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50 years of utopia

50 years of utopia

James Burman 03 Oct 2019
I never thought the Barbican Estate and Marmite had anything in common: you probably either love them or you hate them? Well, maybe not. This year (July) marks half a century since residents first moved into the Barbican Estate and with each decade, love for the grey concrete mass on the north edge of the City of London seems to grow and grow. Its dominance on the skyline has diminished as other tall buildings appear but its distinct silhouette is still very recognisable. The Barbican Estate ‘Barbican’ was the name of a street in the commercial area of the ward Cripplegate before Second World War bombing devastated the area in 1940. The Barbican Redevelopment Scheme took nearly thirty years to design and build and was completed in 1969. The development of the 40-acre bomb site involved the design of over 2000 flats, (including 3 of the tallest towers in London at the time), two schools and an arts centre. When erected, the concept and designs were controversial and even today it still sparks great debate. It was a pioneer of its time in terms of accommodation mix, size, design and quality - offering a place to live where almost all amenities were on site. The Barbican Centre plans were approved in 1971 and included a 2000 seat concert hall, 1300 seat theatre, art gallery, library, Guildhall School of Music and Drama, cinemas, catering facilities, foyers and car parks. The scale and complexity of the project matched that of the earlier residential scheme taking over a decade to build and was described as “one of the modern wonders of the world” by the Queen in 1982 due to its scale, cohesion and ambition. Clearly the Architects - Chamberlin, Powell and Bon – while creating a project that created conversation and divided opinion had done something right as in 2001 the Barbican was Grade II listed. But, why exactly has the development proved to have grown in popularity, appreciation and value over the last 50 years? Nick Thompson, Senior Director and Head of Major Projects & Design at Lichfields noted that whilst the Barbican is a generally revered development nowadays and provides its residents with very convenient amenities as well as London with first class facilities its relative isolation, and inward-looking design with little ground level interaction with the outside world does not provide a good model for creating cohesive and interesting environments particularly for pedestrians moving through the area. It can be described in a city such as London as a unique development, reflecting design thinking at a particular point in time. The quality of its design and build has been a major factor in its longevity. Though it was built by the City of London Corporation, it was never intended to be a traditional Council Estate aimed at low-income families paying subsidised rents. Rents at the Barbican in 1969 were premium – about £12 per week for a one-bedroom flat which allowed the Council not to skimp on build quality. Inside, the flats were well built too, with good quality finishes and a generous scale. Today’s London Plan provides minimum floorspace guidance of 538sqft (Chapter 3, Policy 3.5) for a one bedroom flat. This compares to a one-bedroom in the Barbican around 700sqft combined with good ceiling heights and natural light making them feel even bigger. The community spirit held by its residents is another factor that makes the development special. It’s hard to imagine this being the case with it being so popular with visitors but from owner’s clubs and associations to a website run by residents, it’s clear that the Barbican community love where they live and wouldn’t choose to be anywhere else – often up and downsizing within the Barbican itself depending on their family circumstances. Of course, a creation so polarising as the Barbican can’t be without its negatives. As many who have visited know, navigating around the estate can be tricky. Legibility including its relationship to the outside world is poor. Ray Bowden, who moved to the Estate with his wife in 1969, remembers being father to the first baby born in a Barbican flat – because the midwife failed to find them! In addition, while there are fantastic and unusual amenities provided on site (such as cinema and the cultural hub), others that you might consider more normal (such as gyms, cafes or restaurants) are nothing special at the Barbican. And considering the service charge is enough to make you choke on your “nothing special” meal – roughly £3000 per year for a one bedroom and £5000 for a two bedroom – the Barbican does not come with any exclusive resident perks such as gyms or bars. In additional to the service charge, residents have to pay towards the estate’s upkeep – about £4000 per year is normal. However, if you are willing to accept this, it is this loyalty (and heavy financial commitment) that keeps the Barbican at its best. Many other examples of sixties council estates have failed arguably (amongst other factors) due to the lack and expense of upkeep. This goes back to the point of ownership and build quality – on the whole the City of London is not having to pay for the upkeep of the estate, the residents are. So, what about the future? It appears that the Barbican is to continue to go from strength to strength, Blake Tower, formally the Barbican YMCA before being turned into luxury flats will officially become part of the estate in September. The Estate’s connectivity will also be boosted next year by the arrival of Crossrail at Farringdon. Finally, there are also plans to relocate the Museum of London (part of the Barbican) to a new home in Farringdon from London Wall and be replaced by a £300m concert hall. It is hoped that this project will reinvigorate the South-Western boundary of the Estate where it meets the rest of the City. Asked if we might ever see the Barbican’s listing re-designated to Grade II* or even Grade I, Nick Bridgland, Heritage Director at Lichfields commented: “Brutalism has always provoked strong reactions but, 50 years on, it is possible to be bit more objective about its greatest buildings.  The Barbican Estate was designed by one of the leading architectural practices of the day, is instantly recognisable and has stood the test of time.  Other blocks of flats of this era such as Trellick and Balfron Towers by Ernö Goldfinger, the Byker Estate in Newcastle and Park Hill in Sheffield are listed at II* so greater formal recognition of the Barbican should not be ruled out”.  Until then, the Barbican will continue to create conversation and divide opinion but one thing’s for sure, after 50 years, it’s most certainly here to stay. References: Our building our architectureOur archive constructionHomes & PropertyLife at the Barbican was joyous from the start

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Beautiful Development – In the eye of the beholder?
‘Say no to ugliness’, that is the message to councils in the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission’s interim report ‘Creating space for beauty’, which looks at how England should address the poor-quality design of new buildings and places whilst ensuring a sufficient supply of new homes. In the eyes of the Commission, building beautifully comprises walkable, human-scale developments, and buildings with finely textured designs and materials, and it urges changes to the planning system to make the delivery of such developments a key objective. The report argues that the political focus on building more homes cannot be just a numbers game and about houses alone; it must be about making vibrant, characterful places, which people enjoy living and working in. This reflects broader changes in government policy, with far greater emphasis being placed on design quality in the revised National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), published in February. In theory, well-designed development proposals should be more popular and readily supported by Councils; achieve higher returns for developers and provide better places to live and work. However, the Commission suggests that beyond our historic urban centres and conservation areas, development is driven by utility and convenience, resulting in a wasteland of mediocre developments filled with bland boxy buildings.   The Commission urges a re-think and emphasises the need for higher standards of design and early community engagement in the design process. The report tasks planners, architects, developers and communities to decide together what constitutes beautiful development, but can a consensus really be reached if stakeholders have radically different tastes, or will popular preferences prevail every time? If not, who will ultimately decide what constitutes good design and will this be supported or provoke a public outcry and endless delays? Three main recommendations are made in the report: one, that securing beautiful development should be a core aim of planning policy and practice; two, that ugly retail parks and supermarkets should be replaced with mixed-use developments; and three, that communities should be given an effective voice early in the design process. By drawing up higher-quality development proposals and engaging communities in the design process, the report suggests that development will be less risky, produce higher returns and secure more support. Simple! The Commission argues that planners should be diverting their attention to place making and remodelling existing developments. Planners are expected to develop the skills to critically assess proposals in terms of landscape and urban design, place making, architecture and the associations between urban form, wellbeing, and health. The report also recommends giving planners the appropriate policy tools to help them secure higher standards of design from development proposals. The Bourne Estate, London Source: Matthew Lloyds Architects At present the NPPF only sets out general aspirations to create attractive places, it does not define how to achieve it, nor does it effectively require those aspirations to be met. Instead of high-quality design being a ‘nice-to-have’, the report recommends that it be embedded alongside sustainability as a core aim of the NPPF. Could high-quality design be considered a material benefit that could outweigh harm when determining the planning balance in future? Interestingly, the recommendation that underused and failing retail parks should be redeveloped for high-quality, mixed-use communities has received considerable attention. The report derides retail parks as ‘boxland’ developments, a by-product of a planning system that undervalued place making. The Commission wants planners to be at the forefront of the process of wiping retail parks off the map, but the quest to remodel existing development also extends to the high street. The report urges planners to tackle gaudy signage, street clutter, and poor-quality shop fronts and rigorously enforce higher standards of design. This would likely require more stringent design codes to help instruct future development proposals and make clear what is expected from new developments. The Malings, Ouseburn Source: Ash Sakula Architects The Commission acknowledges that public trust in experts is at an all time low and that too many neighbourhoods feel themselves to be the victim of development. The report argues that the public want new buildings to reflect the history, character, and identity of their surroundings. It recommends that communities play a bigger role in plan-making and design process so that they can define what beautiful development means to them. This would likely require planners to carry out public consultation exercises more frequently and mediate between competing subjective opinions on design. Local authorities and national government are also urged to deliver more beautiful public buildings that demonstrate civic pride in architecture, ideally with the public being engaged in the selection of winning designs. If the public are given a more prominent role in the design process, will it stifle the development of innovative design as developers retreat to more conservative styles that are likely to gain public support? The report suggests that if greater public involvement results in more traditional bricks and mortar developments at the expense of modernist glass and steel boxes, then so be it. The report offers several examples of well-conceived development, including Roussillon Park in Chichester; Nansledan in Cornwall; and the work of Matthew Lloyd Architects at the Bourne Estate in London. In Newcastle, The Malings in Ouseburn is praised for creating a dense walkable development. The Commission argues that the popularity and commercial success of these schemes demonstrates the payoff from a careful approach to design. With improving technology making it possible to create finely textured buildings without unsustainable labour and manufacturing costs, similar developments could be delivered more frequently in future. Nansledan, near Newquay Source: Adam Urbanism If the Commission’s recommendations are implemented, the delivery of high quality ‘beautiful’ design will require planners to assess development proposals as much for their design quality as for their sustainability and with significantly more public engagement to inform the process. However, in our experience, design quality is very rarely the main reason for objections to planning applications, so could the quest for beautiful development and a boost to housing delivery be doomed to fail?  The role of planners could be about to become far more design-led and potentially more complicated. While it is good that planners are placed at the heart of the solution, how will they cope when planning departments are already under resourced and overworked? How will consensus be achieved amongst so many competing groups on such a subjective and contentious issue? Crucially, if design is to become a more integral feature of the planning process will it become a more common reason for refusal and undermine the delivery of new homes, or as the report predicts, will it generate public support for attractive proposals and provide a boost to housing delivery? The Commission’s final report is due to be submitted to the government at the end of 2019.

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