On January 20 Chris Smith, the culture secretary, will launch what's claimed to be the biggest programme of museum and gallery openings in British history. Over £400m has been invested in creating new cultural venues, designed by some of Europe's best architects. "These new cultural attractions," says the press release, "will transform the country and confirm London's position as the leading cultural capital of the world."
They also represent what British architecture has been about in the course of 1999: the getting and spending of fabulous sums on major cultural projects. These deserve to be celebrated next year, yet after that maybe architects might get down - market willing - to thinking about housing and urban design, before a country awash with glittering new museums and galleries is swamped by a tide of crass red brick, neo-Georgian fanlight doors and brass-effect coachlamps set between wallet-stripping shopping malls, mind-dumbing theme parks and even more car parks.
During 1999 we have seen architecture treated increasingly as a circus, a media event. Fine. But next year a lot of architects will be spending a lot of time less glamorously "snagging" millennium monuments, including our £400m worth of new museums and galleries. In 2001 they might want to work on altogether more mundane, yet equally important designs, from bus stations and homes to clinic, nurseries, parks, and small yet vital urban regeneration schemes.
Smith's year 2000 cultural bubble, however, deserves to be celebrated. This huge injection of cash and investment in bricks and mortar has truly been a once-in-a-generation opportunity to give Britain's museums and galleries a much-needed makeover, but it seems that the fewer things we make in Britain, the more museums we build to house the things we once made. The more we live in a virtual world and the more earnest young architects rant on about cyberspace, the greater seems our need to shape big, solid and expensive buildings to house and conserve the comforting, tangible world of the past. We might ask, then: is this great wave of new museum building and rebuilding a way to the future, or is it more a final cri de coeur as we enter an age when virtual representation rules and the world of pots and paints, of precious objects and fascinating things in cases comes to an end?
A review of the most glamorous buildings that architects have been working on in Britain this year would have to begin with the fine new art gallery in Walsall, designed by Caruso St John, two young architects with a real sense of construction, a great feeling for materials, and a painterly understanding of how to mix daylight and artificial light. This opens in February. In April, the Lowry centre, by Michael Wilford, dedicated to the stick-man art of a painter most of us associate with dentists' waiting rooms and polio vaccinations, opens in the heart of Manchester's Salford Quays.
May sees the inauguration of four important arts buildings. There's the new wing of the National Portrait Gallery by Jeremy Dixon and Edward Jones, of Royal Opera House fame. Then there's the reopening of Sir John Soane's much-loved Dulwich picture gallery, flanked by a courtyard of lightweight glass buildings designed by Rick Mather (architect in charge of replanning the South Bank cultural ghetto). Somerset House, Britain's first purpose-built office block designed in the guise of an elongated Palladian palazzo along the north bank of the Thames by Sir William Chambers, reopens.
The cars of civil servants that once disfigured the great central courtyard have gone, the river terrace - a true wonder - will be open again after very many years, and a new museum in the south building will house the Gilbert collection of decorative arts and a wonderful selection of paintings from the Hermitage.
Across the river, the Tate Modern will open its titanic doors. Many millions are expected to flood into the mind-boggling vastness of the former Bankside power station, designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott (1880-1960) and converted by the Swiss architects Herzog de Meuron into a pantechnicon of modern art. It will be connected to St Paul's cathedral and its millions of visitors by the millennium bridge, designed by Norman Foster and Anthony Caro; this also opens, to pedestrians only, in May. In June the bold new Wellcome wing at the Science Museum opens, a design by McCormack Jamieson Prichard, architects of the fine Ruskin library at the University of Lancaster. In the same month, the Imperial War Museum opens a new gallery dedicated to the story of the Holocaust.
Forward to next June, and Rick Mather unveils his redesign for the Wallace collection, one of my own favourite museums, largely forgotten for many years in London's Manchester Square just north of Oxford Street.
The Pitt-Rivers museum, an all-time favourite, reopens at the back of Oxford's University museum in May, and at the end of next year, we can expect the Victoria & Albert to begin work on the Spiral, its long-awaited museum gallery of contemporary design shaped by Libeskind.
Exhausted by now? Has museum fatigue set in? True, this list is long, yet when it shows that much of what's happening is not so much a retreat into the certainties of the past as a major deposit in the treasury of national culture that should, hopefully, pay dividends over the next century and beyond. The lottery has made all this possible. Despite fears a few years ago that too much money would be spent on promoting a culturally correct arts and museum world, the results are something we should be proud of next year and a welcome antidote to the burger-and-coke culture of the millennium dome.
Walsall's new art gallery is a good example of how investment in intelligent art and architecture can raise the sights and tone of a whole town. The tension between the trashy new architecture of the postmodern vernacular shops in this west Midlands town and the gallery is tangible. The shops frame the gallery. They're designed in the "Innit?" school of urbanism: dumbed-down visual trash, a pile of children's bricks hurled in the face of the public.
The aim of public architecture, however, and of the arts, is surely to raise people's expectations; the new Walsall gallery does just that. Like the Tate Modern in Southwark, or the Lowry centre in Trafford, it should act as a magnet for intelligent new development. There is a large site just beyond the gallery about to be given over to "leisure"; here is a chance for a town long off the investors' and tourists' map to design and build a new quarter to the highest possible standards, to match the new architectural standard set by the gallery.
Will it happen? Maybe. With a bit of will and imagination, it could. This year those imaginative and wayward architects Alsop & Stormer, responsible for the superb new Peckham library in south London, have been working on a gloriously lively regeneration scheme for West Bromwich. It's the kind of thinking that towns like Walsall can only gain from.
The trick, then, the lesson for next year and beyond, is for us all to reap the cultural, economic and architectural benefits of the new wave of museums and galleries that Chris Smith will announce in January. If intelligent new architecture and design can wrap around the shiny new, lottery-fuelled millennium monuments, all the hype and the ballyhoo of the past year will have been worth suffering.