Tuesday22 August 2017

This time, only world class will do

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This month is the 25th anniversary of the Barbican Arts Centre, and much has been made of its transition from forlorn cultural outpost to world class institution. Concurrently — as reported in BD — a scheme is afoot to demolish Milton Court, a plucky little multi-function building and the earliest section of the Barbican Estate.

When the estate was granted grade II listed status in 2001, some wildly unconvincing arguments were used to specifically exclude Milton Court from this protection. As it is inconceivable that English Heritage will reverse its dubious decision, Milton Court is doomed.

(Quick Nimby declaration: I live in the Barbican, but my apartment will not be directly affected by the redevelopment.)

It is proposed to replace Milton Court with new amenities for the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, including a concert hall, below a 36-storey residential block.

Fitting all this into a constricted urban site is surely a challenge, and the complexity of the programme presents really exciting possibilities. Have the architects risen to the challenge? They certainly have not: the proposal is for a behemoth of a building — a fussy lumpen base with a clumsy residential tower sticking out of it. The join between the two elements is especially dispiriting since, if there are any lessons to be learnt from the original Milton Court, they are about the architectonic expression of multi-use structures. The tower element has the looks — and charm — of a knock-it-up-quick Costa del Sol beachfront hotel. Adding injury to insult, the proposal crudely amputates the Barbican’s integral high-level walkway system.

So why is this more important than just a local planning issue? There are three reasons.

First, the scheme’s total failure to respond to the Barbican’s walkway system is an ugly illustration of a lack of concern for modern listed structures. A podium-building like the Barbican Estate depends on urban integration outside its own boundaries. There is no point protecting the structure itself, if you then make a reputedly inaccessible building more inaccessible. It is not simple, but preserving the integrity of buildings that form the urban framework — rather than just sit within it — needs to be addressed.

Secondly, a 140m-high building has a prominence that goes well beyond the confines of its immediate locality. Do we really need another uninspired profile amid probably the most recognisable section of skyline in the country?

Thirdly, and most significantly, this is the first high-rise residential development in the City since the Barbican itself, and so sets the standards (way too low) by which subsequent developments will be judged. The City is uniquely wealthy, is an extremely compact administrative zone, and is central to the nation’s conception of itself. It has every responsibility to act as inspiration to other areas.

The City never tires of referring to its world class institutions — the Barbican Arts Centre and Guildhall School among them. World class institutions should be a showcase for world class architecture. The Barbican, City, London, and the UK deserve a lot better.


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