Mortal mortar

The pyramids have lasted thousands of years while the Pompidou Centre is up for a refit after only 25. But so what? It's time we rethought our attitude to our favourite monuments, says
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The Independent Culture
How long should a building last? Several thousand years in the case of the pyramids at Giza; less than 25 years in the case of a contemporary arts centre. Let's ask the question another way: why should anyone expect a building to last several thousands years, and is there anything wrong in investing time, money, skill and effort in buildings that might only last a few years?

These questions come to mind this week because the Pompidou Centre is back in the news. This radical building, wearing its insides on the outside, and jam-packed for the past 20 years - so much so, that the doors have often had to be closed so as to allow free and safe movement of people inside - is to close for a pounds 50m restoration and will not be open again until the millennium.

Not only is pounds 50m a considerable sum of money, but it also seems a lot to spend on a public building that, measured against the life of the pyramids, is barely embryonic. The difference between ancient tomb and modern art gallery, though, is that the former serves no practical purpose, while the latter is not simply one of the most popular tourist attractions in Europe, but a building that has worked exceptionally hard during its short life.

Designed to cope with a projected 300,000 visitors a year the Pompidou Centre is, in fact, host to three million and more. The Great Pyramid of Cheops is a sublime creation, but it is an empty husk, robbed of both the god-on-earth it was built for and the smooth limestone, polished to a mirror finish, that once clad the stonework we are so fond of climbing (having passed a little baksheesh to the guards).

When we look at ancient monuments like the Great Pyramid, we are tempted to say "they knew how to build then", meaning that we have lost the art of building today. We do the same standing in front of York Minster or under the dome of Wren's St Paul's Cathedral.

In fact there are good reasons why architects, engineers and contractors choose not to build like medieval masons. We have trained ourselves to build quickly to satisfy instant needs: a fully fitted steel-framed office block, well built and handsomely detailed, can be rushed up today within a year; we have come to expect nothing less.

Not only do we build quickly, and increasingly efficiently, but we build a great deal and relatively cheaply - relative to the pyramids and St Paul's. Our national construction budget is now only a tiny fraction of our gross national product, and is spread across an enormous range and number of buildings. In Cheops's time there were no superstores, DIY centres, shopping malls, no drive-thru burger restaurants, multiplex cinemas, precious little in the way of schools and hospitals and not even a hint of a railway station, airport terminal or motorway service area. Not only were there many fewer buildings, but ancient society was autocratic so that megalomaniacal building projects such as the pyramids were for several centuries the norm rather than the exception.

When York Minster was built, church building accounted for an extraordinary amount of national expenditure. The magnificent parish churches of, say, Norfolk and Suffolk, were far from cheap to build; in some years they accounted for up to half the revenue of a village or small town. It shows.

Even then, York Minster and St Paul's are not the dream buildings we would like them to be. As ruins they would be beautiful and cheap to own; as working churches they are beautiful and enormously expensive to maintain. The fabric of St Paul's costs about a pounds 1m a year to keep shipshape and is by far the single largest item of expenditure in the dean's budget. The cost is a permanent worry as is the state of the fabric. This is not, of course, for want of skill and goodwill. Earlier this year Martin Stancliffe, the courteous and knowledgeable Surveyor to the Fabrick of St Paul's, took a small group of friends and colleagues on an evening tour of the far recesses of Wren's great cathedral. This was an astonishing journey, across vast roofs, each needing constant supervision, beneath audacious vaults and through interstices between inner and outer walls, stopping to check for widening cracks and inspecting the great iron chain that keeps the base of the dome from breaking its bonds.

The tour was not only exhilarating, it showed how if one was going to build a cathedral today, one would not dream of doing it the way Sir Christopher Wren did. The cathedral's construction is a bit like that of old Jaguar cars: those lovely shapes concealing water-traps on a scale that makes the Fens seem as dry as the Egyptian desert. To restore and maintain an old Jag requires a disproportionate amount of time, skill and money when compared with running a swish new Nissan; equally, St Paul's might be an inspirational building, but it requires money and sheer bloody-mindedness to keep it in good shape. The sum of the building's parts adds up to a glorious cathedral, and yet those parts are as complex as they are promiscuous, as expensive to repair as they were to construct.

The National Trust is also able to tell a long and detailed story of how much it costs us to maintain the stately homes of England: how beautiful they stand, but at what price?

It may be that we prolonged the lives of far too many buildings beyond their conserve-by date. There is a case for the 20-year building. After all, the Japanese have no problem in demolishing temples and rebuilding them when they wear out; during the property boom of the late 1980s Tokyo developers were demolishing new buildings even before they were completed. This might be taking the notion of fast-track building beyond the extreme, and suggests that the only value a building has is financial, when we know that this is certainly not the case with the Great Pyramid of Cheops, York Minster, St Paul's Cathedral and the Pompidou Centre.

The Pompidou Centre is, whether by design or accident, a short-life building, and no better and no worse for that. All sorts of arguments can be construed as to why it has got into such a poor state in such a short time, but in this case, the architects (Piano plus Rogers) should be blamed. When they won the Pompidou design competition in 1969 it was generally agreed that the building was a brilliant shot in the dark. It was not just a revolutionary multi-purpose arts centre, but the means by which French architects woke up and began designing creatively once more after the years of deep sleep that followed the death of their hero Le Corbusier in 1965.

The Pompidou deserves to be rebuilt and improved from top to toe. It is hugely popular. It has a purpose. And yet, perhaps it is romance rather than common sense that encourages some of us to want it for the future. It is painful nostalgia that makes us in Britain spend so much in shoring up and rebuilding little jerry-built Victorian terraced houses (the natural habitat of the urban middle classes); these horrid little boxes were built for a short life and a quick buck and deserve to meet the demolisher's bulldozer. In their place we could have modern homes of gentle beauty that will be practical and cheap to run.

There will always be buildings that we are willing to spend lavishly on because we find them inspiring and beautiful and could not imagine life without them. Equally, we are susceptible to nostalgia. However, we need to learn to balance our willingness to spend money on restoring one type of short-life building - such as a spec-built Victorian shoebox - with our mean-spirited attitude towards innovative, if provocative, structures such as the Pompidou Centre. The Pompidou Centre really is the contemporary equivalent, whether we like it or not, of the great monuments of the past. Just as we ought to examine a little more closely our attitudes towards the life span of historic buildings, so we ought to stop worrying and learn to love a much used and abused monument of our own n

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