Building Societies

François Mitterrand will be remembered for his grands projets in France. Hugh Pearman laments that the death of a British leader would leave no such legacy It is inconceivable that the UK could ever enjoy the level of state patronage of architecture and d

François Mitterrand will be remembered for his grands projets in France. Hugh Pearman laments that the death of a British leader would leave no such legacy

It is inconceivable that the UK could ever enjoy the level of state patronage of architecture and design that seems to go with the French presidency. If any of our heads of state tried it, he or she would probably be impeached. It’s just not the way we do things. It embarrasses us. Look: even when handed a project for a great opera house in Cardiff Bay on a plate, we still shy away from the idea of rampant cultural display. We give the National Lottery cash to long-distance cycle-ways instead.

François Mitterrand was the president most famous for erecting monuments, egged on for a while by his culture minister Jacques Lang and with the encouragement of his political opposer, the then Mayor of Paris, Jacques Chirac.

But before them Valéry Giscard D’Estaing gave us the soberingly ambitious Science Museum and park of La Villette, and Georges Pompidou did the only thing that anyone will remember him for – commissioning Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers to build the arts médiatheque that bears his name. Monuments? Goes with the territory. Charles de Gaulle, the great moderniser, managed to give his name to an airport, and saved central Paris by creating the new office city of La Défense out west. But what was he saving? Why, a Paris that had been comprehensively rebuilt by an earlier regime. Who but the French, under Napoleon III, would have torn their capital apart in the mid nineteenth century to build the boulevards of Baron Haussmann, so handy to march troops along in the event of revolutionary fervour?

Keep on going back and it’s the same story. Louis XIV? Henri IV? Tell me about them. But nous Anglais don’t do that. Even our palaces are modest, while our Prime Minister lives in a spec-built terraced house. The achievements of Prince Albert (not British, of course) are the nearest parallel to Continental patronage. The Great Exhibition of 1851 and the South Kensington cultural district that followed it, plus some early experiments in social housing, are no mean legacy, but they scarcely measure on the Haussmann scale. Albert would surely have done much more: but typhoid did for him at 42.

True, every century or so we get embarrassed by our lack of monument-building, which leads to a rush of blood to the head. Hence the Edwardian creation of a grand processional route from Buckingham Palace (rebuilt in 1913) along the Mall to Admiralty Arch and Trafalgar Square. But mostly we leave that kind of thing to the developers. John Nash was the speculator who shaped late-Georgian London, Paul Reichmann his 1980s successor at Canary Wharf. And while Mitterrand famously called in France’s best and most avant-garde designers to do up the Elysée Palace – making Philippe Starck’s name in the process – Margaret Thatcher went no further than hiring the classicist Quinlan Terry to tiddle up the state rooms in Downing Street.

You can’t help wondering, however, how things might have turned out if Michael Heseltine had made it to the premiership. Heseltine, as his current office in Whitehall bears witness, thinks big. Back in the early Eighties, at the Department of the Environment, he encouraged a number of architectural competitions for key London sites. With John Butcher as a genuinely interested minister of design, things looked almost rosy for a spell. The competitions mostly went pear-shaped, particularly the two on Trafalgar Square (National Gallery extension and Grand Buildings), but by then Hezza was on to his next job. He meant well, mostly. Importing the garden festival idea from Germany wasn’t a bad wheeze for a while. True, when it came to building on his own Oxfordshire estate, he turned to Quinlan Terry, like any other country-house owner. But you knew that here was someone who, given half a chance, would dearly love to have had that “man of vision” tag attached to him.

Ambivalence towards state patronage of design in this country has always been with us. Do you think that disastrous architectural competitions are a recent phenomenon? By no means: look at the nightmare that was the building of George Edmund Street’s law courts in the Strand in the late nineteenth century – a triumph borne out of repeated near-disaster. You think we’ve only recently become timorous about great new buildings? Tell that to Sir Christopher Wren, who had to water down his original ideas for St. Paul’s Cathedral and then fling high hoardings round his building site to hide it from a hostile public, many of whom wanted the money spent on Westminster Abbey instead.

It’s a national characteristic. We just don’t feel easy with big stuff like that. Perhaps, to us, it smacks of totalitarian regimes. We think of Hitler, Stalin, Ceausescu, Bokassa, Marcos and their monuments. Like our phlegmatic neighbours the Dutch, we are inherently suspicious of ostentatious public display. Unlike the Dutch, however, we have no ingrained national pride in standards of public design, from the railways to the postal service.

To get good patronage of design, you need to have a sense of direction and a strong belief in the corporate power of the state. Neither of which appear to be characteristics of the current government, despite occasional nice words from Virginia Bottomley and John Gummer. So the new-look Louvre runs the once stupendous British Museum out of town, even with its pending Norman Foster-designed revamp. But it doesn’t always go right in France. Remember the Opéra Bastille, a lash-up if ever there was one. And the French National Library – aesthetically simplistic in the extreme.

Does the British instinct for fudge yield any benefits when it comes to public patronage? Well, we kept Covent Garden market, after a battle. The Parisians razed Les Halles, their considerably better equivalent glass and iron market by Victor Baltard, and replaced it with a weird sunken shopping centre and an unsatisfactory park. It’s not much to claim, but, hell, at least we got that one right.

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