Not rubbish, and perhaps tomorrow's masterpiece

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The Independent Online
Tomorrow Councillor Eric Flounders of Bow Neighbourhood, east London, will - one supposes - rub his hands with glee as House, Rachel Whiteread's prize-winning sculpture, is demolished. House has filled column yards of newspapers over the past fortnight. Thousands of coutured aesthetes who have rarely, if ever, travelled east of Whitechapel Art Gallery, and thousands of others, simply curious, invaded Bow at the weekend to gawp at, touch, climb over and photograph the object of Councillor Flounders' scorn.

Sunday afternoon in Roman Road, E3 resembled the scene in Close Encounters of the Third Kind when hosts of entranced people greet the arrival of a friendly spaceship. All the while the authorities were ready to blast the aliens to smithereens.

While Councillor Flounders is perfectly within his rights to demolish House - it was meant to be a temporary work - most of those who have seen this haunting white- concrete memory of a working-class Victorian house want it to stay. By Sunday evening more than 3,000 visitors had signed a petition calling on the iconoclastic Liberal-Democrat to grant a stay of execution.

The most controversial work of art in Britain since Carl Andre's Equivalent VIII (the celebrated stack of bricks), House is to be demolished to make way for a children's playground. This seems churlish, not least because there is plenty of room in Bow for House and playground. The councillor who appears to want to be remembered as one of the great philistines is unrepentant. House, he says, is 'utter rubbish', a 'little entertainment for the gallery-going classes of Hampstead' that 'will not remain in place beyond the end of November'.

House might be unexpected, but it is certainly not rubbish. Other public sculptures that we take for granted are far more bizarre. Nelson's Column, for example, is an absurd conceit - a dead Regency admiral perched on top of a fluted Corinthian column extruded beyond all classical credulity. The Albert Memorial is simply barking: a High Victorian carriage-clock blown out of all proportion and so engineered in stone, marble and steel that its self-destruction was almost inevitable.

House has the merit of being a sculpture that thousands want to see in a country not known for the quality of its contemporary public sculpture. If visitors come to gawp at it principally because of its notoriety, this is surely no bad thing. Such has, after all, long been the fate of the Mona Lisa.

Sculptures, paintings and buildings that are considered both the best and the worst at the time of their creation are often those that are remembered and give pleasure to future generations. They are the ones that make us think, seize our imagination.

House was meant to be a brief, monumental and memorable challenge to the way we see houses, buildings, streets and works of art, and it is possible that, if it stays, it may lose much of its power. That should not diminish its value, however. Christo, famous for wrapping buildings, has spent the past 23 years hoping to wrap the Reichstag in Berlin in a silver fabric. If he gets his way, the future German parliament building will be magically transformed, but for no more than a fortnight. The ephemeral nature of such an enterprise is part of its point.

Artists, however, are allowed to change their minds; Rachel Whiteread has every right to be proud of House, and no one should deny her the privilege of seeing it outlive Councillor Flounders. Equally, we can change artists' minds for them and insist on keeping temporary designs. The Eiffel Tower, for example, reviled at the time of its construction, has long outlived Gustave Eiffel, its critics and the exhibition it was built for. From object of scorn, it has become the symbol of city it graces. House might yet become the emblem of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets.

If House is reprieved at the last minute, it will need cossetting. Eventually, it will crack and, unless conserved by future generations, fall. Yet its popularity might well repay its long-term costs. Councillor Flounders and his committee appear blissfully unconcerned with the healthy interest that House has created in a London borough not exactly known for its contribution to public art. If they were wise, they might even commission several more works to complement Rachel Whiteread's.

(Photograph omitted)

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