Vicars, town elders, busybodies - spare us from improvements

Millennial Destruction
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The Independent Online
There is a singular reason that so many old and beautiful building have survived in our country: communities have been too poor to alter or replace them. Periods of economic prosperity, by contrast, give people the itch to start knocking things down or improving them, seldom successfully. Now, as it happens, a veritable deluge of money, from the National Lottery, has become available to those with plans to change our surroundings. This money sometimes provides real and valuable benefits, but it has also been the source of much that is meretricious, and even destructive.

The Church of England has been particularly drawn to this source of funds; and although in Synod there have been several attacks on the evils of the Lottery, down at parish level they have no such scruples. Vicars and their PCCs have dreamt up all sorts of plans that depend on Lottery cash.

My parish church of St Andrews in Surrey has come up with a scheme which it calls "church development", a pair of weasel words that actually mean church ruination. Imagine a beautiful, tranquil church, perhaps four- or five-hundred years old, situated in a market town. It has dawned on the church authorities that the Lottery is giving away sack-loads of money; all they have to do is invent a Millennium Project. What could be better than to modernise and make relevant the boring old church interior to "meet the needs of a modern congregation"?

There are architects who will design this sort of thing. They specialise in the banal modern crematorium style of interior. Their favourite material is veneered medium-density fibreboard. Their forte is the building, inside centuries old churches, of lavatories, kitchens, meeting rooms and creches. These latter day iconoclasts make Cromwell's efforts look half-hearted. They arbitrarily partition off great chunks of the interior, truncating and distorting spaces that are the essence of the original building. They rip up stone flags and replace them with user-friendly, non-slip plastic floor tiles and tear down beautiful memorial tablets from the walls for relocation (dumping in the cellar).

Added impetus has been given to this scheme by what I call righteous devastation, also known as disabled access. Where a simple wooden ramp for wheelchairs would be adequate, a towering edifice of synthetic building materials (the design of which could well be inspired by a DIY magazine) is planned - to the vast admiration of the loyal old ladies and T-shirted outreachers to the community who make up the hard core of church supporters.

They all believe this will encourage a local outburst of spirituality but, having got the lavatories and kitchens, what if the head count does not improve? Will the church advertise its new more caring function? Perhaps a neon sign on each side of the tower with the slogan: JESUS SAVES THAT EMBARRASSING ACCIDENT. A PEE AND A PRAYER - ONLY 20P.

The degrading of our surroundings, financed by Lottery money, does not stop with churches. In towns and villages, local worthies who fancy themselves as art patrons apply for funding for art to celebrate the year 2000. Plans for Millennium Competitions are organised and the entries flood in. In my own town, a clock is planned to be sited in a tawdry, irredeemable Sixties shopping centre, which was built in its turn on the site of a street of 17th- and 18th-century buildings, enthusiastically destroyed by local bigwigs very similar to the ones who now express an urge to beautify the town for the millennium. In fact, this scheme is little more than a gimmick to attract shoppers.

It is possible to create outdoor art that is amusing, elegant and witty; but this clock/sculpture will be little different in spirit and artistic content from a larger and more permanent version of a fold-up cardboard promotional figure in a supermarket aisle.

At pounds 30,000 and 23ft high, this piece of millennium junk will paradoxically mark a new low point for the area. The organisers of the scheme required that the clock should refer to local people and history, that it should have visible moving parts and audible time signals, be attractive to children and act as a magnet to bring people in to the area. The drawings and models show a crude, clumsy concept that Disneyland would reject. Why not just build a merry-go-round?

Somewhere, no doubt, something good will be done with millennium funding, but on the whole it may well end up as a celebration of the kitsch and the meretricious, carried out by the ignorant and the crass, and financed in the main by those who can least afford it.