The Twentieth Century Society

Campaigning for outstanding buildings

Heritage Flats: A Heritage Threat?

The Barbican: well, we love it, but it is an affection that comes at a cost. We’ve been frustrated by the piecemeal repairs to the roofs and terraces that have gone on for the past years without regard to the existing fabric and without a coordinated and consistent approach to maintenance. Our members living in the Barbican have been invaluable in their vigilance, and we have been able to monitor the situation and have reported our concerns to the Corporation of London accordingly.

Now, finally, it looks as though something is going to be done on the maintenance front. Avanti Architects have produced an excellent draft document for a Listed Building Maintenance Agreement that will be going out for consultation soon with a closing date for comments on 7 June 2004. This assessment cites in detail the botched jobs of the past and takes them as the starting point for devising future maintenance guidelines. It looks as if the exteriors and common areas will now be treated to like-for-like replacements and advice is forthcoming on how to proceed in those cases where this is not possible. This is a real step in the right direction!

However, the ‘Heritage Flats’ suggested as part of the maintenance document are an altogether more difficult issue. It is proposed that eight ‘typical’ Barbican flats be chosen as representative of the thousand plus. The selection criterion will be the extent to which they are unchanged in floor plan and built-in features such as kitchens and bathrooms. They are to be preserved and that which has been changed over the years will be restored.

So far, so good. What could anyone have against the proposal if this were all that was being done. But the proposal is less welcome if establishing ‘Heritage Flats’ means going beyond streamlining to release all of the other flats from applying for listed building consent when a new kitchen is desired or a new bathroom is to be installed. Why fret over such utilitarian spaces when obtaining listed building consent for them is usually not an issue? Then again the interiors of the Barbican are something special and do not fall into the norm of standardized mass housing. There are 140 different flats with 140 different kitchens. They are compact, efficient and stylish, usually opening on to the main living space by a bar or pass-through. A tight interaction of mass, space, light and functionality, they have the distinct feeling of a well-designed ship’s galley (indeed, it is claimed that they were built by cabinet-makers who specialized in ship interiors). The Barbican sink has also become an iconic item, designed specifically for the tight cloakrooms of the estate.

This is a tricky issue and the implications surrounding it add to the complexity of implementing such a scheme. If eight flats are to be chosen then why the most common ones? Is not more likely that someone, buying a Barbican flat for its architectural interest, will retain or even reinstate original features if their flat is of the more common type? Would it not be better to chose eight atypical flats with unusual layouts or particularly good features and innovative details, given the higher risk that these will change and in effect become ‘extinct’. It’s rather like protecting the domestic cat instead of the Siberian tiger.

Likewise what also about the ownership of these ‘Heritage Flats’ and how can their character be protected after they are sold? How can it be justified that privately owned listed property is subject to two different sets of regulations? In one flat you are allowed to tear out the cupboards, bath and kitchen and in another you will not even be able to change a door handle. My suggestion to upgrade the heritage flats to II* was deemed to be too is complex and fraught with difficulties. There is, to date, no building in which an interior component has a different listing status from the exterior. So the search of the appropriate ‘Heritage Flats’ is limited to those flats still owned by the Corporation of London.

There are no easy answers to the Barbican dilemma and the maintenance agreement is proving to be a very mixed bag. There is good news for Barbican fans interested in reinstating authentic fixtures and fittings. Due to the new relaxed guidelines it will be possible to scavenge in an organized manner for those discarded items. Because non-heritage flats will no longer be subject to the tight constraints of listed building consent, built-in fixtures will be able to be removed without delay. A store is to be set up for such original items that will be made available for sale on site.

But while aspects of the maintenance agreement will benefit the architecturally interested Barbican flat owner, the ‘Heritage Flat’ is looking increasingly like a heritage threat. What is sad is that at a time when the originality of interior features are mentioned by estate agents for their sale value, their protection is possibly facing a wholesale watershed.

The Barbican is a listed environment which means that its grounds, exterior and interior are protected from insensitive and random changes. It is a fact that has led to a 10% increase in the average property value for the estate within a year of its listing. We shouldn’t forget that those people who do not like the Barbican’s robust aesthetics, or do not understand that its interiors are special, are not forced to live there.

Eva Branscome