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National treasure

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This was Tomorrow At the Barbican Centre, Silk Street, London EC2 until 14 April I have never seen The Curve in the Barbican Centre look so handsome as it does in hosting This was Tomorrow, curator David Heathcote's exposition of the background, gestation and realisation of the entire Barbican estate.

The semicircular gallery is not easy to handle and Heathcote has been helped by excellent designers (Strickland Coombe) and graphic artists (UNA). The wall displays, through their mural scale, exploit and dramatise the space, while the show's equipment is integrated pleasingly with the architecture.

Heathcote has also pulled off that rare trick of judging exactly how much information can be given in exhibition form. The photographer Anthony Oliver has an obvious rapport with architecture, and his stunning work repays scrutiny - as does the old film footage.

During the Blitz there was a 16 ha firestorm on the site of what is now the Barbican.

For 10 years nothing happened except buddleia and butterflies. Then, after 10 more years of planning and design, building began.

Heathcote's thoroughgoing examination of the scope and achievement of the Barbican makes it come across as a celebration of life:

the opposite of a war memorial.

What an amazing stroke of imagination the Corporation of London displayed in commissioning Chamberlin, Powell and Bon's scheme. Both the Barbican's Modernism, international in its ambition, and its roots in older architecture and landscaping, are dwelt upon in the show. Comparisons are made with the Pirelli Tower and Frank Lloyd Wright's Price Tower, but also with the towers of San Gimignano - it is good to be reminded that urban high-rise goes back a long way.

Now it is properly acknowledged that CPB drew upon the best of London's past (Georgian squares, etc), as well as that of Europe, the stance of self-consciously Post-Modern architects seems concocted in comparison.

The estate is now Grade II-listed - but the Corporation of London's current stewardship of it falls far short of appreciating just what a national treasure it is. For example, serious consideration is being given to a second expansion of the City of London school in the middle of the estate. Look at the early model in the exhibition, then visit the school as it is now, with its ill-advised additions.

There is none of the original fastidiousness in, say, roof renovation across the estate. Stock building trade solutions are now the norm.An unusually bad example is the replacement of wall-to-wall sloping glazing, inside the top of stairwells of some terrace blocks, with an offthe-shelf dome light right in the middle of a new piece of concrete capping the well. CPB avoided such crude symmetry.

In the photograph of Wallside, note to the left an original unspoilt roof terrace. The void of its longer bay plays off against the solid glazed short bay, and also aligns with the void beneath, where there is a walkway.

Now see the visual shambles of the rest. The infills get worse and worse as you look to the right, culminating in that grotesquely intrusive grey structure with the hipped roof light.

The delicate play of void and solid on the tower blocks is given a kick in the teeth each time a balcony is filled in. It should be obvious that this is just as harmful as the clumsy refenestration of a Palladian mansion.

We have an educational problem on our hands at the Barbican estate, but there could be no better way of beginning to address it than with this excellent exhibition.

John McLean is an artist living on the Barbican estate

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