I have just read Jon Scott Blanthorn's review of David Heathcote's Barbican: Penthouse Over The City (AJ 2.9.04) and am amazed by his enthusiasm.
Heathcote's hand is unsteady.
It is as if he did not know whether he was making something for the coffee table or writing a serious appraisal. He must blame his editor too - there are lots of typos, and even wrongly matched captions, while pictures are bunged in with little or no relevance to any neighbouring text.
I was dismayed as well by the author's lack of grasp of the estate's overall concept. In spite of the huge scale and high density, the buildings seem to hover.
The block I live in is above a pedestrian area, which is above a playground, which is above a car park, yet everything is astonishingly airy and open. Heathcote has little to say about how central this palpable empty space is to Chamberlin, Powell & Bon's design. Nor does he comment on the insensitive infills that have disrupted the original play of solid and void.
In an earlier letter to your magazine (AJ 9.10.03), I pointed out the threat posed by the Corporation of London's proposed extension to the City of London School for Girls. Heathcote takes no stand against this creeping philistinism. He has nothing to say either about the corporation ripping out the mono-pitched roof lights to the stairwells of terrace blocks. How ruinous this is can be seen by comparing the replacements with the only roof lights that were redone like for like, in Speed House.
Instead, Heathcote encourages the Barbican Residents Association, who want to water down Avanti Architects' management plan for the Grade II-listed estate. When John Allan of Avanti pointed out how much the original planters contribute to the human scale of the elevations of the terrace blocks, the president of the association, in an estate-wide circular, twisted this into: 'We won't even be able to change our flowerpots.' Heathcote's book is typical of the fashion to downgrade individual achievement in the arts in favour of socio-economic analysis. A sure sign is the scattering of the vogue word 'signifier' throughout the text, like a nervous tic. Heathcote is so bogged down that he cannot make his own final judgement on the estate, quoting instead a lame remark by the architectural critic of the Daily Telegraph, who called the Barbican 'a flawed masterpiece'.
A first-rate architectural historian told me it was a great shame about Heathcote's book because it will be years before anyone attempts a replacement.
I would insist that Heathcote's effort is of a kind that no historian should feel the least inhibited about embarking on a substitute right away.
John McLean, London EC2