Complaints about the dull and soulless design of the new 'conceptual architecture'euro banknotes do not go far enough. Overshadowed by the mixture of football triumphalism and foot-and-mouth anxiety that surrounded their appearance last week, the seven euro notes, like the opening notes of an ominous symphony, offered a grim intimation of things to come.
Left behind with our monarchs' heads, Edward Elgars and Charles Dickenses, we shall watch 12 other countries enter a state of monetary architectural anonymity. Alert to the dangers posed by vestigial nationalism, the rules of the six-year competition that led to the production of the euro notes excluded the use of portraits of historic figures - a currency designer's stand-by for at least the past 4,000 years. They also banned the use of recognisable buildings and monuments.
No Reichstag, no Arc de Triomphe, and no Pompidou Centre either. Instead, the assessors finally approved a set of financial instruments emblazoned with pictures of bridges - bits of austere old buildings that might have been worked up from Prince Charles' Tuscan sketch book, and an odd bit of Kevin Roche, suitably altered.
Few competition results in recent years could better illustrate the difference between intention and outcome, for, notwithstanding these sensitive precautions, the monetary function of these new banknotes alone guarantees that their design cannot be value-free.Nor does it automatically raise the art of banknote design above the fickle level of fashion where, as bankers never tire of telling us, value can go down as well as up. This is why the embellishment of banknotes with portraits of great scientists, artists, writers and musicians - anyone other than a monarch or a head of state, in fact - only dates from the very recent discovery that such persons, even though they may have died centuries ago, still make a massive contribution to the gross national product of their country, and thus help formulate the world's idea of its national wealth. While a 500 euro note with an image of Michelangelo on it might have caused interstate jealousy, it would certainly not have suggested poverty.
On the other hand, a Hong Kong dollar with a picture of the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank on it, on the eve of the Chinese takeover. . . Well. And so we come to the real burden, as opposed to the apparent honour, that has been awarded architecture by this new acknowledgement of its wealthconveying importance.
Gold bullion may have had its day, monarchs on notes may have no home in republican Europe, and intellectual property bequeathed to the state may have been bumped out of its seat as well but, according to the absurd euro design-competition rules, architecture itself is still admissible, provided it is untraceable.
Thus every note has an image vaguely reminiscent of something that you have seen before, but not the exact product of an identifiable architect.What would be the reaction of the art world if an image composed of a curious mixture of a Damien Hirst and a Douanier Rousseau were to appear on a banknote, without any reference to either artist? Or a Canaletto were to be brightened up with a bit of Andy Warhol and a big 500 and a hologram stuck on for luck? Or what about a composite image of Charles Dickens and J K Rowling?
No doubt the buildings on the new euro notes will be taken by some as a sign that architecture finally has conquered the world. Unhappily, that is not really the case. What you see are seven composite buildings that never really existed. Like the old countries they came from, the architects who designed them have been dissolved.