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Eyesore or gem: Milton Court

Milton Court
(Picture: Sarah Duncan)

BUILDING SITE
Five controversial buildings - should they stay or go?

The maxim of beauty being in the eye of the beholder is no more true than in people's estimations of modern buildings. To mark Architecture Week, the Magazine takes some of Britain's most controversial buildings to task.

The Barbican is one of the UK's most controversial collections of buildings, a massive concrete city within a city, squatting in an area of London flattened during World War II.

VOTE RESULTS
Should Milton Court face the wrecking ball?
No, it should stay
 32.95% 
Yes, it should go
 62.56% 
I don't know
 4.49% 
6699 Votes Cast
Results are indicative and may not reflect public opinion

Its famous arts centre has been voted London's ugliest building, but the fanatical support of residents in the complex and its Grade II-listed status means its future is assured. It remains a symbol of the previous generation's efforts to change the way we live through architecture, a concept still cherished by some, but loathed in equal measure.

But before the Barbican was built, there was a little brother. Milton Court, designed by the same architects, housed both a fire station and a weights and measures office. Now much of its structure is deserted, and it is heading for demolition.

Milton Court
The structure has echoes of Le Corbusier (Picture: Sarah Duncan)
Owned by the City of London, it will make way for a block containing tuition and rehearsal space for the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, as well as flats. Unlike its celebrated brother, Milton Court is unlisted, but campaigners are still trying to save it.

Here Eva Branscome, of the Twentieth Century Society, argues it is an important building that can be rescued by redevelopment, while architect Guy Booth, says Milton Court is symptomatic of the bad, egotistical architecture of the 1960s and 1970s and should be flattened.

KEEP IT - EVA BRANSCOME, 20TH CENTURY SOCIETY

We have been worried about this building since it was not listed together with the rest of the Barbican in 2001. It has been at risk of demolition ever since.

It was the first phase of the Barbican development but was built as an island site that is connected to the residential development via a footbridge. This position has made it extremely vulnerable and there are now plans to demolish this really outstanding concrete structure.

FLATTEN OR SAVE?

Milton Court was designed in 1959 by Chamberlin, Powell and Bon who had first designed the Golden Lane Estate and then went on to build the Barbican. This was its first phase. It is an extremely important building in its own right, entirely apart from the role it plays as a part of the already Grade II-listed Barbican Complex.

The public services of the building - fire station, coroner's court, office of weights and measures, civil defence school and mortuary - are successfully integrated within its architectural form, as well as the residential component and public walkways.

This was later explored further at the Barbican on a much larger scale. The scale and facade design of the building, as well as the way that its concrete mass appears to hover over the pilotis [columns that raise the structure above ground level] show a striking similarity to the work of influential modern architect Le Corbusier. This is a highly sculptural building with an exciting and restless interplay of mass and space.

We are not saying that this building has to remain completely unchanged in form or function. On this site there is a lot of flexibility because there is the courtyard of the former fire station that was a part of the original use. In addition to the existing building and on top of the new facilities for the planned music school, 35,000 square feet of residential space could easily be created within a new drum-shaped glass structure.

Barbican
The Barbican proper is safe

Assael Architects have come up with just such a sleek and contemporary design. They have chosen a shape and material that is in striking contrast to the brutalist concrete building by Chamberlin, Powell and Bon - a highly successful scheme that shows that there is scope to develop and even enhance Milton Court.

It is completely possible to accommodate the City of London's brief within the existing site and without tearing down Milton Court in doing so. It is an incredibly wasteful approach to simply dispose of an excellent and viable building in the name of profit-making.

There is no doubt that Milton Court contributes significantly to the fabric and historic context of the City and we consider it a major oversight the building has not yet been placed under historic protection. We had recommended that it be listed last summer and the Department of Culture, Media and Sport is still considering whether to do so or not.

DEMOLISH IT - GUY BOOTH, ARCHITECT

Never mind saving this building, blow it out of the ground.

You have this pink concrete frame that has this top floor on pilotis. The fenestration [distribution of windows] down below doesn't work. It is as dull as dishwater.

[Grand Designs presenter] Kevin McCloud said 'in the shifting sands of city building, it looks like an eroded boulder, a sculpted lump of igneous rock'. But if this is sculpture, it is sculpture in a ditch.

It is out-scaled by the rest of the Barbican. It was a try-out, but now nearly 45 years later, I would have the thing ripped down. It doesn't contain beautiful cafes and restaurants. It's just a non-space.

Milton Court
Demolition and replacement beckons (Picture: Sarah Duncan)

The theory of modernism was more powerful than the practical result. The theory was superb but a lot of it was politically motivated by communists. Socialist theory said this would be great architecture and this is how people will live. Rarely do these master plans ever work.

You had these reinforced concrete blocks, and the problem is that in England things go green in the winter because it goes slimy.

You go into a building and there is this acreage of open plan non-entity. You look out of a window and there is this dead pigeon on a concrete slab. That is what Milton Court ended up as being. It never, ever was attractive to people.

What architects wanted to do by the mid-1970s was get away from this and make human corners. You go into a building and it's cosy and lovely and human. Successful modern shopping centres have cosy corners where you can sit down and have a coffee.

It doesn't matter as an architect how much money you are earning and how many prizes you win, if you haven't got the human touch. The architects [of the era] were so arrogant, they just wanted to get in the architecture glossies. It is all for other architects to look at. It is a backslapping society.

The Barbican always reminds me of a giant reinforced concrete club sandwich with skewers sticking out of it. The Barbican has a certain mystique, but Milton Court doesn't. It has no mystique whatsoever.

Let's just take some good photographs, put them in an album and get the thing razed to the ground and do something amazing that is going to last. Milton Court is totally separate from the Barbican so it can have surgery... the bulldozers.


Below is a selection of your comments:

Keep it... of course if one had any confidence in the architects profession to replace it with something better....but they don't buildings that ordinary people might like do they, only stuff that might win applause from their peers and a mention in their trade mags.
Michael Beaman , London

These buildings should have a special list naming them for what they really are - Structural Sin!
Barry Watson, Glasgow

I used to work in London around the corner from the Barbican. The whole place is a mess - a total eyesore. Time for a change and into the modern world.
Dave Burgess, Australia

As Guy Booth says, it doesn't fit in it's local space, the Barbicans dramatic & it's resident slove it, the same cannot be said of Milton Court. Just because "Chamberlin, Powell and Bon " designed it doesn't make it less of a carbuncle.
Duncan wood, Cambridge

I love everything about the Barbican, and I love this building too - I never even knew it had any significance until I read this article. That said, it isn't as good as the Barbican itself, and we can't preserve everything, so may be it is time it should go - as long as the Barbican itself is kept!
Dan Bidewell, London

This is history of the future. Not necessarily this specific building, but it was a style that was used in the 70's. All other examples of different styles of architecture throughout history have been preserved, why not this? Unfortunately I know that the concrete used has a much more limited lifespan that most construction materials, but it is a shame that a use cannot be found for this (maybe a government department). It might not be pretty, but once upon a time it received planning approval and was designed by an Architect, so it must have been 'thought of' by more than just someone. Out there is a comittee of Councillors who approved this!
simon bole, ipswich

If you flatten the Barbican arts center, please complete the job and raze the awful National Theatre and put something more imaginative and attractive and theatrically inspiring in its place!
David Wrede, Ex- Londoner

Reinforced concrete, ugly tower blocks and 'idealistic' buildings shaped the post-war era and ruined our beautiful towns and cities. Many of these buildings had no sense of space or of the landscape in which they were built. A walk around Milton Court is so depressing that you wonder how it was ever innovative. It needs to go so that everyone who lives in, works in or even visits the Barbican can be proud of a building with a sense of space which is built for everyone to enjoy.
Nicholas Parsons, Horsham UK

By all means save Milton Court, if only to remind us that even the City of London had a civic duty once upon a time to provide the type of public services this building once offered in a user-friendly, convenient and life-saving form. (The fire station did sterling service during the war and beyond.) The building is a reminder of a more mindful, compassionate age. However, the needs of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama (GSMD) have to be taken into account also, especially if, as it seems, there is no room for them anywhere in the recently expensively refurbished Barbican Arts Centre concrete sandwich, more's the pity. So let's move ahead and convert Milton Court to provide GSMD with what it requires. There must be at least one architect out there who can respect the building and its past while achieving all such a well-deserving organisation as GSMD needs so desperately. Perhaps a competition might be in order or is this really nothing to do with architecture, just a question of much the City can make by erecting a nothing building that will provide a high-enough price or sufficient income to cover the costs of providing GSMD with the performance area it so desperately needs. After all, the City gets all the prestige it could ever want from owning and running this world-class conservatoire. As for television presenters, what do most of them know other than how to read a cue card?
John Bailey, London

How can you save a building when its own apologist calls it brutalist? There is nothing left today of the old City. It has all been torn down in the name of...profit. So why not this, which so spectacularly fails those men and women it was allegedly built for?
Pierre Constantin, United Kingdom

As a nearby resident, i find it quite a silly 'discussion' - for the simple reason that the 80s turquoised-glass-class building behind it (you can see it in top photo) a trillion times more hideous! I must say though, Milton Court is a nightmare for wheelchair users. When the lift is (very often) broken, one has to reverse BACK about 300m to get out of the complex... very annoying...
Daniel Brown, Barbican, London

It may not be pretty, but architectural trends of today leave a lot to be desired.
Andrew W, Crewe UK

I trained at the Guildhall school of Music and Drama. The facilities are in desperate need of updating and Milton Court is such a obvious choice of location. It comes down to this for me: Buildings or people. We have the chance to create a great and inspiring new workspace for young students of the arts or we can keep an ugly old building. Not much of a choice really is it? We should be moving forward, not looking back.
Jake Thornton, Los Angeles, USA



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