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A billion-dollar refit is reducing the Pentagon to a police station

One of the best quotations I have seen in a long time was from Sir Neil Cossons last week, who said of English Heritage, 'it is about the future just as much as any High-Tech company - it is about taking these (old) buildings into the future, and for that they must have some value in the future.' Quite so, I thought, but he might have added, 'and to ensure that, we have to spend at least as much money on them as they would cost to replace.' But of course, being the new chairman of English Heritage, he didn't say anything like that, however true he might have known it to be.

Consider one of the most famous buildings in the world, the Pentagon, which is commonly believed to be in Washington DC but actually across the Potomac River in the state of Virginia. The Pentagon was designed by an anonymous team of 400 architects and engineers and built in 16 months as a military headquarters for the conduct of the Second World War at a cost of £900 million at current values. To save steel it was built of concrete with ramps instead of lifts - the main reason it went no higher than five storeys. Completed in 1943, it housed 25,000 Defense Department employees on 650,000m2 of floors served by 25 kilometres of corridors in five concentric rings. In accordance with a state law of that time, it even had racially segregated lavatories. By any standards it was and it remains an extraordinary building, designated a national historic landmark in 1992 and a heritage object if ever there was one. But does it really have much value in the twenty-first century?

A few more facts. Today the Pentagon is in the seventh year of a 20-year (originally it was to have been 10-year) refurbishment that is limited by Congress to a cost of $1.2 billion. But as this refurbishment is the first major overhaul that the Pentagon has undergone in nearly 60 years, not surprisingly for a building that was designed before electric typewriters were invented (let alone computers), and heated by manually stoked coal- fired boilers until 1980, there is a great deal of Augean cleansing to be done. Workers have found large quantities of asbestos, lead paint, diesel fuel, pcbs, mercury and concrete cancer in the structure. Over the years ceaseless internal alterations and jury-rigged service runs have created undocumented chaos in the cooling, electrical and plumbing systems, so that before the present refit the building was recording an average of 30 local power failures every day - not to mention the occasional catastrophic water leak like the one that deluged 31 million litres of water into a basement operations room where Air Force generals were conducting the Gulf War.

As a result of the condition of the building, which ceased to comply with codes in 1953 but continued in use because of the exigencies of the Cold War, refurbishment has become more like heroic surgery. Now the whole interior is undergoing phased renewal and replacement, 40 lifts are being installed and, most importantly of all, massive security provisions are being made that were not considered necessary before. Approach roads have been snaked to slow vehicles; concrete walls will protect entrances against car bombs; perimeter walls and windows will be blast-resistant; all mail will be robotically analysed at a remote site before being delivered to the Pentagon; and a computer monitoring system will foil computer hackers.

This, then, will be the building that will be 'taken into the future', a recognisable shell but otherwise utterly transformed inside and out with a 'value in the future' that will consist solely of its role as the police station of the world.

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