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Architectural opinions are only valid in context

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The poll by Radio 4 listeners of their most and least favourite buildings raises some important issues.

Whether liked or hated, the buildings are not small gems, nor small blots on the landscape; not individual buildings but whole environments, experienced not for seconds but for minutes, even hours. There is a great deal of difference between one ugly shop and a whole shopping centre, between one beautiful chapel and a whole cathedral close.

What makes most impact is the whole environment, building complexes, town centres, urban villages - obvious, but we still neglect urban design, which is more than masterplanning and involves aesthetics and townscape.

Why was an old building more favoured than any recent ones? Old buildings have stood the test of time and offer hope - in the case of Durham Cathedral, for nearly 1,000 years. But more than this, it was built as a sign of the Christian faith which has endured the internal strife of the Reformation, undermining by humanism, attacks from science, and unbelief by one of its own bishops.

Why was Salisbury Cathedral, a harmonious Gothic building, not chosen? For all its beauty, Salisbury lacks surprise and variety - it is monocultural, representing one period in time out of many centuries. Durham has the surprise of its delicate Galilee Chapel, contrasting with the massive nave; and it has its later, beautiful eastern chapels, nave vaulting and Bishop Cosin's fittings, added at 200year intervals.

But why a cathedral and not a country house, an equally English institution? Cathedrals represent an age of faith and a spiritual dimension to life.

Whereas, for all their Renaissance beauty, the humanism of the country house does not rise above the human spirit;

and for many people it represents cultural elitism, and perhaps also the oppression of the agricultural labourer who sustained it, and whose cottage was removed to improve its view?

Finally - location, location, location! The more people who use or see a building, the more votes it will get, either way.

Durham Cathedral is a highlyvisible symbol, seen by many who never stop at Durham, but who sees Lincoln Cathedral without specifically going there?

Stansted Airport - a runnerup in the poll - and stations such as St Pancras are transport buildings, used by many more people than live locally, and hence Heathrow's getting on the least favourite list.

To conclude, Durham Cathedral is an environment of contrasting spaces, materials, colour and texture, even without the rest of its precinct; of different ages and therefore multicultural (in temporal if not ethnic terms), and a visible symbol pointing beyond itself and ourselves.

It would be instructive to conduct similar polls on Radio 2 and Sunrise Radio.

Leslie Bark Wembley, London

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