Pile 'em high, flog 'em cheap? Not this time, Westminster

Millennium funds could be used to rescue the Royal Naval College from the Government's car-boot sale, says Jonathan Glancey
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Tonight, a gathering of the rich, powerful, political and influential will sit down to dine in the baroque splendour of Sir Christopher Wren's Royal Naval College. Over a cornucopia of food and wine, these favoured diners will consider the future of Greenwich, not only that of the Royal Naval College, but that, too, of the Millennium Festival - the highlight of the British celebrations in the year 2000 - which could well take place in Greenwich.

The debate over the future of the Royal Naval College has become an important one. This is not simply because this magnificent group of buildings ranks among the greatest of the Renaissance world, nor because a part of the military establishment is furious that Greenwich should be abandoned. What has clearly upset people is the extraordinary attitude of the Government, wilfully unaware that in trying to sell the Royal Naval College as if it were any piece of lucrative real estate, it has committed an act of poor taste and even poorer understanding of the way the British public think. For although we are a remarkably laissez-faire nation in many ways, and will tolerate all sort of promiscuous behaviour by governments wanting to divide up and flog off what remains of our public realm, there are yet limits to our tolerance.

We watch in dismay as we see the effects of the deregulation of our buses, the threatened privatisation of our railways and, now, the tacky way in which our architectural, historical and cultural heritage is being proffered for sale for what could well be a mess of potage at Westminster's equivalent of a car-boot sale.

The future of the Royal Naval College is an issue of national (indeed, international) importance. Of course, there are some people (including readers of this newspaper), who say they do not care a hoot for what happens to these buildings, because they are (a) in the south of England and (b) in London. This is sad, not least because we would be concerned if Edinburgh Castle were to be flogged off unceremoniously, if Seaton Deleval were turned into a Quick-Fit exhaust centre or Cardiff Castle were threatened by a new inner-city ring road.

Greenwich is of international standing and because it is the strongest contender as the site for the Millennium Festival, we would do well to think about it generously and intelligently. It might be in London, but Greenwich is a place for everyone and, with an imaginative programme for its future, a place where people will want to come from all over the world. With a little imagination, it can be developed into an important centre for the promotion and celebration of the best of British as well as a centre for thinking about our global future. Greenwich, after all, is where international time is measured from, a metaphysical starting point for every journey made east, west, north and south from it.

To make the best of Greenwich and to save it from those who would sell everything we hold dear for short-term gain, we need to dream up a plan for it. The time is right because the Government's asinine stance over the future of the Royal Naval College means that urgent action is needed and because the promise of the Millennium Festival means that there will be considerable funds available to make best use of Greenwich.

Those dining at Greenwich tonight might like to consider this. Use Millennium Fund money to keep the Royal Naval College in public hands. Link the Royal Naval College to the proposed Millennium Festival site at north Greenwich. If this was done, the great festival in the year 2000 could make full and memorable use of both sites. The historic site comprises the great works of Wren and Hawksmoor and is awash with history; the festival site is a wasteland belonging to British Gas.

What could happen is this. The great festival could be divided into two parts. The Royal Naval College would be used in some form to tell the history of Britain over the past 1,000 or 2,000 years, while the gasworks site to its north would be concerned wholly with the future. The great buildings of Wren and Hawksmoor would rightly frame the greatest exhibition of British history ever attempted, while the gasworks would be levelled and built over with the most imaginative structures our age can imagine and achieve. When Greenwich was commissioned, the Court wanted the very latest and the very finest art, architecture and craftsmanship money could buy. And it got it.

Between now and 2000, we could commission the finest art, architecture and design of our times as a launch-pad for our collective future. Here is the one chance we have to throw aside our prejudices and to look to the future as unashamedly as the Court and its chosen architects did in the latter half of the 17th century. This is no time and no place for looking back over our shoulders, no place for waffle about heritage, theme parks and how everything was better in the good old days, the rich man at his castle, the poor man at his gate, when Britain ruled the waves and everyone (who was anyone except the common people) lived in an agreeable Georgian house.

The key thing, having made the decision that the Royal Naval College and the gasworks site are to be the two poles of the Millennium Festival, is to link the two. This can be done with a tramway, a tunnel, some brand new form of "people mover", by boat (of course) and in symbolic ways too - beacons of light, lasers, an avenue of trees, flags. What matters is that past and future, Royal Naval College and gasworks, great architectural settings of the past and future, are linked. Such a link would celebrate a commitment to both past and future.

Such a move would also be a spur to reviving the River Thames from Teddington to the old Royal Docks, to building uninterrupted walkways along both banks of the river as it twists and turns through the capital, and to instigating a modern and sustainable river bus service between Richmond and Docklands.

Such a proposal would raise the Royal Naval College above the squabbling uncertainties of a future in the hands of narrow-minded or parochial enterprise. It deserves better than that. But the opportunity must be seized quickly, if the Government is not to push ahead with its "pile 'em high, flog 'em cheap" sale of our national assets.

Perhaps the Millennium Commission itself needs to be reconstituted, before it is too late, into a more proactive body that will get a grip on important sites like Greenwich, demand the very best plans for its future and channel money into what is of lasting value. If the Millennium Festival itself is left to the vagaries of private enterprise, what we will end up with is a last-minute dash to build a profitable theme park on the cheap that will offer roller-coaster rides through tableaux of Olde Worlde England, land of Heritage homes and village-barn superstores. That would be a disaster on the scale of Dunkirk.

Greenwich is the point where time future meets time past, and where in time present we must act swiftly to create something we can all delight and share in.

Comments