Architecture: How about this, Your Majesty?: Cybermen, fan vaulting, Hammer Horror . . . Jonathan Glancey considers readers' ideas for rebuilding St George's Hall at Windsor Castle

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The Independent Culture
The debate over whether the burnt-out rooms of Windsor Castle should be restored to their original condition or remodelled in contemporary styles has proved remarkably lively. Letters to the Independent suggest the issue may rival that of who should pay for the restoration. Most of our readers' ideas are fairly radical, though only one or two correspondents have gone so far as to call for the demolition of this 'Regency theme park'.

The debate goes to the heart of concerns over the future of British art, architecture and culture. We appear to live in an age of cultural opposites that refuse to lie down with one another: conservation at all costs vs progress. And there are many who confuse conserving the past down to its last detail with social elan.

Turning his nose up at the suggestion that the fire-damaged rooms be restyled in contemporary taste, the Court correspondent of the Financial Times said this week that 'the challenge will be to find craftsmen to recreate that sense of Gothic chivalry and romance that is so important a part of the Windsor style'. Did he mean Windsor Castle style? No, he meant Windsor as in the family.

No matter how you view the antics of the Royal Family and their camp-followers, Windsor Castle is an important group of buildings; it is gloriously picturesque and an almost incomparable example of Regency sentimentality and whimsy. It also, of course, houses a magnificent perpendicular Gothic chapel, rivalled only by King's College chapel, Cambridge.

The fact remains that the fabric of Windsor Castle has changed many times, while history appears to offer little precedent to those who argue for the exact recreation of its pre-fire fabric. Until late in the 19th century, self-confidence among patrons and their architects meant that when old buildings were damaged or destroyed they were remodelled or replaced in contemporary styles. Medieval bishops were shameless in their destruction of their predecessors' work, sure that they could do better.

In the 18th century, there was much new building work sympathetic to earlier designs (as the new buildings that followed in the work of Wren, Hawksmoor and others at Greenwich shows), but, on the whole, Georgians believed in progress. Yes, they rooted their designs in historical precedent, but as Vanbrugh, among others of our greatest architects, explained, history was there to learn from, not to copy: otherwise we would never have had such magnificently wilful Classical buildings as Vanbrugh's Castle Howard or Blenheim Palace, the most powerfully romantic and picturesque of English stately homes.

Perhaps we no longer share that belief in progress, or, if we do, we believe in a technologically driven notion of progress that appears to eschew history and precedent. And this is exactly why so many forms of Modern architecture have fallen foul of popular opinion. The radical architecture of previous centuries - imagine how challenging such buildings as Salisbury Cathedral or Henry VII's chapel at Westminster or Holkham Hall in Norfolk must have seemed when they were first built - still made connections with earlier work, in terms of materials, finishes and stylistic details.

But what do you think? Last week, we asked for suggestions of how the Queen and her architects should rebuild St George's Hall, the Regency banqueting hall designed by Sir Jeffry Wyattville in the 1820s and badly damaged in the fire. Stephen Calloway, writer, decorator and illustrator, offers three parodies of the most pronounced contemporary styles: hi-tech, Post-Modern and Period.

In his hi-tech St George's Hall, Cybermen from Dr Who replace suits of armour, while Dr Who's robot dog, K9, replaces the Queen's corgis; ducts, tubes, pipes and cables proliferate in useless abundance. The hi-tech approach to architecture - an essentially British phenomenon - reaches its exuberant zenith in the buildings of Sir Richard Rogers, the most extreme and best known being his Pompidou Centre in Paris (with Renzo Piano) and the Lloyd's Building in the City of London.

Mr Calloway's view of Post-Modern design is equally damning; proportion and decorative subtlety goes to the wall in the hands of Post-Modernists who believe themselves to be making witty commentaries of past architectural styles, while producing grotesque work best kept for theme parks or shopping malls. While on one level Windsor Castle is a theme park, and although Regency styles themselves verged on kitsch, St George's Hall surely deserves a kinder fate.

Period is how Mr Calloway really thinks St George's Hall should be: a cosy, solidly bourgeois drawing room that can double up as a dining room for a couple of hundred guests and the odd Polish president as and when necessary. This is a vision of chintzy cheeriness, fuelled not by sophisticated hi-tech servicing, but by a three-bar electric fire.

Of course, Mr Calloway is teasing. Other suggestions have ranged from the melodramatic to the matter-of-fact. Timothy Alves, a London printmaker, has redrawn St George's Hall in a sublime Hammer House of Horror Gothic. There is precedent for this kind of design on a large scale in Britain, for example, at Fonthill Abbey, Wiltshire, built by James Wyatt for William Beckford, the Gothick novelist (it soon collapsed). George IV's Brighton Pavilion is another example. Mr Alves has captured something of this Regency taste for what George IV would have called the 'Sublime'.

Mr Alves says his intention has been to recreate the effect of the ceiling of the Palazzo Ducale in Urbino. He feels this is appropriate, not least because Federico da Montefeltro, who created the great Italian palace, was a member of the Order of the Garter, which is based at Windsor Castle.

Other suggestions have been more down-to- earth, although at least two - David Croghan, a professional architect, and Catherine Moody, the author of the guidebook Silhouette of Malvern - would like to see a ceiling with fan vaulting. Miss Moody takes precedent from Pugin's work at Eastnor Castle, Hereford and Worcester. Dr Croghan's scheme is designed to be 'festive' - and fire-proof.

Your suggestions indicate that people are beginning to question the century-old obsession of 'heritage' with everything. While we should make every effort to preserve the architecture of the past, we might take a leaf out of our ancestors' book and begin to think more confidently about the future. Any more ideas?

Photograph of St George's Hall courtesy of Her Majesty The Queen

(Photographs omitted)

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