Michael Comba – My Favourite Building

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What is it?

The Barbican Estate

Do you think that’s an obvious choice – or do you reckon it’s a hidden gem?

It was perhaps a bit more controversial in the past, but definitely back in vogue. At the weekend it’s filled with people getting pics for the ‘gram now. That said, it still has its fair share of detractors who dismiss it as ‘brutalist’ – but, at risk of sounding pretentious, it’s so much more complex than that.

Any honourable mentions?

I was very close to picking the Oval cricket ground, but that would have ended up as an unbearable (and irrelevant) soliloquy on cricket. Otherwise, I’m from Bath and pretty much anything there – subject to a few exceptions (see below).

Dishonourable mentions?

One of the worst aspects of our built environment is a reluctance to allow cities to evolve. Bath’s mock-Georgian Southgate Shopping Centre (do you really need to clad River Island in Bath stone?), admittedly an improvement on its 60s predecessor, is a prime example.

Can you tell us a little about its history?

Flattened by the Blitz, the City of London was in dire need of redevelopment and the Corporation of London saw a particular need to increase local housing stock. It launched a design competition, awarding the project to Chamberlain, Powell and Bon, designers of the nearby, and similar, Golden Lane Estate.

The architects ended up designing a radical, and frankly mad, myriad of buildings to be constructed mostly of reinforced concrete. Mainly flats, it also compromised continental-style plazas, lakes and a vast conservatory. Though ultramodern in philosophy, it was designed with a nod to the City’s ancient history, taking particular inspiration from nearby church, St Giles-without-Cripplegate. The motifs are several, archers’ slits, crenellated rooves and its very name – the Barbican (kind of a fortress).

In many ways it was a flop. Designed to have huge footfall, the estate was, and is, generally unused by non-residents, often put off by the austere exterior and its inexplicable geography. Sections of the estate remain unused and have been effectively abandoned.

What about your history with the building – what was your first memory of it?

I’ve been fortunate enough to have lived there in the past – but took time to be a convert. Like many, I always found it quite cold but in the summer it really comes into to its own. It shows the estate’s softer side and greenery, that you then notice year-round. I think, especially when it’s sunny, it’s difficult to find a more beautiful setting than the Lakeside terrace looking out across the lake to St Giles. Great place for drinks, although bring your own as the café is extortionate.

Is it the inside or outside that does it for you?

The outside – the architecture of the inside isn’t particularly special, although the cinema is pretty amazing (and quite cheap).

How do you think the lawyers felt about it?

Contentious practitioners must look upon fondly. Given the, then, new construction methods used, latent defects have been a problem. In the 1980s some of the roofing was found to be structurally defective and I think a long-running dispute ensued with residents. I think roofing problems still crop up now and again.

Nothing’s perfect though, is there anything you would change about it?

Definitely not perfect – it’s literally designed to make you lost for starters. That said, I quite like its imperfections, you can see someone’s imagination run away with themselves.

Would be handy not to walk around in circles though.

Do you think it will last?

I think so – now it’s won people over a bit. It will be interesting to see how the City Corporation deals with its setting though, as the City gets denser and denser and higher and higher.

Have you got any others to tick off?

The Alhambra in Granada, Spain. Long story short, I’ve made it to the car park but no further.

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