The beautiful and damned

People cross continents to see spectacular buildings - so why don't we build some in Britain? Because, says Jonathan Glancey, as the fuss over the V&A extension proves, we're frightened
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Every day a British Airways Concorde roars over my roof. I am meant to be appalled by this invasion of privacy. I am meant to berate those who designed, commissioned and who continue to allow this prognathous, supersonic, gas-guzzling, white-hot technological pterodactyl to rape the ozone layer in my outraged presence. I know all the arguments against this Mach 2 airliner. And yet reason is blinded by the beauty and daring of this magnificent flying machine.

I am glad that Concorde was built. In a skyscape crowded with reliable but Identikit Douglases and Boeings, Concorde stands out like Helen among the women of Troy. I felt much the same when a beaming porter threw open the shutters of my hotel room and the Great Pyramid of Cheops commanded every inch of the view. The same with the Eiffel Tower, the Empire State Building, the Hoover Dam, the Forth Railway Bridge, the new airport railway station at Lyon-Satolas, designed by Santiago Calatrave, Beauvais Cathedral, both Liverpool cathedrals, the airship hangars (built for the R100 and R101) at Cardington, Bedfordshire, and, as a tiny child, St Paul's Cathedral. I have never tired of any of these. I cannot take St Paul's for granted. What, for want of a better phrase, these stupendous designs have in common is the "wow!" factor.

Of course, there are more intelligent things to say about the pyramids at Giza, but "wow!" is what springs involuntarily from slack jaws. It is not simply the scale of these structures that impresses - there are as many big and boring buildings and bridges as there are big and ugly aircraft - but the drive and intelligence that reach out from them across time, in the case of Beauvais, and space, with Concorde.

To watch the controversy unfolding over the design for the Victoria & Albert Museum's startling new extension is one of those dreary occasions that have become as inevitable as a long wet May weekend. Far from being excited by a thrilling new building, the boring old arguments are trotted out dutifully by those for whom excitement, change and adventure are to be approved of in theory, yet spurned in practice. Go for what you know. Take as few risks as possible. Assume that what's new is not as good as what's gone before and that, anyway, it is likely go wrong.

This desire to keep the future in check is a phenomenon extending back little more than 25 years. The Victorians appeared to have had little problem in accommodating the "wow!" factor. Buoyed up with riches from the Empire and a confidence that matched them, the British expended Roman energy in building. The South Kensington museums themselves are examples of exuberant and imaginative design. Quite why anyone thinks the existing V&A a delicate flower that will be ravaged by architect Daniel Libeskind's intervention is beyond comprehension. It is not a Cistercian Abbey, it is not a subtly proportioned terrace of Georgian houses, it is, in effect, a gigantic Victorian carriage clock covered in icing sugar.

Nineteenth-century Britain produced wonders like the Clifton Suspension Bridge and the railway bridge across the Firth of Forth, Paxton's Crystal Palace and the Houses of Parliament by Barry and Pugin. It witnessed ambitious steamships, the advent and triumph of the railway and a host of extraordinary buildings and inventions. There were many spectacular failures, but the Victorians were staunch adherents to maxim "if at first you don't succeed, try, try and try again".

Our age, by contrast, has given us the brutally stark Birmingham International station, which is supposed to act as the gateway to the National Exhibition Centre; the National Gallery extension, a timid and vague pastiche of what was already there; the new Catholic cathedral in Clifton, Bristol, which resembles a giant concrete condiment set; and the British Library at St Pancras, which promises a wonderful interior but is dressed in the architectural equivalent of dowdy tweeds.

The Victorian determination to keep on attempting the seemingly impossible was evident in earlier ages. The great cathedral builders were willing to take enormous risks. As those who have read William Golding's The Spire will know, the second stage of the tower followed by the stone-clad spire that, together, soar 404-ft above the floor of Salisbury Cathedral, could well have caused the whole structure to collapse. Did the thought dismay our medieval predecessors? Probably, but they were still willing to take the risk. The tower and spire - the tallest in Britain - still stand and, astonishingly, after 675 years still has the power to make us draw breath: Salisbury Cathedral has the "wow!" factor.

To some extent this spirit endured up until the economic collapse of the early Seventies, but was gone by the time of the infamous three-day week when the nation's confidence sunk to what must have been one of its all-time lows. This last burst of untrammelled energy produced the Post Office Tower and Concorde. It also produced the motorways, Spaghetti Junction and a lot of very bad office blocks, housing estates and "comprehensive redevelopment", reminding us, painfully, that the release of unbridled energy can be dangerous when ideas are thin.

Something seemed to crack, then, in the British spirit. Were we downsizing, to apply a mid-Nineties buzzword to the early Seventies? Had we simply run out of steam? Certainly this was the period in which the conservation and heritage lobbies became vastly more influential than they had ever been at any time in Britain's history. This was a good thing, but only up to a point. It was clear that the country was plunging into a "why, oh why?" mood, when anything new and exciting was belittled as being vulgar or crass. While the Eighties, at least in Peter York's imagination, were something to do with everything being snappy and shiny, matt-black and champagne-fuelled, the "wow!" factor was not in evidence. If anything, it declined further as investment in the country's infrastructure fell. No amount of snappy suits and air-conditioned Post-Modern office blocks could make up for a lack of underlying confidence and the fact that what was genuinely new was looked down on.

Yet, as surely as to every action there is an opposite and equal reaction, the "wow!" factor will return. Libeskind's explosion at the V&A is matched, if not mirrored, by the exuberance of a small yet significant number of Millennium projects. These include Future Systems' design for a 21st-century greenhouse at the Earth Centre, Doncaster, Europe's biggest centre for ecological research and display; the Garden of Eden project in Cornwall, designed by Jonathan Ball and Nicholas Grimshaw (a walk through a sequence of ecological micro-climates inside a Dan Dare-style "earthship" located in an abandoned quarry in Cornwall); Norman Foster's sweeping hi-tech hangar for historic "warbirds" at the Imperial War Museum's aviation outpost at Duxford, and sculptor Anthony Gormley's outsized angel, which will tower over the A1 at Gateshead.

There are many who would like Britain to continue to sleep its deep sleep, or, like Robert Walpole, to encourage sleeping dogs to lie. Somehow, though, there is life in the old dog yet. Next time Concorde wakes you from slumber, don't groan, say "wow!"

These we have loathed ... and now love

St Paul's Cathedral

Wren's masterpiece, completed in 1711, was not quite what the conservative Church Commissioners wanted. Suspicious of modern architecture, they wanted Wren to build an essentially Gothic cathdedral with classical dressing and a spindly spire rising from a shallow dome. Over 35 years, Wren rejigged the commissioned design to produce the magnificent compromise we know and love today - Gothic in plan, yes, Baroque in spirit and with the world's finest dome. Wren was treated shabbily: his salary was cut in half and he lost his job as Chief Surveyor. Throughout he behaved in a gentlemanly fashion, living to see one of the world's finest buildings completed. He is buried beneath the feet of the 2 million-plus visitors a year who come to see what he built in the face of churlish opposition.

Empire State Building

Derided at the time for being too big, too late, what was for decades the world's tallest building has long confounded its critics. Although built in record time, the steel-framed, stone-clad Art Deco Empire State Building was completed as the Great Depression hit the US hard. It was a vertical city offering every essential service to clients, but no one wanted to rent space. The "Empty State Building" was filled with war-time agencies from 1941, hit by a low-flying B-25 bomber (which did little damage) and then filled up as the US economy soared. It has since become one of the best loved and most famous buildings in the world.

Sydney Opera House

The fantastic sketches the Finnish architect Jorn Utzon produced for the Sydney Opera House in 1957 were said to be virtually impossible to realise. The critics sniped, bores bored away: the design was too expensive, mad, useless, an embarrassment for a country that had given the world "Waltzing Matilda", Strine, and ice-cold lager. British engineers from Ove Arup & Partners helped to finish the job, making real the building's fantastic roof, variously described as a sequence of gull-beaks or nuns' whimples. Today, the opera house, a symbol of Australia's extraordinary cultural rise, is the most memorable building in the southern hemisphere.

Beauvais Cathedral

Will it, won't it, will it, won't it be the tallest cathedral in the world? Might it reach to the fringe of Heaven itself? Not once, but twice the vertiginous walls of the nascent Beauvais Cathedral came tumbling down. Those who commissioned and created this medieval French masterpiece refused to give in despite much sniping from the sides. The fact that the walls fell down twice was surely a sign that the Almighty would not tolerate such sky-piercing human vanity. Remember Babel? But it was skill and mathematics and not the will of God that raised the third and final stone vault to its present mind-boggling height. Beauvais was never completed, but what there is of this stupendous building continues to daunt the imagination while defying the law of gravity.

Jewish Museum, Berlin

Daniel Libeskind's Jewish Museum, a structural bolt of lightning, caused a huge furore in Berlin when its design was first shown at the beginning of the Nineties. The building, an extension of the Berlin Museum, is due to open in July 1997. It has no precedent and is almost bound to attract the crowds no matter what goes on display inside it. The museum is something of a slap in the face to critics who believe that civic buildings must follow immutable laws of proportion; it will, however, put Berlin firmly back on the map.

Pompidou Centre, Paris

When Georges Pompidou first saw the designs for the arts complex to be built in his name (left) he raised no more than a quizzical eyebrow. Gallantly, he did the same when he saw the team of young architects and engineers who had proposed this new outrage. Coming just three years after the events of 1968, it is remarkable, in hindsight, that the deeply conservative French president should have agreed to one of the oddest buildings anywhere in the world. Phenomenally popular, the Centre Georges Pompidou is now accepted as an integral part of Paris and rare is the visitor to the city who fails to visit or have something to say about the biggest Meccano set ever assembled.

Eiffel Tower

Eighty years before Pompidou, critics, artists and architects railed against Gustave Eiffel's skyscraping tower. Non! The city must not be insulted by this 300-metre railway junction turned on its head in the sky, they said. Well, the city was. And though the Eiffel Tower was despised for a year or two, it quickly became a symbol of Paris and thus of France itself. For many years, it has been the attraction most visitors to the French capital turn to first. What on earth was the fuss about?