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By Theodore Dalrymple

The New Vichy Syndrome: Why European Intellectuals Surrender to Barbarism.


Theodore Dalrymple
Barbarians on the March
Autumn 1999

The Times of London reported on September 29 that British town planners have decided that what jewel-box Georgian and Regency towns such as Bath and Cheltenham need—architecturally speaking—is the shock of the new. The planners actually demand that, in exchange for their permission to build, new constructions should "stand out like a sore thumb" instead of "blending into the vernacular" of the serenely classical terraces.

How will defenders of this terrible barbarism explain it when—yet again—reaction wells up against it? An exhibition at the Royal Academy, devoted to the great Regency architecture of Sir John Soane, provides a clue. This is how the curators—who share the planners' enthusiasms—explain to the public the demolition of Soane's magnificent Bank of England in the 1920s: "The Napoleonic Wars built Soane's Bank but World War I destroyed it."

Did the Zeppelins bomb it, then? No: bank staff quadrupled during the war and no longer fitted comfortably into the building. The directors could think of no more imaginative solution than to destroy Soane's masterpiece. But now the demolition appears as if it were not the result of human agency but of vast impersonal, and therefore irresistible, forces.

Bureaucratic lack of imagination and taste, arrogant disrespect for the past, and over-estimation of current architecture are all eroding what little remains unspoiled of Britain's urban heritage. As a result, not a town or city in the country isn't dotted with prominent eyesores: the true shock of the new.

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