Podium: One building can raise a whole area

Podium: Taken from a lecture given by the managing director of the Barbican arts centre at the Royal Institute of British Architects
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The Independent Culture
IT IS the worst kept secret in London to say that the Barbican building is not perfect. To understand the imperfections of the building, let us go back to the origins of the estate.

The site was levelled during the blitz of London in 1940. Some 60 acres of the city was left desolate and remained untouched while less severely damaged parts of the City were rebuilt. But it was not long before it was seen as an opportunity. In August 1956, the Minister of Housing, Duncan Sandys, invited the Lord Mayor and the Corporation of London to create a residential area in the City. The Common Council of the Corporation spent the next 26 years turning it from a ministerial exhortation into a reality.

The ideas behind the Barbican were ambitious, noble and visionary. According to George Vine, a member of the Barbican Committee for 13 years, writing in 1974, the intention behind the Barbican development was to bring back life into the City. It looked towards other grand pieces of urban layout in London and was clearly inspired by the ideas of urban living pioneered and defined by Le Corbusier.

In a perceptive article by Loyd Grossman in 1982, writing in Harper's and Queen, he specifically related the architectural inspiration of the Barbican's huge columns to Corbusier's "Villes Pilotis" of 1915. Grossman also claims "it lacks a suitably grand entrance". We can all agree on that. "Arriving by foot is daunting, arriving by car is depressing." And he pinpointed the trouble caused by the high walk system, the first of its kind in London and the only one. By pushing activity up 20 feet into the sky, you have what he called "an unhappy result - a town without streets, theoretically efficient and salubrious but practically bland and sterile".

Yet despite these criticisms, Grossman concluded, "It is highly accomplished, it is good architecture." Another trenchant architectural critic of the time, Kenneth Robinson, also concluded on an upbeat note: "It is impossible not to be impressed by some indefinable quality about an architecture that is so alien to London and yet now seems so rooted in the site."

How did the final result emerge? Some of it was no accident; it was design, the inspiration of two of the three architects responsible for the complex, Chamberlin, Powell and Bon. And yet, according to the sole survivor of the three, Powell, there had been an earlier vision of the estate, a very different one. It consisted of lower housing, in more varied configurations laid out in ziggurat style. Instead of the existing curtain wall effect, the denser, more intimate, more differentiated first Barbican layout would have been surrounded by a green moat allowing an open view of the site.

So why was there such a dramatic change from one kind of scheme to the one we know today? According to Geoffrey Powell, it was the Corporation's insistence on the application of the high walk system - the separation of pedestrians from traffic. The need to apply it altered the style, architecture, nature and feeling of the estate.

But worse was to come. Having insisted on separation in the Barbican development, the Corporation's planners failed to stick to their high walk principles elsewhere. Finally the Corporation's Planning Committee failed to insist on a high walk system on the west side of Aldersgate Street which would have linked to the Barbican Station footbridge and then over to the estate. The Barbican complex was left stranded, literally high and dry, six metres off the ground.

Beyond the Barbican, the economic and social forces that have transformed St John Street and Clerkenwell into an energetic and desirable quarter of London - are many, various and only dimly connected with the Barbican. But the Barbican plays its part in these shifts of habit and perception. Tower blocks are back in fashion with the trendies, though whether, as Grossman suggested, this is due to "heartfelt rediscovery or merely perverse radicalism" is a good question. He suspects it is the latter rather than the former and I incline to agree. But even a fashionable "yes" vote based on perverse radicalism is better than nothing.