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'Cultural renaissance' reflects spiralling levels of consumption

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Those of you old enough to remember when the term 'science park' meant something electrifying and faintly avant-garde - and certainly more than the miserable Green Belt offices with inadequate parking that it came to mean in later years - will not be surprised to learn that another terminological inexactitude is cruising for a bruising.

This time the solution to all ills is held to be the 'cultural district', a Euro concept that can still wring a frisson of excitement from the heart of a foreign visitor in much the same way as the term 'red light district' once did. But it may not be able to do so for very much longer - 'cultural districts' are on the march. Some are driven by childish competitions like the 'City of Culture'contest, implausibly won by Liverpool recently; others are simply converted out of worn-out real estate with the aid of a lick of paint.

When I was last in Vienna I was taken on a tour of the thenunfinished 'MuseumsQuartier', an epic cultural mélange of heritage conservation with a couple of bits of ready-for-anythingModernism converted from the stables of the Imperial Winter Riding School of the Hofburg Palace plus some other bits of the palace gardens. At that time the half-built complex was already describing itself as 'one of the 10 largest cultural complexes in the world with more than 20 cultural institutions in a single location offering visitors an unforgettable cultural experience.' Even then, when the unfinished project was not offering much in the way of cultural services, I can still remember the impression made by the overpowering use of brickwork - magically supported brick cantilevers, brick floors, brickwork at angles and on curves - that characterised the buildings on site. That and the generous supply of posters and brochures promoting the project with such arresting promises as 'a network for art and culture in the 21st century; a crossroads between past and future; a global communication point' and, best of all, 'a cultural district built on synergies' - the last an opaque declaration whose small print claimed that 'over 70 per cent' of the city's cultural life had already upped stakes and converged on the surrounding neighbourhood.

All that was in the millennium year. Today, two years after its official opening to the public, there has been no let up in the propaganda barrage. In June, the MuseumsQuartier, its title racily shortened to 'MQ', was describing itself as, 'a magnetizing cultural district with outstanding qualities as a venue for urban recreation'. To achieve this status, in addition to its galleries and exhibition spaces and its own architecture centre, MQ lets out a quarter of its 60,000m 2ofenclosed floor space at commercial rents to more than 30 cultural organisations on twoyear leases. As a result it drew in 2.2 million visitors in 2002.

As a post-Imperial conversion from an unwanted stable block, MQ makes a pretty good postindustrial culture factory - probably better and certainly bigger than Tate Modern or the Baltic Flour Mills. But it is just as dependent on spiraling levels of spending on the consumption of culture, and the government grants and ceaseless fundraising which go with it.

In the US, where the mass consumption of art really began, a transfusion of private and public money since 9/11 has fed an enormous $2.4 billion into new cultural and refurbishment museum projects, theatres and galleries. The biggest project, two new museums for the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, the world's largest museum complex, has already been criticised for inviting operating costs and staffing levels that will be unsustainable.

Maybe a cultural district built on synergies is no longer enough.

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