Why buildings speak louder than words

This government will be remembered as one when architects really flourished
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Every government would do well to remember that buildings tend to last longer than policies - and one can learn far more about an era through its architecture than almost anything else. It now looks as if 2000 will go down in history as the year when Britain finally reinvented itself as a centre for the arts of world-standing. Did the Thatcher years, with their lacklustre arts policies, give us any monuments or museums as stylish as those currently being completed or refurbished using lottery funding? From The Lowry in Salford to the Tate Modern at Bankside, the Blair government will be remembered as one when architects flourished and millennium projects were completed throughout the country.

The fact that buildings are an invaluable form of propaganda was well understood by Queen Victoria, in mourning for her consort Albert. French politicians have also been far quicker than the Brits to erect monuments for posterity, from the Pompidou Centre to the arch at La Défense and the stunning glass pyramid in the courtyard of the Louvre.

I've met any number of ineffectual Arts and Heritage Ministers over the years, from Richard Luce to Peter Brooke - charming but hardly interested in accessibility or modernity. Now, we are lucky enough to have people in the arm of government responsible for culture who actually read books and visit galleries. If we had a secretary of state for environment and transport who got out of his Jaguar and used trains and buses, my life would be even more perfect, but that's another matter.

The current government has been quick to realise that a new public building is not only a lasting epitaph, but can signal a confidence and exuberance that boosts tourism and the leisure industry, enjoyed by a wide public. A lot of rubbish has been written about the Dome as a vacuous symbol of the new millennium. But in the last week, I've seen three striking examples of how bold building initiatives are turning London from a heritage theme-park of the past into a vibrant celebration of the present. The benefactors' dinner at the Tate Modern produced a dazzling cross-section of patrons from business and government who have been willing to give millions to turn a disused power-station into the most important new building for the visual arts in Britain in a century. In the past, the City was never slow in coming forward to sponsor dead art made socially acceptable by the passing of time. The big change now is that companies like Unilever have realised that modern art and architecture is exciting and something desirable with which they want their brand associated.

This week, too, the National Portrait Gallery unveiled its new wing with the help of private sponsorship. This partnership between public and private funding is producing the greatest renaissance in the arts for a century - and the beneficiaries will be ordinary members of the public. Now, Tate Britain - the original gallery - has rehung its collection thematically and houses a bold exhibition by Turner-prize sculptor Mona Hatoum in the main hall. Not to everyone's taste, but a must-see.

At the Wallace Collection, architect Rick Mather has glazed over the courtyard and excavated precious new space below ground. Somerset House will shortly open to display a priceless collection of decorated objects donated again by a private patron. I always hated the term "swinging London", because it referred to an empty age characterised by a shopping boom, short skirts and women wearing white lipstick. Durability and permanence were not on the agenda when blow-up furniture and paper knickers represented style icons.

This time round, London is reinventing itself in a more permanent way. We might not remember Tracey Emin's bed in 20 years' time, but I guarantee that Bankside will still take your breath away.