Why can't we have a new hall like Paris? If you want to know what divides England and France, it's not a language or a strip of water. It's an attitude to building for the arts.
When a concert hall or opera house starts crumbling in London, officials give a sigh and sign a massive cheque for a modest makeover. In Paris, they go "pouff!" and call in the top architects to produce a new landmark. It costs much the same in the end. (Are you reading me, Boris?)
Here's how it works. London's South Bank Centre-a horrible clutter of three concert halls and an unneeded art gallery-has been the bane of my working life. I won't bore you for long with its shortcomings. Designed in postwar austerity materials as a Royal Festival Hall and augmented with 1960s concrete afterthoughts, it fails every test, acoustic and aesthetic. No part of it is fully fit for purpose. Music lovers have long prayed for its demolition. Artists complain of its frigidity. Burglars have walked off-twice-with its grand piano. It is Britain's biggest guzzler of public arts subsidy.
When it started falling to pieces in the 1990s, officials made the following excuses for not tearing it down and starting again: (1) listed buildings of architectural merit; (2) huge cost; (3) what if that ghastly Zaha Hadid got the job? So they okayed a refit that ran up a £120 million bill and made the Royal Festival Hall a tiny bit cleaner and tidier. Pound for pound, it was the biggest waste of public money for least public gain since the long-grounded Anglo-French Concorde. Around the same time, the same officials blew £214 million on redoing the Royal Opera House while Glyndebourne knocked down its old country shed and built a glorious, eco-friendly, privately funded opera house for a mere £35 million.
You see, that's the Whitehall way, and Whitehall never learns. This month, plans are going in for a second refit of the South Bank: a £120 million makeover of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Purcell Room and Hayward Gallery, starting next year. Come 2017, trust me, it will look little better than before. A site that ought to display the very best of British creativity blazons instead the crabby limits of public administration. It's enough to make me do a reverse-Depardieu and emigrate to France.