Curiouser & curiouser

These new spaces provide a deliverance from the pains of modern living. They stimulate the mind. They make you feel it's exhilarating to be alive. So why do I feel like a tourist in my old haunt? The new great court at the British Museum
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Even a misanthropist loves a public space. It's while he's out on the streets of St Petersburg, planning his crime, that the morose hero of Crime and Punishment is suddenly seized with the greed to live - better a single rock in the ocean, better some elevation barely wide enough to hold your feet, than death. Space is life. And the grander the space, the grander our instinct for life. The cathedral builders understood this: death may have figured in their iconography but the overwhelmed senses of the worshippers revelled in the commodiousness of the life hereafter. The great piazzas and concourses of the world do for the body what the cathedrals did for the spirit. They aggrandize our needs. The Piazza San Marco in Venice recreates the amenities of the drawing room on a vast scale, making a mighty indoors of the outdoors, in the process assuring us that to be material is to be noble.

Even a misanthropist loves a public space. It's while he's out on the streets of St Petersburg, planning his crime, that the morose hero of Crime and Punishment is suddenly seized with the greed to live - better a single rock in the ocean, better some elevation barely wide enough to hold your feet, than death. Space is life. And the grander the space, the grander our instinct for life. The cathedral builders understood this: death may have figured in their iconography but the overwhelmed senses of the worshippers revelled in the commodiousness of the life hereafter. The great piazzas and concourses of the world do for the body what the cathedrals did for the spirit. They aggrandize our needs. The Piazza San Marco in Venice recreates the amenities of the drawing room on a vast scale, making a mighty indoors of the outdoors, in the process assuring us that to be material is to be noble.

If you like such equivocations between inside and outside, the new Queen Elizabeth II Great Court in the British Museum, which opens to the public next week, is the place for you. In this instance it's the outside that's brought into the inside, but there's the same bewildered marvelling at scale, the same rather thrilling sensation of transgression, precisely on account of the mixing up of our spatial expectations. Are we in the street, an arcade, a trompe-l'oeil installation, an ancient Roman spaceship? The only thing we know for sure is that we're on holiday, gaping like tourists and itching to spend money, and that's something that both pleases me and doesn't.

What the architect, Lord Foster, has done, is rediscover the inner courtyard of the British Museum, built to be open to the skies but covered over some 150 years ago to house the great domed Reading Room and its ancillary chambers. Having re-opened and remodelled it, Foster has had the foresight to enclose it again in anticipation of all the rain. A magnificent honeycombed roof of steel and glass, making you feel you're inside a giant golf ball, gives you the best of both worlds, shelter and expansiveness - a protected agora, a cocooned forum, with marble underfoot, postmodern street signs, heads from the Easter Island and lions from Greece, and the dimpled sky above seen as though through prisms. If you sense you're in some never-never past here, you also sense you're in some not-so-never future: this is how we'll huddle when the planet either freezes up or boils over, depending on how the fancy takes it.

Purists have complained that the new south portico through which you enter the Great Court scarcely measures up to the existing ones, not least because it isn't made of the same Portland Stone, lacks elegance of line, and has come up a nasty piggy never-to-be-weathered pink. But that's postmodernism, folks. You can't ape classicism aping classicism without getting it wrong.

The far more important question for sentimentalists who once studied here - and I am one - was always going to be how Foster handled the Reading Room. Externally he has sleeved it in stone, so that it sits in the middle of the courtyard like some giant lift shaft, lightened by a pair of wonderful promenading staircases which take you up and around, it would seem into the roof, but in fact into a restaurant from where, if I understand it correctly, you will be able to look down on the desks where Karl Marx wrote Das Kapital and I worked on something lesser. Because yes, inside the Reading Room, everyone be praised, things look much as they were, the same old blue leather desks arranged like spokes in a wheel, the wonderfully cumbersome catalogues which you needed to be an Olympic weightlifter to pull out, and which were like a private person's scrapbooks, smelling of glue and industry, and the echoing dome itself, sensitive to every cough and shuffle. And all these now available - hold on to your hats - to everybody! No one has been able to tell me quite what everybody will be able to do here, now that the old library has moved out, but several thousand books belonging to Paul Hamlyn are on the shelves, and there's something in the literature about a multi-media resource centre, which might mean you can collect your e-mails. Accessibility is the buzzword, anyway, and accessibility is what you'll have, never mind accessibility to what.

I have mixed feelings about this. It used to be one of the unsurpassable joys of life for people working in the library to look up from their labours and show their profiles to parties of spectators allowed so far into the Reading Room and no further. Gaze upon us, ye unlettered masses, and marvel! Now don't you wish you'd studied for more O-levels? Amid all the talk of opening up the country's institutions to the people, the feelings of those of us who once enjoyed privilege have been forgotten. Like the nobility of White Russia we will be dispersed across Europe, waiting in restaurants and servicing public lavatories - we who once frequented the great domed Reading Room that was the British Library.

On the other hand I recall that it was a crumbling facility, much like White Russia, in its final years. So I can't say that I mind too much that they have knocked down the room where you took a book to be photocopied, knowing in your heart that you had no chance, that the person behind the desk would tell you that the book was too old or too new, was too big or too small, had too much or too little spine, or just couldn't be done for a reason she was not prepared to divulge. Nor do I mind that the oversized and filthy volume-perusal facility is no more. Here, before they would issue me with the Marquis de Sade's The One Hundred and Twenty Days of Sodom, I had to swear an affidavit promising, on pain of losing my right to enter another library anywhere on mainland Britain, that I would not pass on a word of what I'd read to a living soul, even though the paperback was readily available for under a fiver at Books Etc.

Good, too, that they have also knocked down the room where you went to collect the books you'd ordered upwards of 18 months before, only to be told that they were lost somewhere in Woolwich, that you had spelt the title wrong, that you had ordered too many, or that they were delivering nothing that day because they were on strike. Some social fermentation, of a trades union or a post-colonial sort, was forever disrupting services in Advanced Collection. Most mornings I fought with them, insanely illogical screaming matches which ruined me for any further work but brought cheers from foreign scholars who were less attuned to the consequences of living in a post-Imperialist power than I was, and who had been holding out for their research materials longer than the supplicants in Bleak House had been waiting for a judgement.

If I tell you I was arrested in the British Library once, because of what was taken to be an expression of sarcasm on my face, you will probably not believe me. But in all truth I was subjected to a species of citizen's arrest by a security man who believed my attitude merited a custodial sentence. "How do I know," he said, when I showed him my reader's card, "that this isn't a forgery?" I tore my hair. "I'm living in a Kafka novel," I cried. "That's it," he said, "you're apprehended."

So good riddance to it all. Let everyone come and sit where the élite once subjected themselves to indignity, let them promenade the Great Court, open until nine in the evening Monday to Wednesday, and until 11 Thursday to Saturday - positively a night-life attraction now, another Tate Modern where you mix culture with indulgence, buy your postcards and your reproductions of the Tomb of Tutankhamun, drink wine of any colour except red (no staining the marble stones of the agora) and stuff yourself with moist carrot cake. I intend no sarcasm, whatever the security men may think. From the pains of modern living, these new gallery and museum spaces offer a deliverance I welcome. They stimulate the mind, they reconcile you to your species, they make you feel it's exhilarating and graceful to be alive.

It's hard not to wonder, though, as one gives oneself up to the new architectural gigantism, whether the housing isn't upstaging what it's meant to house. And whether, even if we can tear ourselves away from the merchandising replicas long enough to look at the originals, we haven't been subtly persuaded to change the way we see. These are undoubtedly great cathedrals to the freeing of men's minds, monuments to our liberation from the tyrannies of ignorance and faith. But one of the ways we employed that freedom in the past was to yield to the intimacy of art; not to be forever gaping after magnificence, but to let quietness work on us. What hope for intellectual quietude in this new climate of secular awe?

And the further question, inevitable when we confront secular worship - who and whose are these gods to whom we now bend the knee. Tennyson's words, "And let thy feet millenniums hence be set in the midst of knowledge" were being inscribed into the marble floor of the Great Court the day I was there. Are these spaces conducive to anything as grand as knowledge? Curiosity yes, and curiosity is certainly part of the process, but a sort of on-the-hoof curiosity, a bit of this, a bit of that, and a sandwich. Something of the spirit of heritage hangs over it all, a passing nod in the midst of plenty to an idea of culture that is growing increasingly remote, almost as though we have become tourists of everything, even tourists of what's ours. This is not to be disparaged - better a little than nothing - but it doesn't raise one's hopes anything like as high as Norman Foster's roof.

The Queen Elizabeth II Great Court at the British Museum, London WC1, opens to the public on 7 Dec. For information, call 020-7323 8000

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