The Queen is asking for £369 millions of taxpayers’ money to refurbish Buckingham Palace. I’m sure it needs it, just as the Palace of Westminster does. I don’t go along with those who say we could use the money to build a thousand new hospitals (or whatever); we ought to be able to afford both. (And would, if we taxed ourselves enough.) Public buildings are important, in all kinds of ways: people recognise and like them, and they give a sense of visual identity to places which otherwise wouldn’t be worth visiting. Just imagine a town whose most impressive building was a Tescos (there may be some: Stoke-on-Trent?), or a row of similarly utilitarian edifices. Or something as vulgar as a Trump Tower. London is defined and recognised, in part, by Buckingham Palace and the Houses of Parliament. So it’s worth some money – I’m not sure about the £369 million – to shore them up.
My only gripe is that they are such poor buildings, architecturally. If they weren’t so ‘iconic’ I might be in favour of pulling them down. The Palace of Westminster was always an uncomfortable merging of opposite styles of architecture, by a classical and a Gothic architect, before Pugin (the Goth) had truly mastered his style. The view that we all know of Buckingham Palace is of a re-facing job that was done in 1911, possibly the worst period in British history for official public architecture, and reeks of philistine imperialism, which it was intended (I think) to celebrate: dull, repetitive, and soulless. Most of the other large buildings erected at around that time were the same. ‘High’ imperialism and art don’t mix.
But then what distinguished public buildings does London have, to compare with – for example – Vienna , Paris, Berlin, even Stockholm? Wren’s St Paul’s looks like a bank. Westminster Abbey is ruined by those awful, disproportioned West Towers – designed by Hawksmoor, a great architect in his own English baroque style, but not here. The National Galley looks cheapskate – that pathetic dome. The British Museum is OK, I suppose, if you have to copy Roman temples. There are a few good monumental buildings – myself, I’d go for the Natural History Museum, and the new British Library in St Pancras – and of course some attractive smaller ones. But in general London is far from being a beautiful city, architecturally. (I explore some of the reasons for this in my The Battle of the Styles, 2011, if anyone’s interested.)
OK, let Queenie have her re-fit. The only alternative would be to pull the building down and replace it, but I’m not at all confident of how the replacement would turn out. Especially if the architecturally super-reactionary Prince Charles had any say in it, which of course he would be bound to have. Or perhaps you could evacuate it, leave just the facade as a landmark, with a children’s playground behind it, perhaps, or one of your thousand new hospitals, and move the Royals out to a mock-tudor semi-detached in Hornchurch. That – or something like it – was what I had to put up with. It wasn’t so bad.