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Complex history

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review - Barbican: Penthouse Over The City By David Heathcote. Wiley, 2004. £29.99

London has struggled with large-scale building concepts since the Second World War, but no development suffered more from politics and subsequent public vitriol than the Barbican. This cultural and residential complex became emblematic of satisfying an architectural ideal, rather than the needs of inhabitants and users.

Yet recently, design and planning enthusiasts have begun re-evaluating the Barbican's original intentions as a promise of hope and urban reform in a bygone era. Following this renewed interest comes the first text to explore the centre in detail - its sources, its construction and the complaints it generated.

David Heathcote mentions that public opinion is based on what people are taught, rather than on personal discovery, so his role as a writer is to convince already jaded readers.

He plots carefully the history of the Barbican and its relationship to post-war development in other European cities. Architect Chamberlin, Powell and Bon (CPB) had a monumental task before it. Decimated by the Blitz, the City of London was desperate to house displaced citizens. The team's vision was to use progressive engineering and planning ideas that were focused on the future while maintaining traditional living essentials. The intention was to create a place that expressed 1950s internationalism and affluence through an appreciation of good design.

Plans were always Modernist, with many Corbusian references from the UnitÚ d'Habitation to the Villa Savoye, incorporating schools, music centres, shops, gardens, walkways, waterways and bridges. This was a suburb within the city, separating people from nearby traffic and industry. But what followed was the bane of most modern architecture:

indecision, changing council demands and fluctuating finances.

The 'council estate for the well-off' would be the victim of countless steering-committee meetings, resulting in a constantly altered complex. The Corporation of London enforced various regulations on form and style, while debates on what should be done with vacant space on such a large plot of land resulted in a reduction of density and an increase in open areas - changing plans considerably.

Yet while the site plans were adjusted, CPB's dedication to Corbusian elements, such as double-height living spaces and solid block balconies, was a constant both internally and externally. Balanced by courtyard waterways, the result was a carefully considered Brutalism: the central garden/waterway creating an aerial view which seems to fuse Venetian Baroque with a Modernist film set.

Complaints about the uncompromising use of concrete, inaccessibility, dark recesses, and interiors with features impossible to replace were raised almost immediately upon completion. Heathcote treats the praises and denouncements with equal seriousness, writing with an occasional caustic nod towards critical views which missed the point, and making good use of the facts he has amassed.

Assisted by Sue Barr's photographs and extensive archival documents, Heathcote recreates the Barbican through a thorough analysis of models, plans and the existing site.

The quantity of information is vast, and at times mind-boggling, but although the details on bureaucratic process and change seem relentless, they prove necessary and relevant.

The Barbican became a victim of post-war governmental constraint and pragmatism, which militated against innovative design.

Ultimately, the book reminds us of the countless, less thoughtful schemes which have since become uninhabitable. Not so the Barbican.

Heathcote has written a fascinating study on a subject he clearly adores, allowing us to appreciate the Barbican's inspirations and designs.

Jon Scott Blanthorn is an architectural writer based in Toronto and London

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