GAMBLING WITH THE FUTURE
It is hard to have unkind thoughts about a man who pictured Britain in the first decade of the 21st century as 'the country of long shadows on county grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist'. John Major's premiership may be viewed widely as little more than a sterile interval between the Thatcher era and New Labour, but he remains proud of his achievements.
Major recently surfaced with biting criticisms of the Blair government's treatment of one of the most striking of them, the National Lottery - which is 10 years old this month.
With the recent merger of the Community and New Opportunities funds to form the 'Big Lottery Fund', half of the total revenue channelled into 'good causes' is going into areas such as health, education and training which were formerly funded by general taxation. (In fact, 15 per cent of Lottery receipts go directly to the Treasury. ) Major's vision of the Lottery was of a source of funding that would improve the quality of life in Britain, boosting the arts, heritage and sport and topping up the budgets of established charities by allowing us all a mild flutter in the process. For architecture and the construction industry, the Lottery has represented a remarkable windfall, with building projects accounting for a high proportion of the £16 billion handed out to the funding bodies since 1994. Chris Wilkinson and Jim Eyre, for example, should certainly be grateful to Major: Wilkinson Eyre won the Stirling Prize two years running for Lottery-funded projects (Magna and the Gateshead Millennium Bridge), building on a reputation cemented by its work on the Jubilee Line Extension (given the green light by the Major government).
Dome and gloom Ten years on, it is clear that the age of grands projets is over. The grandest of them all was the 2000 Millennium Festival at Greenwich, accounting for more than £600 million of Millennium Commission cash (only £40 million was actually spent on Richard Rogers Partnership's Dome - the bargain of all time in terms of cubic space per pound. ) The generally wretched quality and huge cost of the pavilions inside the Dome and the drably corporate air of the whole thing remain a depressing memory - though the regeneration of the Greenwich Peninsula is ongoing.
The Millennium Commission (it still exists) spent about £2.3 billion in total before its funding was cut off three years ago, on projects such as Tate Modern (£50 million in grant), the British Museum Great Court (£30 million), Millennium Point, Birmingham (£50 million), the Millennium Seed Bank (£30 million) and Cornwall's Eden Project (£37 million) as well as lesser sums on improving village halls, completing the tower of St Edmundsbury Cathedral, reopening the Rochdale Canal, and restoring the Soane Museum's model gallery. It famously turned down Libeskind's V&A 'Spiral' as being 'insufficiently distinctive', though the project was then hawked around other funding bodies until the coup de grÔce finally fell this autumn.
Given its brief to celebrate the millennium in conspicuous fashion and the number of new buildings (and institutions) it spawned, it is hardly surprising that the Commission's offspring includes some dead ducks - the Earth Centre in South Yorkshire, for example (grant £41.6 million, currently closed) - and other millennium projects look set to go the same way, though the Botanic Garden of Wales has been bailed out for the moment by the Welsh Assembly. There were simply too many gimmicky science/ecology centres.
The Arts Council and Heritage Lottery funds had an easier task. Both the arts and 'the heritage' were acknowledged national assets badly in need of more investment.
Historic buildings have done well in the Lottery stakes: £236 million in HLF grants to churches alone. The BBC's Restoration series generated genuine public interest in the fate of neglected local monuments, with HLF money promised to the winning buildings.
Ostensibly 'heritage' projects such as Dixon Jones's additions to the National Portrait Gallery, the opening up of Somerset House and Cullinan's wondrous Gridshell in Sussex demonstrate the potential of new design to enhance historic contexts. The Lighthouse project in Glasgow finally secured a use for Charles Rennie Mackintosh's long-neglected Glasgow Herald building. The restoration of Belfast's St George's Market, to which HLF contributed £2 million, has been a key move in the renaissance of the city centre. Lottery funding has rescued hundreds of public parks across Britain from steady decline.
The Arts Council stirred up a key Lottery issue - should the ticket money of the impecunious subsidise the pursuits of an 'elite'?
? when it made a massive grant for the reconstruction of the Royal Opera House, while the £21 million given to the Royal Court for its (admittedly excellent - and by a young practice) reconstruction worked out at about £50,000 per seat. (Much of the project cost was accounted for by the provision of a subterranean cafÚ. ) It isn't surprising, then, that subsequent Arts Lottery grants have reflected a bias towards the regions and underprivileged areas of London, with a strong regenerative thrust.
Gateshead's Baltic got £33 million, Deptford's Laban Centre £14.7 million, Caruso St John's Walsall Art Gallery £15.5 million. Feilden Clegg Bradley's Persistence Works in Sheffield, a robust studio complex for artists and makers, is far removed from the caricature view of Lottery architecture. The transformation of a 19th century school in Ulverston into the Lanternhouse arts centre by Francis Roberts, a perennially interesting traditionalist, won an RIBA Award in 2000.
Only 100 of more than 600 Arts Lottery funded building projects, £1.3 billion of investment in all, have been for new buildings. The emphasis has sensibly been on investing in existing resources. (In fact, 75 per cent of Arts Lottery grants in the past decade have been for less than £100,000 - struggling artists, musicians, dancers and actors need support as well as buildings. No grants, however, to architects. ) Sporting chance With the Millennium Commission underwriting the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, it was left to the Sports Lottery to chip in more than £90 million for the Manchester Commonwealth Games and more than £120 million for Wembley Stadium - on the one hand, a public gift to an industry that hardly seems impoverished, but equally a component in the controversial campaign to secure the 2012 Olympics for London.
Two Lottery projects in Britain have helped Herzog & de Meuron climb to the top of the league internationally, but the Lottery's architectural taste has been, on the whole, relatively conservative. Libeskind's Imperial War Museum North was turned down by the Millennium Commission, and the Millennium Stadium was chosen as the lead Welsh project over the ill-fated Hadid opera house scheme (though a large grant subsequently went to Percy Thomas Partnership's Wales Millennium Centre). The big players on the British scene - Foster, Grimshaw, Farrell, BDP, Hopkins and others - have been major beneficiaries of the Lottery and it isn't surprising that clients in search of grants opted for established reputations. Younger practices tend to be awarded smaller jobs - no bold moves like that which gave the Pompidou Centre to Piano and Rogers, both then in their mid 30s. When completed in 1999, the Walsall Art Gallery was, extraordinarily, the largest built work in Britain by any architect under 40.
As more and more costly Lottery projects find themselves struggling, now that the initial appeal has worn off, it is easy to be cynical. Yet the Lottery, now facing renewed competition from the gambling industry, has given Britain some outstanding new buildings, as well as some extravagant duds, and breathed new life into countless old ones. My favourite project? The Hackney Empire, Tim Ronalds' radical but sympathetic resuscitation of an East End landmark - £11 million well spent by the Arts Council and HLF. As for the future, architects will doubtless be watching with interest the progress of the government's gambling bill: it is out with the theatres, science centres and concert halls and in with the casinos. It almost makes you long for the return of that nice Mr Major?