The Vandals in Retreat
Britain rediscovers its architectural heritage.
During my childhood, we still had pea-soup fogs in London, so thick that you couldn’t see your hand when you held it more than a few inches from your face. The fogs were exclusive to November, so that I imagined that they were simply features of the climate, like snow in winter. I longed for them to come. They were exciting, these fogs. They were just as described at the beginning of Bleak House: “Fog everywhere. . . . Gas looming through the fog in divers places in the streets. . . . Most of the shops lighted two hours before their time—as the gas seems to know, for it has a haggard and unwilling look.”
Of course, it wasn’t gaslight that loomed through the fogs of my childhood, but electric light. The shape of a double-decker bus would slowly transform from the merest blur into something more definite only a few feet away, its headlights like the malign yellow eyes of some devouring beast. Before the bus, a man would walk, guiding the driver through a gloom far more impenetrable than the darkest night. The fog was not merely an absence of light; it was the opponent and scatterer of light, locked in mortal battle with it and almost triumphing. The fogs killed thousands, mainly old people with lungs weakened from decades of smoking. I didn’t know this at the time, and I don’t suppose it would have worried me much if I had known it. Childhood is not an age of enlarged views and philanthropic feeling.
The decline of smokestack industries, the abandonment of domestic coal fires, and the passing of a Clean Air Act soon made the fogs as remote in memory as manual typewriters are now. Within less than a decade, they came to be associated more with the London of Sherlock Holmes than with the city of a few years before. No child would again experience the excitement that I had felt because of them.
But this was genuine progress. The fogs were a manifestation of the pollution that did terrible damage not only to people’s lungs but to the buildings of the past, and therefore to something more intangible: people’s view of the past. Soot and grime covered almost every building in every British city; one looked at a building and thought, “How grim.” The country was like a vast Victorian funeral. This was one reason, no doubt, that Britain then undertook an orgy of urban destruction unparalleled in peacetime. The Luftwaffe had been bungling amateurs, it turned out, compared with the town and city fathers of Britain. The Germans managed to destroy a few cities—though none utterly beyond repair, if a will to repair had existed—but the local authorities ruined practically everything, with a thoroughness that would have been admirable in a good cause.
When they looked at a grimy building, the authorities, armed with new legal powers to plan and reconstruct towns and cities, saw only the grime and not the magnificence beneath. The authorities were not, on the whole, imaginative men, except when it came to imagining the fortunes that one could make from demolition and redevelopment. Advising them were architects and engineers who had converted en masse to modernism and who, even before the destruction brought by the war (which many of them welcomed), were groping toward Gropius. They agreed with Gropius’s view that “a breach has been made with the past, which allows us to envisage a new aspect of architecture corresponding to the technical civilization of the age we live in; the morphology of dead styles has been destroyed; and we are returning to honesty of thought and feeling.” On this understanding, any thought of preservation, of harmonizing the new with the old, let alone of new building in old styles, was a perversion.
The grime had become the sign of a past now hated with a lack of moral discrimination comparable to that once displayed by the jingoists, who had assumed that all was for the best in this, the best of all possible islands. Postwar Britain was a defeated power in everything but the military sense; its old industries, which had caused the grime, could not return it to prosperity; much better, then, to pull everything down and start again. The grime symbolized Gradgrind and Bounderby, and nothing else.
That the Soviet Union emerged triumphant from World War II would also prove a catastrophe for the British urban environment, for it supposedly showed the superiority of central planning over its absence. Intellectuals viewed British towns and cities as the antithesis of planning: like Topsy, they just growed. It didn’t occur to the intellectuals that these were places where successive generations, over many centuries, had produced an urban environment that had charm and was intensely social and livable, largely because those who built it had to live in what they built; or that where planning had taken place—in Bath, for example, or in the New Town section of Edinburgh—it was carried out by men of the highest possible caliber, for a population of refined and elegant taste. In fact, refinement and elegance were now ideologically suspect. As George Orwell pointed out before the war, our civilization (at least as it then was) ultimately rested on coal mining, a horrible industry that maimed people, blighted lives, and blotted landscapes. To live in elegance in such a society was like living in peace with an art collection stolen from Jewish families during the war.
Thus the towns and cities of Britain needed a new moral and physical beginning. And as rational men, the planners knew what people needed: roads and parking lots, so that they might conveniently get to and make use of their shopping and cultural centers. Many medieval lanes, and entire Georgian streets, were destroyed in the name of driving and parking—the appetite for which seemed only to grow with the feeding, and now less than ever has been met.
The planners and city fathers saw attachment to the city of the past as politically sinister. In 1947, the Labour-led city council of Bristol, which had been severely bombed during the war, laid plans to redevelop the city rather than restore it. When the local shopkeepers’ association polled 13,000 people to see whether they liked the council’s plans, and only 400 answered affirmatively, the council denounced the poll: “The so-called poll is without any official sanction and can carry no weight. The slipshod, inefficient and utterly un-democratic methods by which it is being conducted are reminiscent of Hitler’s early efforts in political demagoguery.”
Of course, the poll likely was not scientific, according to the canons of academic political research; but the results were surely startling enough to merit serious consideration by the city council. The notion that one could disregard the poll because it lacked “official sanction” offers insight into where the councillors believed both power and wisdom properly lay: with themselves. The reference to Hitler was peculiar, for it suggested that the preservation of buildings was somehow a harbinger of Nazi revolution. It was ironic as well, for the councillors failed to see that their own desire to organize the old, higgledy-piggledy city into a “rational” plan that fulfilled an ideological ideal was very much like the Nazis’ radical architectural ambitions for German towns and cities.
But throughout Britain, many city engineers and architects proved only too willing to engage in that project. For instance, it was the hope of Sir Herbert Manzoni, the city engineer of Birmingham, to pull down every non-modernist building in the city center. Luckily, he died in 1963 before achieving his ambition, but he got quite far, and his spirit sputtered on after him, with the magnificent Victorian library of 1866 pulled down in 1974 and replaced with an inverted concrete ziggurat of such ugliness and (now) dilapidation that it defies description, at least by me. Its environs serve now as a giant pissoir and, at night, as a safe haven for drunks and rapists; and thus the Albert Speers of Britain have converted the Victorian dream of municipal munificence into the nightmare of administered anomie.
I find it difficult to write temperately on this subject. I have only to see an example of the mass desecration of Britain’s architectural heritage to start trembling with rage. No town or city in Britain has inherited so little in the way of beauty that officials did not think it worth destroying. Recently in Rotherham, a steel town near Sheffield, I saw the historic environs of a magnificent fifteenth-century church falling into ruins, while all around there was a concrete mess, aesthetically worthy of being the administrative capital of an autonomous region of Soviet Central Asia at the height, or the depth, of the Brezhnev era.
My wife tells me to calm down; as she rightly notes, I can do nothing about this disaster now. But it is not merely the physical ugliness of what has been done that affects me; it is the ugliness of soul that was necessary for it to be done. The men entrusted with planning and rebuilding Britain’s towns and cities, one cannot help but think, must have suffered from a deep sense of humiliation, an awareness that, in an age of the most startling technical progress, they were not equal to the most jobbing of jobbing provincial builders of two and a half centuries earlier. Destruction of the heritage was all that was open to them, then, and in this, at least, they excelled. They were like Satan, who, expelled from heaven, exclaimed:
Me miserable! which way shall I fly
Infinite wrath, and infinite despair?
Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell.
They certainly produced a visual hell, all the more hellish because they allowed elements of what existed before to remain, so that the contrast was inescapable. In what was once the beautiful small city of Worcester, to take one more example, part of the graceful complex of ecclesiastical buildings next to the cathedral was destroyed in order to erect the Giffard Hotel, a concrete building in the style of Le Corbusier that would have gladdened the hearts of Nicolae and Elena Ceauşescu. The hotel now vies with the cathedral for one’s visual attention: it is impossible to screen it out.
Yet matters have improved greatly in the last few years. Acts of official vandalism are rarer, and when attempted cause a public outcry. Citizens have formed groups to protect what remains of their heritage and no longer stand by watching the destruction of whole townscapes. Old buildings are routinely adapted to new purposes (as civilized people have known how to do for centuries) instead of being treated as impediments to progress or to traffic. Victorian buildings are cleaned up instead of demolished, and the architectural detail beneath the grime has come as a revelation to many who previously might have held the Victorians in contempt. London’s remaining Victorian railway stations have been modernized, keeping their basic features, so that the elegance and beauty of the ironwork is obvious to all. St. Pancras station, a masterpiece of Victorian Gothic architecture, has been lovingly (and, admittedly, expensively) restored and made the terminus of the train to Paris. Fittingly, the concourse has a statue of the poet Sir John Betjeman, whose protests helped save the station from demolition and replacement—perhaps by something as ugly as the new Euston station, a few hundred yards up the road, which took the place of the magnificently neoclassical original Euston station. The open space around Euston, probably not coincidentally, is as dirty as anywhere in London: people vote with their litter.
Not only has the official vandalism been much reduced; architecture and urbanization have considerably improved. Cities such as Birmingham, Leeds, and Manchester have undergone something of a revival, though it is too late to save the parts of them destroyed in the frenzy of self-hatred, utopianism, social engineering, and financial corruption that I have described.
Among other discoveries made by the town planners, architects, and general public is that cities with central residential districts are better places to live than those that relegate all domiciles to the outer fringes and leave the centers as ghost towns every evening. Birmingham and Manchester have also belatedly discovered an unsuspected asset that the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries bequeathed: they have more canals than Venice. Before the advent of railways, the portage of goods in industrial Britain was largely by canal, and Birmingham and Manchester were at the center of canal networks. The canals were beautifully constructed, but they were then left derelict for more than a century and became ditches where thistles grew and rubbish was dumped. The brick or iron bridges that span them are, despite the utilitarianism of their construction, of a surprising and moving elegance. The early industrialists were not quite as impervious to aesthetic considerations as Gradgrind and Bounderby might have led one to suppose.
These canals crisscrossed the cities’ hearts. As if by some operation of the zeitgeist, houses and flats began to rise in large numbers along the canals during the 1990s, and, in some cases, they were elegant places in which someone with an aesthetic sense might actually like to live. The raw concrete that during the worst years of destruction became a kind of phallic symbol for British architects was nowhere to be seen; walls were made of brick, or at least received a brick veneer. Many details could have been done better, doubtless, but one’s first impression was not horror.
The repeopling of city centers, largely with the young and educated middle class, brought other advantages. For many, cultural activities were now within easy reach—indeed, walking distance—rather than a tedious ride away. Such cultural amenities as already existed (and Birmingham and Manchester always had good orchestras) expanded, and new ones arrived. It astonishes me how well one can now eat in these cities, given their long, dismal record of bad food. In other words, the civilized pleasures and advantages of living in a city began to make themselves felt.
But to this I must now enter several caveats. The first is that much of the building, though more attractive than anything erected for many years, is not of high quality. With few exceptions, no contemporary British architect believes that he builds sub specie aeternitatis; on the contrary, he expects what he constructs to be pulled down soon and replaced. That a building should be sound enough to last perhaps 30 years is the city council’s main demand, which is conducive neither to solidity nor to fine workmanship. This explains why builders have used methods and materials that look well enough when new but will soon look tawdry.
The second caveat is that far more houses and flats were built than demand could absorb. This didn’t seem to matter much while prices were rising: a house by a canal, bought new in Birmingham for $300,000, was, within a few years, worth upward of $1 million. But, as we have since seen, the whole British economy was like Ophelia after she had fallen into the brook:
Her clothes spread wide,
And mermaid-like a while they bore her up
Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes,
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and endued
Unto that element; but long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.
This is the fate, it seems, of economies that base their prosperity upon asset inflation—often a deliberate government policy. When apartment blocks remain empty, as they now do, can dereliction be far behind?
The third, and potentially most serious, caveat relates to the behavior of the British population. Every Friday and Saturday night (and often other nights as well), thousands of young adults invade Britain’s towns and cities, intent on getting publicly drunk and making a nuisance of themselves in the name of self-expression. No one, apparently, has ever asked them not to, let alone told them; and by now, such activities as screaming at 2 am, hair pulling, vomiting in the gutter, smashing glasses, and climbing at random into passing vehicles are seen as inalienable rights—perhaps because they have yet to be alienated. Menace is never far away.
People have sometimes accused me of exaggerating the chaos of these street scenes, to which I can reply that one American journalist who harbored such a suspicion came to investigate for himself. I took him to central Birmingham at 10 pm one Saturday night, before the fun really began; in less than five minutes, he was convinced that I had not exaggerated.
No doubt some people exist who do not mind this behavior, but few will tolerate it for long, especially as they get older. It will surely alienate the old from the young and drive them away; and if civilization requires at least some understanding and sympathy between generations, and an ability to live together, this will ultimately prevent a lasting renaissance of the cities.
Still, Rome wasn’t built in a day, and it is a considerable relief that the worst of the architectural vandalism and brutalism is now behind us. It was a nightmare, but we have almost woken up.
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