Can art prove that it is contemporary through a rereading of the past? Or does it inevitably have to usurp the past by demolishing it? Cambridge recently announced that it was dropping its Shakespeare paper.
The reinterpretation of Shakespeare's work has been an intellectual benchmark by which we understand what is different about ourselves and our time. A project like the Millennium Bridge over the Thames works in the same way.
It re-presents the complexities of our urban past literally anew.
On the north side, the photographs show the bridge neatly bisecting the indifferent office blocks on the river front.
The axis sets them quietly to either side in an appropriately hierarchical stroke, and not only reveals a facade of St Paul's viewed, rather than glimpsed from afar, for the first time, but in an act of daring innovation effectively brings it right to the river's edge. The bridge presents the Tate Modern to St Paul's in absolute equality. Cheeky but witty, it makes you think again.
What a lesson for a much more crucial challenge: the reconfiguring of the Elephant and Castle, the major interchange for south London.
Judging by the published drawings (the only recourse to those unable to attend the exhibition open for just seven days) no such creative reinterpretation of the past informs the proposals for the future. All three finalists in the selected competition appear to collage a selection of contemporary urban cliches, which, far from showing us for the first time what is special by deft intervention, effectively rubbish the unique qualities and scale of this place. Before we accept the Elephant is unworthy of attention, we should remember that only a decade ago, Bankside was dismissed in just the same way.
Lord Foster, one of the finalists, can do no better than learn from his own work.