History will judge 'the greatest period of architecture' ever seen
'We are entering a great period of expansion and we shall all be the beneficiaries of it. The 1990s will be the greatest period of architecture we have ever seen!'
So declaimed Lord St. John of Fawsley in June 1995, commenting on the news that £1.8 billion of Lottery money would be spent on buildings. As far as I can recall, this claim was met with general satisfaction. It was, after all, the sort of claim that journalists love to hear, something that turns the speaker into a sitting duck and provides the writer with a hostage to fortune and the opportunity to deflate the self-satisfied when the time comes. Either that or it presents the claimant with a ready-made reputation for sagacity that will last a long time.
So what can be said about those claims now? At first it seems that, in the broadest sense, Lord St. John of Fawsley was correct. The recent past has indeed seen a great period of expansion and a great period of architecture. One that is all the more remarkable for following so soon the Prince Charles era, when architects fell into a deeper slough of unpopularity than they have waded through before or since.
And yet there is an edge to this acknowledgement of greatness.
Can we really say without any qualification that this was the greatest era? Of course not.
For any list of the 10 most prominent 'great period' buildings completed since 1995 would have to include the replanning of Trafalgar Square (and some other urban landscape exercises); it would include various bridges (one of them a bouncer); mighty roofs (for example the Great Court at the British Museum); costly but obsolete structures (such as the British Library); a giant cash register wheel (not normally considered to be architecture), as well as innumerable changes of use (typically the Thameside Tate Modern and the Gateshead Baltic Flour Mill), and more than the usual number of meretricious refurbishments (not always visible from outside), as well as such anomalous structures as the ghastly Sheffield centre for loud music, the unbelievable and seemingly endless boondoggle of the Scottish Parliament, and the Dome, and as a backdrop the long-running ruin of Battersea Power Station, whose ultimate status remains uncertain to this day.
It used to be said of the risk of a writ for libel that the writer should always try to imagine how the offending passage would sound when read out in court. In the case of the 'greatest five years'we should try to imagine how a defence of these projects would sound in the court of history, and then wonder at what the future will make of the slender returns generated by such a costly parade of masterpieces.
Why, for instance, were all of them aimed at boosting tourism, the only industry guaranteed to make a loss - this year is already down 15 per cent on last - and yet still be allowed to claim the cause as terrorism, when we have 30 years of practice at dealing with it, thanks to the IRA.
When terrorism finally kills off tourism, what will be the use of these converted silos, giant wheels and powerless power stations?
Why was no replacement nuclear programme launched to ensure adequate supplies of electrical power as in France?
Why was the runaway housing market not deflated by a state-financed Emergency Factory Made housing programme, as in 1945?
Why wasn't Crossrail given a higher priority?
London used to be a working city, not a city to look at.The last thing that was made in London was money and now even that has become a political abstraction.