The Greenwich debate

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The Independent Culture
Thank you for your torrent of letters about the Greenwich issue. Only one reader, to date, has expressed surprise that anyone should care for a pile of old buildings in, ugh, London; an unsigned postcard from an unreconstructed Northumbrian Viking suggested that only Londoners cared about Greenwich and that the Wren and Hawksmoor wings of the Royal Naval College should be turned into "sweetshops".

Whether this was a case of reading Viz for too long or the opening shots in the secessionist war of Northumbria, it is impossible to say. The anonymous writer was, however, the only reader to adopt a dedicated provincial attitude towards one of the greatest architectural moments to be found anywhere in the world. Northumbrian readers, rest assured: if Seaton Delaval or Cragside or any other great monument comes in for the same treatment, we promise to take up your cause.

Since last week, Knight, Frank and Rutley, the estate agent charged with handling the Greenwich sale, says it hasreceived hundreds, and possibly more than 1,000, inquiries from potential buyers. Meanwhile, both the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats have said that the sale is wrong, or being wrongly handled.

One reader from south-east London, a former RN rating who fought throughout the Second World War, sent me a badge bearing the legend, "If the Tories had a soul, they'd sell it". Most of you complained about the Government's increasing reliance on blind market forces to deal with public enterprise and, as in the case of Greenwich, with our national heritage.

Yet recognising that the Royal Naval College is indeed sailing, by road, to Camberley in leafy Surrey, a new use does have to found for Greenwich. A key part of the problem is that the Royal Naval College is not a simple building to use at will. For a start, it is several buildings, of which most are blocks with very many rooms and unsuitable, save with butchery, for use as contemporary art galleries as some of you suggested.

But because the interiors - except for the chapel and famous Painted Hall - are essentially secret, a pushy new tenant with a little help in high places, could presumably make big changes to the interiors of the unvisited Wren, Webb and Hawksmoor blocks without too much, if any, fuss being raised. The sales brochure issued by Knight, Frank and Rutley, although listing the number of rooms, did not show floor plans. No potential tenant can make any sense of Greenwich without detailed floor plans. And these will prove a daunting prospect.

Perhaps the most sophisticated response to date came from the University of Greenwich, which sent us an eight-page document outlining its proposals. The University of Greenwich is a former polytechnic, founded by Quentin Hogg at Woolwich in 1890. It began teaching at degree level before the First World War and now has more than 17,500 students and more than 20 buildings, many Grade 1 and Grade 11* listed, located as far afield as Roehampton in Surrey and Chatham in Kent. A tightly run ship, nevertheless, the institution last made a financial loss in 1893 - despite having precious few endowments and benefactors.

If the university were to gain Greenwich, says John McWilliam, deputy vice-chancellor and author of the university's bid, it would be able to sell many of the existing properties. The subsequent profit and saving would cover the cost of renting and maintaining the historic riverfront buildings. The university would do everything it could to open up the Naval College to the public; its architects have suggested that it would be feasible for visitors, arriving at Greenwich, to enter the great courtyards of the college direct from the Thames.

University use would also solve the problem of what to do with the hundreds of cadets' "cabins" that fill some of the interiors and which, while adequate for students' bedrooms, might otherwise be swept away.

Mr McWilliam says that a developing "Centre for Heritage Management" is likely to be relocated at Greenwich university and that, therefore, it is in the university's best interest to prove that it can be a showcase for how to make new uses for old buildings we wish to keep for the future.

Mr McWilliam acknowledges that "our occupation of the Royal Naval College will have some impact on the buildings. With the departure of the Navy, Crown immunity from the impact of building regulations and health and safety also goes. While it was fine for sailors to slide down ropes through trap-doors to escape a fire, our students will have to exit by more prosaic means ... essentially, we will need to insert one or two staircases and protect several others, insert a small number of internal doorways and replace existing lifts. A bonus we can offer will be the removal of much of the modern partitioning to re-create the original spaces."

Mr McWilliam also says that Jason is on his way out. Jason? Jason is the small but perfectly powerful nuclear generator that hums in the heart of Greenwich.

The university's bid is shared with the National Maritime Museum, which would make intelligent use of spaces unsuited to university life. "The university's foundation last century," says Mr McWilliam, "was a direct consequence of the growth of the munitions industry at Woolwich Arsenal. In a sense we are a product of this country's military might and therefore apart of the social history of war. Peace has, in the end, led to the closure of the Royal Arsenal; and as the arsenal declined so the university thrived. We have long outgrown our space at Woolwich and, as peace and economics dissolve former enmities, what could be more fitting for the naval use of Greenwich to be replaced for peaceful purposes by the university that once trained men and women who made the munitions of war?"

A convincing case? Certainly the most sensitive and carefully considered of those that have come to public light. The London School of Economics failed to win its bid for County Hall, the grand Edwardian home of the former London County Council and Greater London Council. County Hall would have made a natural university college; instead, sold to a Japanese entrepreneur, it is intended to become another hotel. Where the LSE failed, might the University of Greenwich succeed?

Then again, might Greenwich be better served by a world-class institution - a world academy of music or architecture or philosophy - than a university college with such local roots?