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Leave the past behind

The campaigns to restore lost architectural gems signify
a malaise in our culture

The Euston Arch and the Skylon could not have been more different. The first was a heavyset, stone-faced, Greek-style propylaeum that for 124 years stood at the entrance to Euston Station in London. The second, on the South Bank of the Thames, near Waterloo in London, was a delicate Dan Dare needle supported by a cat's cradle of taut steel cables. At Euston, Victorian railway engineers donned the toga of the ancient empire to place themselves in a family tree of magnificence and permanence. On the South Bank, the organisers of the 1951 Festival of Britain, under the patronage of the Attlee government, sketched out a hi-tech, socialist future.

But these two structures do have certain things in common. They were both demolished in the middle of the 20th century. Both are the subject of campaigns calling for their reconstruction. And together, these campaigns represent a dismal moment in British architecture, symptomatic of a deeper malaise in our culture.

Neither reconstruction campaign has faced stiff opposition, and both sense a victory connected with the approach of the 2012 London Olympics. In April this year, Paul Finch, chair of the 2012 design review panel, confirmed that he was in talks with the Skylon campaign to re-erect Powell & Moya's structure in the Olympic Park by 2011. And in May, stones from the Euston Arch were lifted from the Prescott Channel in the Lee Valley as part of an operation to use local waterways to transport materials to the Olympic site. The Euston Arch Trust, led by the architectural historian Dan Cruickshank, presented the recovery as a significant step towards having the arch rebuilt as part of the proposed redevelopment of Euston Station.

Any act of reconstruction is an act of erasure. The destruction of a building is wiped away, literally undone. Whatever the arguments or conditions were at the time of demolition, they are forgotten. It is like exorcising evil spirits - and if that sounds melodramatic, you should hear the language used by the Euston Arch Trust, for which the demolition was "an act of shameful barbar­ism" and "a bitter and public defeat for the forces of civilisation". Cruickshank describes the trust's campaign as "heroic" and "romantic".

This is clearly emotional territory; indeed, this whole debate is about feelings. It is significant that neither the Euston Arch nor the Skylon was a functional building. They were symbols - of the glory of the railway age on the one hand, and of welfare-state optimism on the other. As such, they have become tangled up with how people feel about those wider projects. Architectural traditionalists see the Euston Arch as the Dunkirk moment in their epic struggle with the forces of modernity - modernity meaning, to them, state vandalism. As the architecture critic and Euston Arch aficionado Jonathan Glancey wrote in his 2008 book Lost Buildings: "[The demolition] signified that governments which embraced the deeply suspect twin notions of 'change' (for change's sake) and 'modernisation' had won the day and were up to no good. Since the demolition . . . no one with any sense of history, or love of architecture in particular, has trusted politicians who have eked out their cynical craft on the back of such overrated notions."

Those are strong words, which imply that the reconstruction of the arch would be a victory for the common man over ignorant and uncaring bureaucrats, a cause so self-evidently just that it is hard to imagine anyone opposing it. "Surely everyone would raise a cheer at the thought of a victory by the people over philistine and brutal politicians," Glancey wrote.

The Skylon campaign is more tempered in its language, perhaps because the needle stood for a scant couple of years and was never meant to be permanent. But its reconstruction is still presented as a populist cause that is near-impossible to oppose. "People loved it, architects loved it, it's beautiful, it's important and it's a classic," the former president of the Royal Institute of British Architects Jack Pringle told Building Design magazine when he launched the campaign in 2008. "We should certainly rebuild it."

Really? A rebuilt Skylon would be a perverse thing, a retro parody of the original. A symbol of hope in the future will have become a symbol of our inability to leave the past. Philip Powell and Hidalgo Moya were young men when they built the Skylon, and the campaign to re-erect it imagines that doing this will inspire a new generation of architects and engineers. But it is absurd to imagine that resurrecting a 60-year-old piece of public art, more than allowing new architects to build something of their own, will inspire this generation. Small, young practices are struggling to find work on the Olympic site, locked out by procurement rules that favour big firms.

Whatever they might claim, neither campaign is forward-looking. Both see present-day London as a suitable venue for revisiting battles that were lost more than half a century ago. You could call it Wispa urbanism, the architectural equi­valent of the campaign to revive the Cadbury's chocolate bar. This is the vanguard of a fresh surge of militant nostalgia. Britain's heritage industry is no longer content with simply preserving buildings; it now wants them brought back from the grave. The same tendency gave rise to the 2005 Channel 4 programme Demolition, in which viewers were invited to vote for modern "eyesores" that they would like to see demolished. "Maybe," wrote the architect Charles Holland this year, "they should do a new series in which people could nominate which books they would like to burn."

Despite being obsessed with the meaning of lost landmarks, the Wispa urbanists miss the true symbolism of their actions. The builders of the structures they seek to revive were not looking backwards and deferring to sentiment - they were advancing public opinion, making something new. By contrast, what will future generations make of their zombie replacements? It is unlikely they will see anything other than a country that was so bereft of ideas and optimism that it preferred the pedantic rehashing of the past to the designing of a future.

William Wiles is senior editor of Icon magazine

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Afghanistan: The Lost War