Greenwich means madness

Click to follow
The Independent Online
The idea of flogging the Royal Naval College, Greenwich, to the private sector - a decision announced by the Department of National Heritage last week - must be one of the most hare-brained and piratical yet in the history of the Conservative governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major. Selling the family silver is one thing; trying to get shot of the house is quite another.

The college, due to be put up for auction next year (brochures from Knight, Frank & Rutley), is without question one of the finest groups of buildings not just in London or England, in Britain or Europe, but in the world. If you cannot thrill to its brave marriage of opulence and austerity, of Baroque drama and Classical rectitude, if you are not moved by its unrivalled and oh-so-English setting between water - the River Thames - and greenery - Greenwich Park - then there is little hope for the long-term future of either these buildings or, indeed, architecture in this country.

Allow Greenwich to fall into the wrong hands and we might as well have done with it: pull it down and build a Sainsbury or Tesco there instead. That would certainly be more profitable, and probably more popular, than this concatenation of supremely intelligent and beautiful architecture.

It is hard to think of another country in which such an important cultural complex could come up for sale as if it were just another sad and forgotten old building on its way to insensitive redevelopment or demolition. The estate agent's brochure describes the buildings - meeting rooms, bedrooms, reception rooms - as if it were just a large semi-detached house. Bidders in the auction, which is due to be completed by the middle of next year, will not have to comply with any conditions about what they plan to use the site for, although the agents say that schemes with an educational purpose may be favoured.

Of course no one is proposing to rid us of the Royal Naval College, but the fact that it is to be put up for auction suggests that the Government has no idea what to do with it. Can you imagine St Paul's coming under the hammer at Phillips or Christies? Can you see the Vatican State peddling St Peter's ("ace Catholic museum-leisure complex for sale with quite a nice basilica attached"), or Madrid putting an advertisement in Country Life offering the Escorial for sale as an ideal holiday home ("suit large family of ascetics, flagellants, religious fanatics, etc")? Would the City of Paris ever be so desperate as to seek a buyer for the Hotel des Invalides?

The college was built as the Royal Naval Hospital by William and Mary as a counterpart to Charles II's Royal Hospital, Chelsea (home of the Chelsea Pensioners and designed by Sir Christopher Wren). The naval hospital was founded to rival Louis XIV's Hotel des Invalides.

The great hospital took more than 100 years to build, representing a century of inspired court patronage at a time when royal taste was progressive and dynamic. Raised on the site of the old royal palace on the riverfront at Greenwich, it was intended not just to serve a benevolent function - to house retired British seamen - but to represent both the majesty and forward-looking nature of the post-Great Revolution (1688) monarchy.

So for William and Mary only the very latest architecture would do. They employed the greatest architects this country has produced - Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor chief among them - and pursued a grand plan of dramatic, new design that Inigo Jones had begun at Greenwich in 1619. Jones had been commissioned to design a new house for Queen Anne of Denmark. He ended up building the Queen's House, right at the heart of the complex, the first Classical house to be built in Britain.

Greenwich was no place for dusty nostalgia or "heritage-style" design. It was, on the contrary, a supreme statement of Britain's radical modernisation in the second half of the 17th century.

Rivalry with France is evident throughout the complex. In the oval panel in the centre of the great painted ceiling of the hospital's dining hall (by Sir James Thornhill, 1708-12), you can clearly see the foppish figure of Louis XIV, representing Arbitrary Power, crushed beneath the feet of William.

The most famous view of the Royal Naval College is from Island Gardens at the tail end of the Isle of Dogs. Here one gawps across the wide, tidal Thames to the great Portland stone wings, facades, towers, domes and colonnades of John Webb, Wren and Hawksmoor, before the eye is led on to the Queen's House and up the steep park, laid out by Le Notre, Louis XIV's gardener, to the Royal Observatory (also by Wren).

From the observatory you look one way back down across Wren's magnificent composition over the Thames to central London, and the other way across Blackheath, where the citizens of London came, via Greenwich, to greet Henry V on his victorious return from Agincourt.

At this riverside location British history, heritage, art, landscaping, science and architecture come together as nowhere else. Greenwich combines our professed love of gardening, parks, boats and classical architecture. It squeezes centuries of essential history into beautifully arranged piles of Portland stone.

Yet it is clear that these buildings, no matter how inspired, need a purpose to make any sense and to survive. The first naval pensioners arrived here in 1705 and the last left in 1869 (by which time there were nearly 3,000 of them) when the hospital closed. There was a hiatus of four years before the Royal Naval College moved from Portsmouth to occupy the Greenwich site. Recent cuts in military budgets have prompted the college to seek cheaper premises well away from water in Camberley, Surrey.

The buildings will need a rich benefactor. The college has been renting the buildings from the hospital (which still runs a school as well as retirement homes) for pounds 400,000 a year and paying a further pounds 1m a year for essential maintenance. As the Department of National Heritage chips in a further pounds 2m, it is clear that Greenwich needs a wealthy as well as a civilised patron. And that patron will need a long-term plan for the future.

For all its importance and Baroque beauty, the Royal Naval Hospital is surprisingly bereft of visitors. This is because of its location, at once glorious and relatively inaccessible. Getting to Greenwich from central London is theoretically easy by train or boat, but neither the trains (erratic) nor the boats (private enterprise at its most pinch-pennyingly archaic) offer a first-class service. Local roads are notoriously congested and Greenwich, to its detriment, is trapped east and west by poor and ugly districts. No private developer or hotel chain is likely to stump up the cash to improve public transport.

Having got to Greenwich, the last thing future visitors will need is another museum or theme park: the hospital must be immune from becoming just another routine part of Britain's interminable heritage trail. The idea of it becoming part of the new University of Greenwich makes happier sense, but the university would need major endowments to ensure that it could maintain such grand buildings and keep them open to the public. And could any university, given the rough and tumble of academic life, ensure that the buildings would stay shipshape?

One option would be for the United Nations to step in to protect a site of world importance. Greenwich is far more than the sum of its parts, great though these are. If the British Government proves as incapable of looking after it as it has been of Bart's Hospital, London Transport or our national railways, the hospital should be handed over to the care of an international body. Unesco is the UN body charged with nominating, protecting and financing the restoration of "World Heritage Sites". Normally these are in the Third World, but clearly the Government needs aid and some help in understanding Greenwich's importance.

However it might be best if the building were given over to a new national foundation that linked art and science, a centre of forward-looking national excellence, funded by all of us through the state. It needed all the munificence of the post-Revolution monarchy to create Greenwich in the first place. The Royal Naval Hospital is a national asset. It needs a new purpose and together we can find it one. It must not be sold off as if were just some other redundant hospital coming up for sale. It is time for British governments to polish and use the family silver. Or, in this case, pure gold.

This article is the first in a series designed to provoke debate about the future of the Royal Naval College. Further articles, from leading architects and developers, will appear on the Architecture Page from next Monday. If you wish to join in the debate, write to Jonathan Glancey, Independent, One Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL.