The saving of Greenwich and other victories you won

Ten years in the Arts
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The Independent Culture
The Independent began its coverage of architecture in 1989. It had published news items and arts page features on the subject in the previous three years, but a dedicated weekly broadsheet page devoted to the mistress art was a small revolution in the way the paper, and Fleet Street, began to tackle a subject that it had often treated derisively, as if somehow the buildings we lived and worked in, and the streets and towns in which these buildings stood, were somehow unimportant.

Only this week (Letters, 8 October), Terence Edgar of Wallasey, despairing of his neighbour's "systematic ruination of a fine Arts and Crafts house", was quoting Sir Edwin Lutyens (1869-1944; one of our greatest architects), who said, in a despairing moment, "The public doesn't really care a dog's leg about architecture."

Perhaps. But you, the readers of The Independent, have cared. Not a week has gone by since our first weekly architecture page without at least 30 letters from you landing on my desk.

Your interest has been most marked when we have tried to arouse it in some of the major architectural controversies of our time. Your response to our campaign to save the Royal Naval College, Greenwich from falling into the hands of profit-hungry privateers in 1995 was extraordinary. Your support drew national attention and the media spotlight to the plight of Greenwich. Only one reader thought Greenwich was of local interest only, claiming that people in Newcastle-upon-Tyne couldn't care a can of Ace lager about a London building; everyone else knew, as if instinctively, that Greenwich (with buildings by Wren, Hawksmoor and Inigo Jones) is of international importance. The future of Greenwich is now more or less assured. But, as always with architecture, watch this space. And those buildings.

You also supported our condemnation of the ineffably silly plan to flank the north side of St Paul's Cathedral (Paternoster Square) with childish, yet gigantic, offices and shops clad in Eighties-style post-modern classical fancy dress. This was a scheme that, completed in time for the millennium, would have made Britain and the City of London a laughing stock. It would have demeaned St Paul's, and proved that a love of architectural history should not be confused with building for today. We approach the millennium without a single major modern building to be proud of.

Most of you are well aware of this and more readers than I ever expected championed Zaha Hadid and her radical designs for the proposed and now abandoned Cardiff Bay Opera House. The story surrounding the opera house competition was a sordid and disgraceful one that has done no favours to the cultural reputation of Cardiff nor to that of the Millennium Commission, which proved itself to be flabby-minded and unwilling to rock the boat. Even if you found Ms Hadid's design extremely challenging, you had the grace to support her. You seem able to live in old houses in country towns and to have faith in the future. That is very independent-minded of you and a promising sign that we are not yet a nation of mean-minded nostalgics who believe that everything new is necessarily bad. If we did believe that, then Britain would have no future.

Perhaps what we have learnt together over the past decade (all right, seven years) is that good architecture is part of a historical continuum. Yes, there have been sudden and dramatic revolutions in taste (perpendicular Gothic, baroque, Palladianism, Greek revival, Gothic revival, modernism), but we know now that to love or respect one style of building is not to decry others. In 1996, Independent readers are perfectly able to go church- crawling on weekends while admiring the work of Sir Norman Foster or Daniel Libeskind.

We have come to think more about our cities and how they can work more effectively for us while appearing more beautiful than they have been over the past 40 iconoclastic years. And, most significantly, architecture has become fashionable in the best sense. More school-leavers than ever, and notably young women, apply to study at architecture schools. Architecture has truly come down from Parnassus to the marketplace; no longer the jealously guarded subject of a professional elite that wrapped it in mystifying jargon, it belongs to all of us. Rarefied styles of 10 years ago, like the minimalism of John Pawson, have become the high-street style of today. Now that we are free to choose, however, we must choose the best - and with open minds and eagle eyes.

In 1992, you paid the whole cost of the restoration of St Martin's garrison church, New Delhi, a superb and innovative building designed by Arthur Gordon Shoosmith, Lutyens' assistant in India, and consecrated in 1931.

The Rev Raj Murch, incumbent of St Martin's, had invited me to inspect the crumbling roof (it had survived up to then through blistering heat and monsoon rains without maintenance). I climbed to the roof of the tower, up a tight spiral stair in the pitch black, crunching dead rats and pigeons underfoot while a squadron of soldier ants marched up my trouser leg, and then hauled myself up the last 80ft by rusty steel rungs set on the outside of the sheer brick wall, clambering over stunted trees sprouting from the walls when there were no rungs to hang on to. It was a vertiginous experience, but worth a pounding heart and ant bites. I was able to inspect the damage and take detailed photographs.

Back in England, I asked you to help save this masterpiece (a thriving Church of India church and school for hungry shanty-town children), and you responded generously. We did not have to go cap in hand to grand Millennium committees, nor prepare feasibility studies, nor even court the rich and famous to save St Martin's: we footed the bill because we cared deeply enough. Independent readers are remembered in the community's prayers today.

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