall is to be built in its place – a 1,900 seat venue that will be one of the finest anywhere.
From its current site, a 1970s construction straddling a roundabout at the end of London Wall, the Museum will relocate a few streets away to Smithfield. There it will share the Victorian home of London’s last medieval wholesale market – still the centre of London’s meat trade after almost a thousand years. The move will increase the Museum’s size from 17,000 to over 27,000 square metres and, it’s hoped, be a catalyst of further cultural developments (more information on the project can be found here).
To an extent, the flow of institutions across spaces is the product of chance – the Museum’s move happens to free a central London plot suitable for a concert hall, and its takeover of the western end of Smithfield Market is possible because the latter currently lies empty. On the other hand, each of these players and spaces is connected with the City of London Corporation. In 2021, when the Museum vacates its current spot on London’s Roman boundary, the Corporation plans to gift the land for the construction of the new concert hall. It’s also one of the Museum of London’s principal funders and is the owner of Smithfield Market.
These connections reflect the Corporation’s unique position as a cultural custodian. Less obviously, perhaps, its promotion of a cultural quarter is tied to its role as a supporter of business. For the City’s north western edge is emerging as a start-up cluster, notably in the tech sector. The Corporation’s challenge in the coming years, then, will be to take advantage of the area’s historical spaces to foster arts and business together. If successful, a district shared by curators, coders, musicians and meat traders will be a legacy for the future.