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Barbican stewardship is cause for concern


In 1999, responding to Barbican residents who were alarmed by insensitive repairs, English Heritage formed a panel of experts to assess the estate. They said it deserved Grade II* listing.

Unaware of the fastidiousness needed to care for this national treasure, the Barbican's landlord, the Corporation of London, lobbied against listing.

Then, putting in question her understanding of 20th-century architecture, arts minister Baroness Blackstone said she thought the estate only merited Grade II. And that was that.

Just how inadequate the protection given by a mere Grade II is shown by the Corporation recently giving its City of London School for Girls planning permission to tack on an addition, the insensitivity of which had been pointed out by the Twentieth Century Society and many individuals, including architects of international repute.

At the planning meeting in question the chief officer made no mention to his committee of the Twentieth Century Society's objections, nor did he show the other letters of opposition, apparently on the grounds there were too many of them.

I asked an EH representative if the Corporation would have got away with it had the Barbican been listed II*, and he said no. It is a sad fact that when it comes to 20th-century architecture, many people, not just the Corporation and Baroness Blackstone, are out of their depth. The director of EH himself, Simon Thurley, was seen recently on TV calling the Barbican a blot on its part of London.

It went against the grain of the rest of the city, he said.

Leaving aside the improbability of London having any overall 'grain', does he not know how much of pre-existing London the Barbican's architect - Chamberlin, Powell and Bon - reflected in its design: Georgian squares, Carlton Terrace, etc?

The integration of the Romanomedieval wall and St Giles Cripplegate into the scheme won a RIBA Gold Medal - not just for the beauty of its landscaping but also for its sense of continuity.

The folly of the plan for the school is that it sites the intended addition far too close to the pilotis carrying Mountjoy House - it will kill the flow of space. Along with a feeling for space, Chamberlin, Powell and Bon puts stress on asymmetry and the contrast of solid and void. Yet the Corporation seems set on allowing residents to go on filling the voids on their tower block balconies.

A development of the stature of the Barbican deserves a lot more care in its stewardship.

John McLean, London EC2

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