... and stop the anti-imperialist rot?

Nationalist sentiments are still wrecking the world's Classical heritag e, not least in Ireland. They should be demolished, says Jonathan Glancey
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The Independent Culture
Historic buildings in cities as apparently diverse as Dublin and New Delhi have been demolished with nothing less than glee over the past 40 years by chauvinist developers and local authorities on the basis that they are foreign structures represe nting old imperial powers and so deserve to go. In India and Ireland this tired, discredited and lowly train of thought has yet to be shunted into an intellectual siding.

It is still possible to listen to an Irish politician talking high nonsense about how the country's disappearing Georgian buildings are English, or Anglo-Irish, and so somehow more than ripe for demolition. Should they be replaced by Post-modern junk imported half-heartedly from the United States, or cut-price, superstore-style trash adapted from half-baked notions of what constitutes a contemporary "vernacular", then this is surely better than an old and alien English architecture that had, at best, improper roots in romanticised Irish history.

As Dan Cruickshank's article, above, makes clear, such xenophobia is misplaced. The architecture of 18th-century Ireland owes more to continental European influences, and designers, than to English sources. At the time of independence, Irish politicians were understandably keen to lend their support to ancient monuments that, literally - or through literature - held a special place in the hearts of the Irish people. These did not include the magnificent buildings of Dublin, even though they were the work of Irish craftsmen and builders and, today, one of the reasons, or illogicalities, that draw visitors in their thousands to the Irish capital.

In India, the same arguments can he heard. A magnificent early 19th-century office is demolished in Madras and replaced by a banal, Post-modern, office block that would be equally at home in Bangalore, Birmingham (Alabama) or Basingstoke.

One building I watched being demolished dated from the early 1800s and was a magnificent example of architecture designed and built to cope with the local climate in mind; cool breezes wafted through the building, colonnades provided protection from the midday sun and a place to hold meetings outside, and deep walls kept the Classical palazzo cool in the heat of this seaside city. But, because it was English or British or whatever, it was pulled down.

Such sentiments may have been understandable decades ago when, like all imperialists, the British could be cruel and foolish, but they lack credibility in 1995 when so many of our cities, from Cork to Calcutta via Coventry and Cairo, have become bog ugly.

The arguments in question are often used as clever ways of getting rid of buildings that occupy valuable sites which might be developed more profitably. And, however reasonably one might put the case against demolition, one can be accused of being a latter-day imperialist.

Fortunately, there are precedents to show how such wilful destruction of historic buildings masquerading as noble anti-colonialism can be countermanded constructively, and profitably, too.

When, for example, Lenin seized power in Moscow, attempts by over-enthusiastic Bolsheviks to storm and demolish great Romanov architecture was discouraged. Build a new revolutionary Soviet architecture by all means, said the new Communist Tsars, but do not destroy a great heritage built by the heroic toil and skilled hands of Russian workers and intellectuals. The same argument was used after the Great Patriotic War in the course of which Leningrad (formerly St Petersburg, as it is again today in the re ign of Tsar Boris) was reduced almost to rubble after Hitler's prolonged siege of the city.

Leningrad rose again: it took the best part of 30 years to rebuild Peter the Great's Neo-Classical city on almost exactly the same pattern and style it had revelled in before Operation Barbarossa brought the armoured might of Nazi Germany to its very gates. In fact, architects were commissioned throughout the Fifties to design new buildings, as the city expanded, in a development of Tsar Peter's preferred European style.

Logically, St Petersburg should have been burnt to the ground in 1917, and, if Irish or Indian logic had been applied to its future in 1945, would have been rebuilt in some new-fangled Russian-Soviet style and the architecture of foreign-influenced Tsarism confined to the gulags of history. Luckily, the people and politicians of Leningrad chose a different path and rebuilt their superb Baltic city in a way that we can all admire today and that will outlast political regimes and dogmas.

The same thinking, on a miniature scale, has been applied in Havana and Trinidad in Cuba, where funds from Unesco have been used to rebuild significant patches of these beautiful colonial centres, designed by Spanish architects for conquistadores. The Castro regime could have destroyed these centres on the grounds that they represented both the physical manacles of colonialism and because they were Spanish in style, not Cuban. But, of course, they are Cuban, just as the magnificent Viceroy's House in Ne w Delhi (designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, and one of the greatest buildings in the world) is Indian.

Spanish architects working in Cuba produced a very different breed of architecture in the Caribbean than they did in the Hispanic peninsula, just as, for example, the great Indian architecture of Lutyens, Baker and Shoosmith owes, at its most inspired, precious little to contemporary British precedent.

What the cities of St Petersburg and Havana have learnt - unlike Dublin and Madras - is that not only is their historic architecture popular among their own people (because it is beautiful, practical and a part of the collective memory), but it also draws tourists and valuable foreign revenue.

If the Irish case for demolishing "English" buildings were taken up by the English, there might well be a case for demolishing what survives of Roman Bath (the work of Italian invaders), the Tower of London (Norman colonialists) and the nave of Westminster Abbey (possibly the work of Henri of Rheims, a Frenchman).

The very absurdity of these suggestions is the reason why the antique arguments still dragged out and dusted down by Irish nationalists and their counterparts elsewhere in the world should be demolished once and for all and the future of the great architectural heritage of cities like Dublin saved for posterity rather than destroyed by bigotry.

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