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Got any spare changes for our backward old continent?

Just before last Christmas, when the government announced that Railtrack's exclusive option to bid for the upgrade and maintenance of three London Underground lines was to be withdrawn, the immediate consequence was a drop of almost £4 billion in the company's stock market value - more than the cost of the Jubilee Line Extension gone in an instant.

But just after Christmas, when the announcement was made that America On-line wanted to take over Time Warner, the shares of both these corporations rocketed until they exceeded one third of the gross national product of Spain.

Perhaps it is a little unfair to compare these events without qualification, but considering them side by side does suggest one or two uncomfortable axioms. For example, invest in transport and you lose your shirt; invest in communications and you make a fortune. Or, looking at it another way, plan a capital enterprise in Europe and all you get is government interference; plan an enterprise in America and banks will queue up to finance it.

In fact quite a lot of people in Europe are beginning to wonder about things like this. Even though the ec is in some ways bigger than the United States, it seems incapable of investing in its future on the scale that America can. Where American entrepreneurs leap ahead in fields like computing, biotechnology, defence and investment banking, Europe's much-vaunted enterprise culture is smothered in local, national and communitarian red tape. When Europe goes to war it needs American help; when European politicians talk boldly about investing in the Internet, do they realise that three-quarters of the material comes from America?

Tourism and property are the big success stories in Europe. With the exception of mobile phones, nothing remotely related to the digital revolution is being led by the old world.

Where European architecture stands in this confrontation is an interesting question. While on both continents new technologies strive to associate themselves with advanced-technology architecture, in Europe a lot of the profession is no stranger to the heritage industry and its Jingle Bells world of historical sites, refurbished castles and gift shops. Even more confusingly the European heritage industry is at least as enthusiastic about applying new technology to archaeology, art history, facilities management and exhibition design, as hard-nosed commerce is about commissioning 'Factor 4' high efficiency, non-air conditioned buildings. Put all these trends together and you can see that European architecture could easily act as a passive receptor for the entire digital revolution without changing its stance at all.

The only unpredictable part is the scale of demand. If Europe goes on marketing its old culture as its principal commodity, while outsourcing all the technology it can't make, its entire built envir- onment will dissolve into a gigantic film set managed by American media corporations. Only if Europe drops old railways and seriously endeavours to compete with America in matters digital, it will have to confront its shortage of advanced technology infrastructure - and address the problem with the continent's most urgent building programme since World War II.

The lesson of the continental contrast may simply be that every age has its appropriate technology, which can be mobilised and made to work at that time but will work at no other. We live on the threshold of a sedentary civilisation for which the biggest Ferris wheel in the world is the most appropriate symbol imaginable.

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