London's Barbican seemed an ideal venue for last week's AJ conference on green roofs, with lush vegetation in both public and private areas providing a handsome counterpart to the tough but sensuous concrete. An increasingly green and traffic-free oasis in the centre of the city, the Barbican is now widely acknowledged as one of the successes of architecture in the second half of the 20th century.
But not as widely as one might imagine.
Several delegates mentioned the ugliness of the building. It boils down to the tricky issue of taste.
How much are our responses to buildings, as to other art forms, the result of what we have been taught? Is learned appreciation more important than instinctive reaction? Is having taste a benefit or does it just make us unhappy as we learn to reject what previously we liked?
Architecture is particularly problematic because we experience it whether we choose to or not. The conict between different types of taste was highlighted at a Debate London event on Saturday when John Bird, founder of the Big Issue and mayoral hopeful, clashed with Zaha Hadid ( ajplus 25.06.07). Bird took the classic position of arguing that architects understand nothing about poverty, with Hadid retorting that he did not respect architects.
Bird is wrong to take as his examples Corb's Unité and Goldfinger's Trellick Tower, both of which are now successful and well-loved by many, as is the Barbican. Not coincidentally, to live in these places you need to be both wellheeled and lucky. Buildings for the poor are more problematic, with those who live in them through necessity not choice the least likely to accept the judgement of others. Providing successful contemporary buildings is a continuing challenge, which requires a combination of architectural insight and non-patronising education. But ignoring all concepts of architectural taste is not clever or helpful.